Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Pickle palooza!

Some time ago I got it into my head that I wanted to try making and canning pickles. It may have been the canning class I took last year or the fact that my sister tried once and ended up with horrible tasting pickles – both of which made me determined to figure out the best process and the best recipe to accomplish the task at hand.

I’ve been searching the Internet and asking around, collecting recipes to try out while waiting for cucumber season. Technically, pickling cucumbers should peak in August, but they’ve been making a limited appearance at farmers’ markets lately, and I couldn’t wait to buy some and give pickling a go. What’s more, I figured I’d prepare some in time for a July 4th cookout which seemed like optimal timing for a pickle tasting.

After understanding the basic processes and main ingredients for dill pickles, I decided that there were three main variables to fiddle with to get to the best sense for the optimal recipe: 1) type of vinegar (apple cider or white), 2) whether “pickling spices” (a highly variable concoction of spices) are included and 3) whether the pickles are “fresh packed” or fermented. There are some other finer variables at play as well: whether whole bay leaf is added; whether a dried, hot, red chile pepper is added; and whether a clove of garlic is included. But these seemed secondary to the three main considerations that I felt would have the most significant impact on taste.

There are probably as many tweaks to the dill pickle recipe out there as there are cucumbers. Some dill recipes struck me as not strictly compliant with the USDA’s most recently recommended canning procedures. To be safe, I decided to use the Ball Blue Book of Preserving recipe for dill pickles (calling for pickling spices) as my base case for half the cucumbers. In the brine, I swapped cider vinegar for white vinegar in half the jars. I varied Ball’s “hamburger pickle” recipe for the other half of the cucumbers (again, half with white vinegar, half with apple cider vinegar). Ball’s hamburger pickle recipe called for the same dill weed and mustard seed to be added to each jar – and added peppercorns – but did not call for garlic, bay leaf or a dried red pepper which I decided to add back (the red pepper might addition may have been a mistake, but I wanted to hold most of the spices constant across recipes).

In terms of pickling spices, my sister blamed her disaster on McCormack blend pickling spices which added a sweet, somewhat cinnamon-y flavor – an insult to the classic dill pickle. Having trouble finding a commercial alternative, I asked a chef at a Dean and Deluca store for a small quantity of their pickling spices which they graciously allowed me to purchase.

Last, I did a lot of research on fermenting and determined that the safest, cleanest way for me to ferment pickles was to buy a special fermenting crock pot which would assure that the pickles remain submerged during the process and remove any concerns about the food safety of other containers. I found a mail order source for a nifty looking crock pot and am expecting the delivery shortly. In the meantime, I commenced with “fresh pack” recipes. Fermenting is a slow (3 to 4 weeks) and high maintenance process (“scum” must be removed from the surface daily and a temperature between 70˚F and 75˚F must be maintained): I’m very curious to see whether the effort produces superior flavor or just more work.

Much to my dismay, upon reading the fine print, even though the pickles are “fresh pack”, they must remain in the processed jars for 4-6 weeks to develop optimal flavor. What started out as an idea for the Fourth of July will have to wait for a Labor Day barbecue!

I also learned something else which I only caught mid-stream: apparently for pickles (and unlike all other vegetables), processing time is measured from the time the jars hit the boiling water canner vs. when the water in the canner begins to boil; meaning that they are in the canner for less time than the instructions would typically imply. This is in an effort to prevent loss of crunchiness. Ugh! Why was this in the beginning of the chapter and not noted in the recipe itself? The result of this late discovery is the first couple batches of pickles are a little shriveled and probably not as crunchy as they could be. We’ll have to discount the crunch factor in the recipe judging.

Stay tuned for an update in 4-6 weeks of which method and which recipe produce the best results!

Dill pickles (from Ball Blue Book of Preserving)
(Yield: about 7 pints or 3 quarts)

8 pounds 4-6 inch cucumbers, cut length-wise into halves
¾ cup sugar
½ cup canning salt
1 quart vinegar (white or cider vinegar, 5% acidity)
1 quart water
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spices
Green or dry dill (1 head per jar)

Wash cucumbers; drain. Combine sugar, salt, vinegar and water in a large saucepot. Tie spices in a spice bag; add spice bag to vinegar mixture; simmer 15 minutes. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace; put one head of dill in each jar. Ladle hot liquid over cucumbers, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two-piece caps. Price pints and quarts 15 minutes in a boiling water canner. (note: start counting from the minute jars hit the boiling water canner).

Recipe variation: For Kosher-style dill Pickles add 1 bay leaf, 1 clove garlic, 1 piece hot red pepper and ½ teaspoon mustard seed to each jar. Process as recommended.

Hamburger dills (adapted from Ball Blue Book of Preserving’s Hamburger Dill recipe)
(Yield: about 7 pints)

4 pounds 4 inch cucumbers
6 tablespoons canning salt
4 ½ cups water
4 cups vinegar (white or apple cider, 5% acidity)
14 heads fresh dill
3 ½ teaspoons mustard seed
14 peppercorns
1 clove garlic for each jar
1 small dried red pepper for each jar
Optional: 1 bay leaf for each jar

Wash cucumbers; drain. Cut cucumbers into ¼ inch crosswise or lengthwise slices, discarding blossom ends (I just sliced once lengthwise). Combine salt, water, vinegar in a large saucepot; bring to boil. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add 2 heads of dill, ½ teaspoon mustard seed, 2 peppercorns, 1 cove garlic, 1 dried red chile, and 1 bay leaf (if using) to each jar. Ladle hot liquid over cucumbers, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust 2 piece caps. Process 15 minutes in boiling water canner. (note: start counting from the minute jars hit the boiling water canner).

Note: all fresh pack pickles should stand for 4 to 6 weeks after processing to cure and develop satisfactory flavor.


Anonymous said...

I am a big fan of pickle palooza. Having seen the cucumbers first hand, their perfect pickling packaging has made me eager to sample them. If they taste half as good as they look, they will be a true taste treat.

Anonymous said...

Love 'em. The pickles look awsome. I know they will turn out fabulously delicious even though they're lots of work. Your photo could be in a gourmet food magazine
Keep us posted.

Anonymous said...

I'm among those fortunate few who have actually tasted the Pickle Palooza's pickles. And they're really good - crisp and flavorful. Of the 4 varieties I tried the only one I had some reservations about was the vinegar variety. The other 3 were palatial treats.

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