Turning cucumbers into pickles is one of my favorite food preservation projects, mostly because I love pickles. Each year I grow about six plants of a pickling variety and half as many hybrid slicers, which produce enough to make a year’s supply of pickles. You can pickle any type of cucumber, but small ones work best. Using a trellis of some type makes my cucumbers more productive and easier to pick. Growing cucumbers up instead of out also keeps the fruits amazingly straight, so the fruits easier to clean and slice.
When the cukes are coming on, I save them in the fridge until I have enough for a batch of pickles. As I scrub the bumpy fruits with a brush to remove grit, I decide how I will cut them. Sliced pickles are great on sandwiches, so I cut most of mine into flat coins, but chunks of various sizes, spears, or even whole pickles give you plenty of options. Slice as thickly as you like, because thicker slices tend to stay crisp better than very thin ones. On the other hand, who can resist paper-thin bread and butter pickles made with equally thin slices of onion?
You will need a recipe, most of which will tell you to salt your sliced cucumbers and let them sit for about 3 hours (more is better). This salt treatment draws water out of the cucumbers and flavors them, so it’s critically important. After layering or mixing in plenty of sea salt, I cover the salted cukes with ice cubes and a tea towel and forget about them for a few hours. By then, the cut cucumbers are swimming in a salty brine of cucumber juice and melted ice. If you’re running behind, you can drain off some of the liquid and add more ice cubes, which won’t hurt your pickles and may make them better. When I’m ready to pickle, I drain the sliced cukes and rinse them well to remove excess salt.
The reason to follow a recipe is that the right balance of vinegar, sugar and salt have been worked out for you, so you know the brine (the pickling liquid) will achieve the right level of acidity and flavor. Bread-and-butter pickles are a great choice for beginners because they always turn out well, or you can try your hand with various sour pickles, including fermented ones. Traditional salt-brined pickles are great, but not as fast or easy to make as other types of pickles.
Some recipes have you place the cucumbers in the simmering brine before filling hot jars, but I prefer to pack sterilized jars with cold slices because they are easier to handle. To keep the slices from floating after the jars are sealed, you must really cram the pickles down into the jar with your fingers and fist, and then do it again after you’ve teased out big air bubbles with a table knife. This is impossible to do with boiling hot cucumber slices!
My jars lose their heat as I pack them with cold cucumbers, and the hot brine doesn’t really get them hot again, so I very slowly put them into a sub-boiling water bath canner and gradually bring the temperature up to boiling. Moving too fast at this point can result in cracked canning jars, so be careful.
Follow your recipe’s directions for sealing the jars, which is usually about 15 minutes of processing in a water bath canner. The cooled pickles can be stored for over a year, though I do think pickles start to lose their edge after a year in storage. But miracles happen during the first few months, when the flavors inside the pickling jars meld to turn plain cucumbers into delicious homemade pickles.
I don’t label my pickles unless I’m giving them as gifts, mostly because labels are hard to remove. Instead, I write the type of pickle and date on the canning lid, and then shift the pickles to their home in the basement. Pickles, anyone?
By Barbara Pleasant