As the pickling season approaches, it is very helpful to have everything you’ll need on hand. Sometimes you can pick up ingredients on sale (like cane sugar at Valentine’s Day) or you can order spices you’ll need in bulk, which will save a lot over the little bottles at the grocery.
Vinegar used in pickling must be at least 5% acidity, so some homemade vinegars may not have enough strength to properly preserve your food.
Once, back when I was still a teen, I bought cheaper, store-brand vinegar and ruined an entire batch of my watermelon pickles — 2 days’ work. Lesson learned: Never compromise the quality of your ingredients when canning.
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is my choice for pickling. It is now commonly available with a “mother,” but I don’t use this for pickling, because it’s cloudy looking and I want my pickling syrup to be sparkling clear. ACV is only available in pint and quart sizes. The half-gallons are actually “apple-cider flavored distilled vinegar.” Not the same thing at all, so don’t be fooled.
White or distilled vinegar is very useful for cleaning, and I do use it to scrub my plant flats, but rarely in pickles. White vinegar can be very harsh and sour-tasting, so even though it’s cheaper than ACV, I don’t use it except for things like jalapenos and “sour” pickles, which aren’t really my forte.
Stock up some ACV ahead. Stores do run out, usually right when you have a nice bucket of fresh produce ready to pickle.
Dry, powdered spices don’t work well in pickles so you’ll want a supply of whole spices on hand. I have found that, stored in a glass jar with a tight lid, whole spices stay fresh for years, so I take advantage of bulk packs I find at a local Middle East grocery.
I also can get these spices in the bulk bins at another store and have even found them on Amazon where the larger pack is always the better buy. Another source I like for spices and herbs is Atlantic Spice Company. They offer most spices and herbs you can think of in bulk quantity at excellent prices.
Spices. For pickling, I keep a stock of yellow mustard seed, cloves, allspice, black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, whole green cardamom pods, celery seed, and fresh ginger.
Ginger. My favorite pickle recipe calls for fresh ginger. Ginger puree is so handy to have on hand. Watch for fresh, silky-skinned ginger and buy a big piece. Roughly peel it and slice into ½-inch pieces. Toss those into the mini-prep processor, add about 2 Tbsp cane sugar to 1 cup of ginger chunks, and process to a puree. The sugar keeps it from freezing too hard. Keep this in a jar in the freezer to add to preserves, pickling syrup, and even stir fry. And, yes, gingerbread! There’s not enough sugar to make any difference in flavor.
Cinnamon. In pickles, you will use whole sticks. For a ketchup, chili sauce, relish or preserve that calls for cinnamon, you do not want to use ground cinnamon — it makes a murky mess. What you’ll want to use is cinnamon red hot candies dissolved in either water or vinegar. Look for these in the cheap candy section of your grocery. They’ll be in a little cellophane package, probably Brach’s Brand.
When a recipe calls for a salt water soak or a salt pickling brine, you should use only the pickling salt and it is better also when a little salt goes into the syrup. Regular table salt or sea salt will cloud your syrup.
Also, when lime is called for in the recipe, do use it for a super crunchy pickles, but be sure to rinse at least three times: Drain off the lime water, put the pickles back into the bowl, fill with water and drain again three times. Then, soak the pickles in fresh water for an hour or so.
If you cook any part of your pickles, be sure to use a non-reactive pot. I have a 6-quart Revere stainless that I like and also a pretty le Creuset enamelware pot. Aluminum or cast-iron pots can react with vinegar or brine and could ruin your pickles.
When you soak veggies overnight in salt water or lime water, they always want to float and some aren’t submerged. Fill plastic bags with water and use them as “lids” and they will keep it all under the water.
When filling jars, some pickles want to float out of the syrup or brine. You can’t fill the jar all the way to the rim or it could crack during processing. Pick up a packet or two of clear glass marbles in the floral department of a craft store (Joann’s, Hobby Lobby, even Wal-Mart).
Dip the marbles in the water bath to sterilize them, along with the rest of your equipment. Fill your jar as usual to within ½ inch, then add marbles to cover the surface up to the rim. Be sure the liquid is only to the ½-inch mark, then seal as usual. The marbles will hold your pickles down into the liquid.
Sure, folks look puzzled when they open the jar. I wash the marbles as I open jars and keep them together in a jar for next year.
Take inventory. Make sure your jars are clean, check for any chipped rims, and be sure you have plenty of new lids. A jar with a chipped rim won’t seal, because the chip leaves a gap.
Never reuse a lid — the rings are fine as long as they don’t have any sign of rust and aren’t dented. Although the fancy glass-top jars are beautiful and tempting, I think the standard mason jars with two-piece lids are safer to process for storage. If you’re short on jars, either buy more or try to retrieve empties from gifts to be sure you’ll have enough for all your projects.
Speaking of gifts, be sure to label all your jars. You can write on the lid with a sharpie marker or buy circular labels to hand letter or print with a computer. Include the year in your label.
At Christmas, sometimes I like to put a pretty cloth circle “lid” on jars. To do this, carefully remove the ring, center a piece of fabric about 5 or 6 inches in diameter on the lid and replace the ring. Do not disturb the sealed lid. If you will enter a competition, do not label your jars. There must be nothing to identify the entrant, so you write on a tiny piece of masking tape and stick it to the bottom of the jar so you can identify which is which. Be sure to pull off the tape as you hand over each entry.
Shine up your jars for gifting or entering the State Fair. This is a good use for white vinegar. Dampen a cloth with the vinegar and wipe down the jar to give it a sparkling shine.
I hope this never happens to you, but be aware. If a jar is leaking, please just toss it. If you open a jar of pickles and, instead of crisp, they are mushy, toss them out immediately, without tasting. They have spoiled and could make you sick. (Sorry, but I had to tell you.)
Have fun pickling!
Wendy Akin is a happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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