(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 21, 2007.)
Cleopatra claimed they contributed to her great beauty. Napoleon fed them to his troops as did Julius Caesar. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to adore them. For the past 4000 years or so pickles have been a favorite treat all over the world. From nearly the dawn of time, people from all cultures have devised ways of preserving their food in either a fermented state or in an acid solution. Both processes will result in a pickled form of the edible. Vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, and fish are all used in a pickled form by some culture, somewhere on this Earth.
The most familiar version of the pickle was probably invented when the cucumber was introduced to the Babylonians from India around 2030 B.C. From there, cucumbers spread to Egypt and the Mediterranean Basin, then the Romans distributed them up into Europe. Europeans loved their pickles and raised the process to an art form. Sweet and sour, vegetable and fruit, the pickle was celebrated and cherished for its intense flavor which made even a plain and humble meal a feast.
A little known pickle fact about the name ‘America’. Most school children know that the continent was named for Amerigo Vespucci the famous explorer. It seems that Mr. Vespucci also has another claim to fame. He was a pickle maker in Europe, who discovered that pickled fruits and vegetables prevented the scurvy that plagued the long distance sailors for so many years. Columbus carried his pickles when he discovered our continent and Amerigo carried pickles on his voyages when he became an explorer in his own right.
Making pickles is not a mysterious process and the many recipes available attest to how easily experimentation leads to new taste experiences. A few basic rules must be strictly followed but other than that, you are simply limited by your imagination.
Start with fresh, unblemished produce, carefully washed. Proper canning jars which have been washed and sterilized. New seals and rings which show no sign of rust or contaminates. These basics are not to be ignored. Your health depends on it. After you attend to these basic rules, you can have fun!
For this article I simply dug through my refrigerator and hauled out an armload of potential pickle produce. (say THAT real fast three times!) I had some green tomatoes, yellow squash, bell peppers, onions, cayenne peppers and yellow corn. Sounds like a lovely combination for a sweet, hot concoction that will go nicely as a side for black-eyed peas, or atop a hand carved ham sandwich….yes, I can actually taste it.
Everything was sliced into a large bowl and about ½ cup of canning salt mixed in. The salt helps pull moisture out of the vegetables and makes them crisper. Use salt especially for canning. There are actually no health risks by not doing so, but iodized salt turns the pickles an unsightly color and leaves a sediment in the bottom of the jars. If you are going to take the time and effort to preserve something, it stands to reason that you should make the end product as visually appealing as possible too. I put a couple trays of ice over the whole thing and went on to work that morning.
That evening, I drained off the liquid and rinsed my vegetables. Some do not rinse but I prefer less salt when making sweet pickles. I then mixed brine in my large stockpot. This recipe called for 3 cups sugar and 3 cups white vinegar, plus 1 cup of water. Be sure to use a vinegar with at least 5% acidity. There are less acid vinegars on the market and they should not be used for preserving food. Into this, I sprinkled a couple teaspoons of Turmeric, a great spice for sweet pickles that gives a lovely golden color. I also tied about 2 tablespoons of loose Pickling Spice in a cheesecloth square and put it in the pot. All of this was cooked together until the sugar was dissolved.
The drained vegetables were added next and cooked for about 10 minutes, or until they changed color. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, making sure there are no air pockets and there is about ¼” of headroom at the mouth. Carefully wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth and seal with hot lid and ring.
I process pickles in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. A procedure that means that the water has to boil for that long. This heats the contents of the jars to kill any remaining bacteria. It is important to follow all steps of safe food handling. Do not leave this step out. It may have been fine for our Grandmothers not to process their canned goods, but in this day and age, we can’t take those chances.
When the water bath has processed for its correct amount of time, remove the jars from the bath and set on a towel on your counter. They will 'seal' during the cooling off process. Any pickles that do not seal properly, place in the refrigerator and use first. It will be tempting to let the colorful jars remain out as decorations and for a few days, it’s ok to admire your work, but pickles are best if kept in a darker area such as a pantry or cabinet. Find them a place out of the way to wait until you open their spicy, sweet goodness.
Once you get the hang of making pickles, you’ll find that most anything can be turned into one. Many different recipes are available and can be used with a variety of produce. Your imagination is your only limit. Pickles are easy and fun to make, they have a history that dates to antiquity. Go ahead and indulge!