According to the Ball Blue Book 1974 edition, there are four general classes of pickle—brined, fresh-pack, relishes, and fruit pickles. Fruit pickles often consist of whole fruits (pears, peaches, and watermelon rind, for instance) that are simmered in a spiced, sweetened syrup and stored in the same. Relishes are chopped, seasoned, and cooked vegetables and fruits such as chutneys, salsas, chow chow, piccalilli, and of course the eponymous cucumber relish. (By the way, piccalilli is a mixture of green tomatoes, cabbage, and red pepper spiked with mustard, horseradish and onions). Fresh-pack pickles are brined briefly and then kept under refrigeration until consumed, usually within several weeks; this technique is also called “quick pickling.”
Finally, the big bad brined category. Also called fermented pickles, in days gone by, brined pickles were cured in a saltwater solution for several weeks before being seasoned and processed. According to one account of her childhood home, food writer Edna Lewis recounts that a huge barrel of brine would be prepared and kept in a cool, shady spot outside for the duration of cucumber season.
Each day, the ripe pickling cucumbers were harvested and deposited in the brine, until the barrel was full and the top covered with grape leaves to help cure the pickles and prevent mold. Then, at the end of the season, the pickle-making would begin in earnest, a process that took two to three days for each batch and included cutting the brined cucumbers into rounds, rinsing them in alum water (for crispness), cooking them in a pickling syrup, then packing them in glass jars to be covered in the strained, reduced pickling syrup for processing. Whew!
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Make-your-own pickling spice
Note: Commercially prepared pickling spice may have salt added to it. If you are following a recipe that recommends a certain brand of pickling spice, consider using that brand or looking for another recipe that is less specific.
Crushed hot chile pepper
*Go gently; these items are very assertive.
What was happening in that cool, shady pickle barrel? The saltwater solution was penetrating the cucumbers, drawing their juices out, and encouraging a controlled lactofermentation—that is, the desirable souring and firming that occurs when the lactobacillus bacteria is encouraged to flourish. Lactofermentation develops flavor and improves digestibility, and also introduces beneficial bacteria to the pickle eater’s gut. This last attribute is especially welcome in the wintertime, when fresh vegetables disappear and menus become meat-centric and more difficult to digest.—Lisa Reeder
Preserving the present
Fast-forward to the modern-day kitchen and the burning desire for some homemade pickles. Two factors will determine what kind of pickle you’ll be in. First, what is your storage situation? A cool, dark pantry with copious shelves begs for glass jars filled with brined pickles and pickle relishes—if you have canning equipment. Lacking that pantry and equipment, you might opt for some quick pickles, but know that you’ll have to store them in the refrigerator (or give most of them away posthaste!).
While you search your soul (and your recipe files) for the pickle of your dreams, find a supply of cucumbers. For canning, the small, knobbly pickling cucumbers will yield the best results. If they aren’t available, larger cucumbers will work for brining and quick pickles, but choose firm, less-ripe specimens. In either case, cucumbers for preserving MUST be unwaxed—but of course they will be, as you are sourcing them locally!
Invite some friends to help you on Pickling Day. Turn on the air conditioning. Start with a clean kitchen, clean towels, and read your recipe and instructions carefully—good results depend upon following instructions! New canning jars come complete with recipes, instructions, tips and even websites that can be consulted. Do whatever it takes to ensure your pickles are properly prepared, processed and stored, so that they will be safe to consume.—L.R.