You really have to make these pickles. They manage to be sweeter, crunchier and spicier than the store bought varieties I've tried. Indulge me a second while I explain:
Making Sweet Pickles is an Easy Introduction to Canning
I wanted to come up with a simple canning project that would involve making a batch of home grown product for future use that DIDN'T include a hot water bath -- you know, the grueling, steamy, worrisome part of canning.
I've canned relatively small batches of produce in the past, and even at that, my back and neck were usually killing me by the time the afternoon was over. Today, new style equipment makes the process easier -- more on that in another post.
I still had doubts about the fun quotient of spending a week elbow deep in pickles, though. If you think you might find canning fun but want to start in the shallow end of the pool, trying something simple like sweet pickles is a good way to test the waters. It was for me, anyway. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can make a big batch of pickles for room temperature storage (you know, with the sealed quart jars), but not have to mess with the funnels and endless rolling boil sterilization.
I don't know the science, but this recipe uses salt, vinegar and sugar -- all powerful antibacterial agents. That and the benign nature of cucumbers makes it possible to preserve and store them without refrigeration. They are the perfect introduction to canning.
I put up 10 each one quart jars in two batches. I'm not lazy, but I can get impatient with a process that's too fussy or detailed. This one was a pure pleasure.
This has been a long introduction to what's actually a referral to another site. I used the now famous Craven County Sweet Pickle Recipe. You can find it by following the link. I won't repeat it here because that would be rude. I will outline my experience making these pickles, though, along with a few tips.
Take a look at the recipe and come back for some pointers. You'll find this cucumber pickle recipe everywhere -- it's hard to ignore perfection. We'll go through some of the details together. Just to whet your appetite: These are the best sweet pickles I've ever tasted, and knowing that I made them myself makes them all the sweeter. (Oh, I'm not getting anything for referring you to the Craven County recipe. I'm just a big, big fan.)
The process takes place over eight days. Don't balk. The only challenging parts are cutting the cukes on day one and sticking them in sugar on day eight. The rest is comprised of pouring hot, seasoned water (or vinegar) over the pickles and letting the mixture sit overnight.
A Note on the Sweet Pickle Ingredients
What are pickling cucumbers - You can use any style, but pickling cucumbers are grown for their length to width ratio (they're chubby), and their lack of open spots or voids.
Vinegar - This is good, old apple cider vinegar from the market. For a whole batch, you'll need a gallon. For me, that was a 12 quart pot filled with pickles. (Around 30 each)
Alum - This is a white powder, actually the mineral potassium aluminum sulfate. Alum gives the pickles their crunch. It's usually stocked in small quantities in the spice aisle of the grocery store. A small spice container (just shy of 2 ounces), was enough to process 60 pickles or so.
Pickling salt - Unlike table salt, pickling salt has no added iodine. It's coarser, too. You can find it in the spice aisle of the market too. Apparently the presence of iodine can discolor pickled produce.
Cheesecloth - Enough to cover the pot opening and to wrap the spices in. The cucumbers remain at room temperature throughout the eight day process, which may attract flies if you don't have screens or your kids tend to leave the back door open. The cheesecloth (a very loosely woven cloth) is important. The recipe specifically recommends NOT using a pot lid, as this could overheat the cucumbers and make a cuke stew instead of pickles.
Twine (cotton) - Enough to hold the cheesecloth in place.
A non-reactive pot - I used a 12 quart enamel pot to process the cucumbers, and another 12 quart pot, stainless steel this time, to heat the added ingredients.(You could also use glass or ceramic.)
I also used a one gallon measuring container - an old glass wine jug, actually.
Granulated sugar - white table (or baking) sugar is fine
Pickling spice - You can buy it already blended. For future reference, pickling spices are typically a combination of: allspice, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, ginger, mustard seed, bay leaves, dried chilies, mace, cardamom, and black pepper.
Sweet Pickling Tips
- The recipe calls for enough hot water or vinegar to cover the fresh, sliced cucumbers (repeated over a number of days) to cure them and also to introduce the alum and spices. The cukes are never boiled, but by the end of the process, they are pretty well cooked. Remember, the lid is never placed on the pot, but it is covered with a protective layer or two of cheesecloth or a towel.)
- Once the vinegar is added, the cucumbers sit in the mixture for days. If you don't like the smell of vinegar, have an out-of-the-way spot in which to stow the curing pot.
- The recipe recommends placing the spices in a length of cheesecloth, tying them off and discarding the bundle later, but I like the idea of leaving the spices loose, which is what I did. I really relish (no pun intended) the notion of having the pickles get spicier over time. Those loose bits of red, gold and brown look intriguing in the jars, too. I can see whole cloves, peppercorns, ginger bits and whole mustard seeds. Yum!
- The last step is to drain the vinegar and dredge the pickles in sugar -- lots of sugar. After that, the pickles are jarred with additional sugar. Over time, the sugar draws the vinegar out of the cucumbers and replaces it with sugar, making a thick, gooey, sweet and sour juice in the process.
- The pickles are ready to eat a week after canning, but can last for years if the sealed jars are kept in a cool, dark spot.
- What I Learned From My Sweet Pickle Making Project
- I really liked the abundance of making lots of finished, jarred product. It makes me feel rich -- and powerful. Those pickles were darned special. I grew the cucumbers from seed, cultivated them, and transformed them into a very tasty treat. It was a fulfilling summer project.
- I was also relieved at the prospect of not having to worry much about contamination. The directions recommend using the sanitize setting on the dishwasher to clean the jars, which I did. I also simmered the lids and threaded rings before putting them in place.
- I used pickle canning jars. They have an extra wide mouth to make filling easier.
- I think next time I may add a little more clove and ginger to the mix for some extra heat.
- I tried the pickles after a week, refrigerating a jar overnight before doing a taste test. If you're a pickle fan, there's just no comparison with the processed stuff. They are amazing.
- After using the vinegar, it's discarded, which is a shame. Next time, I might reuse it to make pickled eggs. I'm still thinking about how I'll pull that off from a safety standpoint.
- I hate to admit it, but some of my cucumbers got kinda big. That's because they were hiding behind a huge squash plant. It didn't seem to make a difference, though. On a few, the skins were firm but turning a strippy yellow and green. After processing, most of the yellow faded to green, so it was no big deal.
- I took the peels off some of the pickles to see how they'd turn out. Definitely plan to leave the skins on. The slices will be crunchier that way.
I hope you give these little examples of picklely perfection a try. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.