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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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My grandmother used to put lots of food up each year in her Richmond, Virginia home. As a child, I was often overcome with a sense of awe while investigating the strange floating foods in jars in the basement. There were beets, corn, succotash, beans and, yes, pickles lining long, dark shelves under the kitchen.

Unfortunately I was a picky eater and rarely sampled much food from those jars (something I truly regret now that my grandmother has moved and no longer "puts food by"). As a more adventurous adult cook, however, I've gained a great deal of love for a fine sweet pickle. Still, it was only just this year that I asked my mother for my grandmother's famous sweet pickle recipe and bought the necessary supplies. I may not have my grandmother's garden, but I'm a frequent farmer's market patron, and when the pickles started arriving a few weeks ago I loaded up my arms. (I've even spotted pickling cucumbers at Jewel, but hey, I like buying from the market when I can.)

Pickling can seem daunting, especially when, like me, you've never actually seen it done. But there are a myriad of resources out there, and lots of advice to be gained from friends and relatives.

A few books I recommend highly are: The Ball Blue Book of Preserving (the veritable Bible of canning). I received mine when I bought a "canning starter kit" which also included six pint jars and lids, a water-bath canning rack, canning "kettle," jar lifter, bubble freer, lid wand and large-mouth funnel. Since I couldn't find all these things in one place around town (though most of the smaller hardware stores have a good stock of canning jars and some supplies), buying the kit seemed like the best bang for my buck.

Another book I bought and have referred to often is Canning and Preserving for Dummies. I'm not usually one to buy any of the Dummies series, but this book has great diagrams, and I'm a sucker for diagrams. Both of these books have great troubleshooting guides, as well as tips and recipes for canning just about anything under the sun.

I highly recommend that you do some research and read a thorough overview of canning before you get started. I learned a lot about the physics and chemistry of what happens during canning that has made me a pretty confident preserver in a short amount of time. To give you a breakdown of how to make these great sweet pickles though, I'll run down some basics.

First, pickling cucumbers are not the same as the waxy cukes you put in salads or falafels. They're smaller, usually around three to four inches (or one to two inches for gherkins), have more bumps and spines, and have tougher skins. You'll want to wash your cucumbers well, removing all dirt (which can hold bacteria) and, for this recipe, put them in a large enamel, stainless steel or glass container. This is a key step, because you never want to use zinc, aluminum, iron, brass, copper or galvanized metal pots, bowls, or utensils when canning. These metals can react with the brining mixture, and small metal flakes can actually come off and get into your brine and then into your pickles. This will render them unfit to eat.

I ended up investing in a large enamel stockpot recently, so I used this for my brine making, and used glass bowls for my soaking and brining. You will notice that this recipe takes eight days to complete. This is the case for making sweet pickles, which have to be treated to give them their special flavor. When making dill pickles, and other recipes, however, you can get by with brining the pickles once they are in the jars (which take at least six weeks to reach maximum flavor).

You'll use a water-bath canner (consisting of a "kettle" with a lid and a metal rack to keep the jars up off the bottom of the kettle) for high-acid foods like pickles and apples. (Low-acid foods like green beans and corn should be processed using a steam-pressure cooker, which is a whole other animal.) A water-bath canner accomplishes two things: first, you use it to sterilize the jars, and second, you put full jars back in with at least one to two inches of water covering the jars in order to create a vacuum seal.

A few words of caution: Respect the water-bath canner! You're dealing with glass, boiling water, and hot food. There's a lot of harm that can be done if you're not careful, so work slowly, treat everything that could be hot delicately, and make sure you use pot holders, jar lifters, and towels whenever necessary.

In this recipe, you'll prepare the pickles over a series of days, then pack them hot into jars. On your day of canning, get your jars ready. To prepare your jars (in this case, pint jars), remove the two-piece caps and wash them both well in hot, soapy water. Dry the screw bands and set them aside. Place the lids in a small pan with water and bring them to a boil. You'll want to keep these hot as you get near to packing your jars. Wash your jars well, and check them over for any cracks or imperfections. (Just this week, I had a brand new jar break in the water-bath canner, so be cautious no matter how old your jars are.) Make sure, too, to rinse all soap off of all of your jar parts. While you're waiting to fill your jars, keep them submerged in hot water in your kettle for a minimum of 10 minutes, until you're ready to fill them.

To pack your jars, carefully add your prepared food (this goes for hot or raw "packs") and, once tightly packed, use a non-metallic wand or spatula to release any bubbles from around the food. Simply slide the spatula down the side of the jar, and press the food towards the center, working your way around the jar. Then, once your jars are filled to their appropriate level (usually within 1/2 to 1/4 of an inch of the top of the jar), use a damp rag to carefully wipe around the top of each jar. To ensure a tight seal, you can't have any food particles between the waxy seal of the lid and the glass.

Once clean, use your wand lifter (or a pair of tongs and some careful fingers) to take a lid from where they were sitting in a pan of hot water, and place it on the jar. Apply the screw band until the seal is "finger tight," not super tight, then move the jar to your canning rack in the water-bath kettle. Once your rack is full of jars, lower it back into the water and put the lid back on the kettle. Start timing your "processing" (which varies depending on your recipe and manufacturer's directions — usually it's around 10 minutes for pint jars and 15 for quart jars, but read your recipe to be sure) only once the water has returned to a boil.

When the processing is up, very carefully remove your jars with a set of jar lifters and move them to a clean, dry towel, away from drafts. Leave the jars alone for at least 24 hours, then test the seals. If the seals didn't set, you can remove the food, reprocess the jars and try again. Or, depending on the type of food involved, you can just move the jar to the fridge and consume it within a month.

A few words about ingredients for canning: True "canning salt" proved to be the hardest thing to find in Chicago. You can't use ordinary table salt, because of the additives in table salt that keep it from clumping which lead to a clouded and discolored canning liquid. I found in the Dummies book that most kosher salt and sea salts are fine to use instead of the more specific canning and pickling salt. Vinegar should be at least 5 percent acidity, which is not hard to find in the condiment isle of your grocery store. Make sure you buy enough (this recipe calls for a whole quart of vinegar). Pickling spices aren't carried that often in regular spice aisles (at least, not where I looked), but I wanted to get the freshest spices I could so I headed to The Spice House (in Evanston and in Old Town here in Chicago) for a fine pickling blend. They have a lot of salts, herbs, and other canning-worthy goodies there too, so check them out.

Make sure you read all of your canning recipes thoroughly before you get started. Everyone has a different idea of just the right ingredients, brining length and even which way you should slice your pickles, so make notes as you go along and temper your pickles to your own tastes. Currently, I've got two batches of sweet pickles going, as well as two different recipes for dill pickles slowly aging in my storage space. Most of all, pass along your canning accomplishments to others — after sampling a few yourself, of course.

Eight-Day Sweet Pickles

Makes about six pints.

18-20 medium pickling cucumbers
1 qt. (32 oz) white vinegar (at least 5 percent acidity)
9 cups sugar, divided
2 T. pickling salt
1/4 cup whole pickling spices

Day 1: Clean cucumbers well, removing all dirt. Put cucumbers in a large enamel, stainless steel or glass container. Cover with boiling water. If necessary, put a plate on top of cucumbers to keep them under water. (It's very important to keep them covered in liquid, or else they'll get slimy and unusable.)

Day 2: Drain water from cucumbers and cover with fresh boiling water.

Day 3: Drain water from cucumbers and cover with fresh boiling water.

Day 4: Drain water from cucumbers and cover with fresh boiling water.

Day 5: Drain water from cucumbers and slice them. Mix together vinegar, eight cups of sugar and salt in an unchipped enamel, stainless steel or glass pot. Tie the pickling spices in a cheesecloth bag and add to mixture in the pot. Bring vinegar mixture to a boil, then pour over sliced cucumbers.

Day 6: Drain and reserve mixture from cucumbers. Heat it to boiling and pour over cucumbers.

Day 7: Drain and reserve mixture from cucumbers. Heat it to boiling and pour over cucumbers.

Day 8: Drain and reserve mixture from cucumbers. Add remaining cup sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, then add cucumbers. Bring mixture back to a rolling boil, then pack in sterilized pint jars to within half-inch of the top. Seal and process in boiling water bath according to manufacture's directions for five minutes.

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