Mom’s sweet pickles were legendary. Well, very good anyway! She once gave a jar to one of my pen pals as a snack for his drive home to Oklahoma, and—if I recall correctly—he didn’t even make it out of Pennsylvania before all the pickles were gone.

Proving that the best things in life take time, those pickles need two weeks to ferment. Please keep in mind that making them isn't an exact science. As with other fermented items, some years are better than others. The process isn't for the fastidious either, since pickle making occasionally requires skimming of scum or mold from the surface of the liquid in the crock. And all of the boiling water involved can be a bit dicey, so proceed at your own risk!

Mom's Recipe

Although my pickles never have been quite as good as Mom’s, I continue to follow her recipe because I figure I will get it exactly right one of these years. You will need a 2-gallon crock or a 2-gallon container made of glass or food grade plastic, plus enough cucumbers to fill it nearly to the top. You also will require the following items:

1 cup of pickling salt

grape or horseradish leaves (optional)

water

1 tablespoon of alum

1 pint of vinegar

6 1/2 cups of sugar

2 tablespoons of celery seed

2 tablespoons of whole allspice

1/2 ounce of cinnamon bark

cucumber blossoms

Collecting Cucumbers

Since I’m not as good at vegetable gardening as Mom was either, I only had enough cucumbers this year to make half a crock of pickles. That gave me four tightly-packed pints, which is enough for me to bring out at family holiday celebrations. But the rest of you probably will want to “pick a peck of pickle pickles.” I mean pickling cucumbers, though most of mine this year were longer ones, which I used anyway.

What a Crock!

After you have washed and rinsed your crock or container, fill it with cleaned whole cucumbers which contain no soft spots, making sure that you slice 1/16 of an inch off the blossom end of each cucumber first. (Some recipes recommend leaving 1/4 inch of stem on the other end.) Then cover the pickles with 1 gallon of water in which you have dissolved 1 cup of pickling salt. (If I don’t have pickling salt on hand, I use the non-iodized sort instead.) Iodized salt leaves an unsightly sediment in the bottom of the jars. However it isn't harmful, it just affects it cosmetically.

Cap your crock with a lid or with an inverted plate resting atop the pickles, with a weight on top of it to hold them beneath the brine. (I used a can of baked beans this year.) You can drape a dishtowel over everything to keep out insects. Then leave the crock alone for one week.

Mom's crock usually remained outdoors during the pickling process, in a shaded corner of our front porch. I’m guessing that probably was due to the fact that we never had air conditioning, so the interior of the house could get pretty toasty in the evenings. The NCHFP recommends that you keep your cucumbers at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the pickling process.

Leaves of Grape

On the eighth day, skim off any scum or mold which may be floating on the surface of the brine. The white kind usually isn’t harmful and actually may be Kahm yeast rather than mold, but make sure that it doesn’t extend below the surface of the liquid.

Then pour off the brine before rinsing and inspecting the cucumbers. They should still feel relatively firm—not as hard as they were originally, but not mushy or moldy-smelling either. If all seems well, return them to the crock, covering them with either grape or horseradish leaves before pouring 1 gallon of boiling water over the top of those leaves to fill the crock again.

We had a large-leaved wild grape vine growing across our front porch this year, so I didn’t need to look far for my foliage. Those particular leaves are meant to inhibit the enzymes which can make pickles soft. But, since cutting off the blossom ends of cucumbers supposedly removes those enzymes anyway, you probably can skip the leaves if necessary.

sweet pickles in crockOn Day 9, pour off the water, discard the grape or horseradish leaves, and cover the pickles with another gallon of boiling water which has had 1 tablespoon of alum dissolved in it. The following day, drain the alum-infused water off the pickles into a saucepan, bring it to a boil, and pour it over the pickles again. Repeat that process on the 11th day as well.

Pour on the Syrup

On the 12th day, rinse the alum water off of the cucumbers, slice them lengthwise into pickle-sized pieces, and return them to the crock. Enclose the whole allspice in a little bag made from cheesecloth before you place the vinegar, sugar, and spices in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. This syrup is pretty potent, so inhaling the scent can make you cough. Pour it over the pickles, making sure that you push the bag of allspice and the cinnamon sticks beneath the surface of the syrup before you cover the crock.

The following day, pour the syrup and spices back into a pan, heat that syrup to boiling again, and return it to the crock with the pickles. On the 14th day, they should be ready for canning. Here's hoping that this process gives "a pretty pickle" a whole new meaning for you!"