In a Pickle
By Beth Dooley
Each week this season as I head out to shop, I swear to myself, “I won’t buy too much; I won’t buy too much.” But oh those verdant green and fat wax beans, the shiny red peppers and ivory garlic. Heaps of corn seem to call out my name as I stroll through the aisles, saying, “pick me, pick me!”
Back at home, I face the over-flowing baskets, far more than we can use right away. I know that I am in a pickle. So it’s time to put up a jar or two. Friends don’t let friends pickle alone. Lucky for me, several high school students want to learn this lost art. Recently, we gathered in my kitchen and worked in crews to prepare the jars, prep the produce, blanch the vegetables, and make the brine.
We chose several standard recipes, then improvised with different herbs and spices. For example, we upped the dill and garlic in the bean recipe; added balsamic vinegar to the raspberry preserves and included a cinnamon stick in the pickled watermelon rind.
Homemade pickles are far more interesting, and much cheaper than any you can buy; they’re more healthful, too. You have complete control of the ingredients, no need for those artificial colors, preservatives and flavors manufacturers use. Unlike commercial pickles made from the “cull” or “seconds,” bruised or off-peak produce, you can use farm-fresh ingredients, too. Think of the commercial packaging you are keeping out of the landfill and the energy saved in manufacturing and transport. Putting up local produce helps make us a little less dependent on the industrial food chain.
Without belaboring its science, pickling is a process that preserves food by discouraging the growth of harmful microbes. There are two basic ways to do this: by immersing the food in acid such as vinegar, or by encouraging acid-producing bacteria that combats the growth of microbes (i.e. sauerkraut). Using vinegar is the easiest and most straightforward method and a good place to start.
Pickling was born of the need to preserve food before the advent of refrigeration and the work of it thrives in friendship. Gather a group of enthusiasts and you’ll end up preserving more than produce, you’ll also be capturing moments of summer joy. Months later, open a jar and savor the flavor and memories of a sunny day spent with friends in July.
Beth Dooley is a Twin Cities-based food writer and cookbook author.
Basic Guidelines for Processing Jars
There are a few rules to follow when pickling fresh produce. The first and most important is to use ingredients at their peak. It’s helpful to have everything prepared in advance, and this is where a crew of willing friends comes in. Check out these two valuable resources to be sure you’re getting the processing right: The USDA has published guidelines available on the Web at www.foodsaving.com/canning_guide/. One of the best resources on preserving foods is the book, The Fresh Girl’s Guide to Easy Canning and Preserving, by Ana Micka, Voyageur Press, 2010.
This method allows you to process the jars so that they are shelf stable for up to a year. That said, if the lids bubble or the colors of the pickles turn, please discard. If you choose NOT to process pickles, you may store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
- Wash the jars, lids, and bands in hot soapy water and rinse them well. Keep the jars warm until they are ready to use. This will help prevent them from breaking when they’re filled with hot liquid. Keep them in a pot of simmering water or a heated dishwasher, or in the oven at the lowest temperature.
- Fill a stockpot or a canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch and heat it to a simmer (180 degrees).
- Follow the recipes for the recommended amount to fill the jars. Each jar needs space between the food and the jar rim (called headspace) to allow the food to expand. Most recipes specify 1⁄2 inch of headspace.
- After you’ve filled the jar, remove the air bubbles by sliding a small, nonmetallic spatula inside the jar and gently pressing the food against the opposite side of the jar. Air bubbles inside the jar can affect the canning process, resulting, for example, in unsealed jars or discolored food.
- Wipe any food from the rims of the jars. Center a new, clean lid on the jar, then twist on the band until it is finger tight. Do not screw the tops on too tightly because the air inside the jar must be able to escape during processing.
- Place the filled and sealed jars into a canning rack then lower them into the pot of boiling water, making sure they’re covered by at least an inch of water.
- After processing the jars for the amount of time recommended in the recipe, turn off the heat and let the jars stand in the water for at least 5 minutes. Remove the rack and the jars from the water and allow the jars to cool for 12 hours. Do not retighten or over-tighten bands that may have come loose during canning, as that will interfere with the sealing process.
- Press on the center of the cooled lid. If the jar is sealed, the lid will not flex up or down.
- Store the sealed jars in a cool, dark pantry for up to a year.
Cook’s note on salt: Most pickle recipes call for “canning” or “preserving” salt. This is pure salt that does not contain anticaking agents or iodine that might make the canning liquid cloudy. Sea salt is not a good substitute because it contains minerals that cloud the brine. I have tried the bulk salt in co-op bins and that works relatively well, though there are some trace minerals that can make the brine a little cloudy. If you prefer a clear brine, find “canning” or “preserving” salt at cooking stores or in the canning section of some supermarkets and hardware stores.
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