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Pickle, pickle on the wall, who is the crunchiest pickle of all?

Perfectly lined mason jars on kitchen shelves have long ago cast a spell on me. There is something really, really attractive about fresh produce trapped behind glass. Gently shake the jars and watch the spices dance around appetizingly colourful vegetables: like a culinary snow globe…. Delicatessens with walls lined with big jars of bright peppers of all shapes and colours don’t need much else to instantly make the store more attractive, even if this sooooo old school! I love walking in a deli or a «charcuterie» and seeing those beautiful shiny glass jars. I dare anyone  to say they don’t nearly die with envy whenever they see a pantry or a cold storage busting at the seams with the bounty of summer captured «en pots de verre». Well maybe not everyone has that same infatuation as I do but I personally think that jams, jellies, preserves, pickled vegetables, ketchups and relishes are simply gorgeous! And delicious!

I have to admit that I am a novice when it comes to home canning. Although I have always wanted to preserve summer in mason jars, life seems to have managed to get in the way every single year. Between vacation time, work, upkeep of our summer home and a slew of social events, I always seem to miss the «perfect for canning timeline» of our short local produce season. I have made jam sporadically through the years and I have also canned tomatoes, marinara sauce and even made chunky ketchups a few times. But hard core canning and pickling have been more of a bucket list kind of activity: something I really, really want to do but can’t seem to find the time. I should also mention that beyond the lack of time, there is also a bit of an intimidation factor when it comes to home preserving. What if I mess it up and poison my entire family with botulism? What if I spend loads of hours and money and in the end, the stuff I make ends up tasting weird, or too vinegary or simply blahhhhh? My mom-in-law, the Queen Mother, used to can and pickle a fair bit and although most of her canned goods were really good, her pickles were not my favourite. And she would make so many jars we were sort of «forced» into eating mushy and bland pickles. I know, it sounds really awful writing this down especially since the Queen Mother was an excellent cook. Sorry, my lovely mom-in-law for «dissing» you publicly but it seems we all have our strengths and weaknesses right? Your plum jam was AMAZING!

So I decided it was time to toss aside intimidation and start educating myself on the subject matter of canning and preserving. A few years ago, I purchased a book dedicated entirely to this; maybe it was time I read it?  And as if reading my mind, Bon Appetit Magazine featured an entire article on food preservation in one of the summer issues. Beyond those 2 sources, I perused through my many cookbooks, numerous websites and read several blogs. I discovered many things I was not aware of; the most important bit of information I read was about the actual process of canning using either the hot bath method or a pressure canner. I didn’t even know there was even such an animal as a pressure canner, geez Louise! I must live in the dark ages… Or I should have read my book a long time ago… I was always leery of canning items that contained meat products, always wondering how they would fare with an immersion in boiling water. Hot water bath canning was the only process I knew and my knowledge was minimal at best using this method. Last fall, I had tried to can a few jars of home made soup which resulted in a huge disaster… Thank goodness all the lids popped up because of fermentation otherwise I shudder at thinking what gastrointestinal illness I would have plague my family with eeekkkkk!

Beside my new acquired knowledge of basic canning equipment, I also educated myself on which foods can be preserved using the simple boiling water bath method and which foods have to go through the hotter process provided by a pressure canner. Basically, the rule of thumb is the following: acidic foods with a Ph of 4.5 or lower, foods preserved in vinegar and fruits preserved with sugar (jams) can be canned using the hot water bath method. A pressure canner must be used for all non-acidic foods as well as meats and meat containing preparations such as soups. Since I do not own (yet) a pressure canner, I started to investigate this product. However I do own a pressure cooker but according to all the literature I have read, pressure cookers are not recommended for this job. Something to do with the ability of the cooker to reach and keep steady a very specific temperature. Since my pressure cooker does not have a temperature gauge, I think best not to try it… I also learned that pressure canners and glass-top stoves are not a very good match. Hmmmm, I have a glass-top stove so I guess I currently have to eliminate canning any foods that are not acidic until I find another solution. Unless I do all my canning at the cottage where I still have a good old fashioned electric coil cook top? Might be a good temporary solution but since I plan on updating that old stove (gas is not an option at the cottage or at my house), I am not sure that I will have the correct stove to pursue this activity in the future. So pressure canning is out for now and good old fashioned «jars in a hot bath» is in.

Equipment and proper technique aside, the other intimidating factor is the taste! I do not come from a long line of canners… And I have really only dabbled in jams, jellies, syrups and tomatoes in the past. So again, I read through countless articles and recipes on the art of pickling. The conclusion I came to? Just do it!!! The bottom line is that pickled vegetables are not rocket science. For pickling, all you need is a good brine of water, vinegar, salt, sugar and spices in the right proportions. Got it with Bon Appétit, thank you! Got it as well in the Bernardin book on preserving, awesome! So brine, check! Time to select those farm fresh veggies, herbs and spices, check! Again, not a biggie problem: for pickles, dill, garlic and pickling spices will do the trick! For my first attempt, I was quantity cautious just in case I messed up with the flavours; I opted to buy a small amount of cucumbers. Well, if one can call a half a bushel a small amount! I rolled up my sleeves, put on my «big girl pants» and dove right in. I was surprised with the entire experience… I thought this activity would be far more time consuming than it was. I jarred that half bushel of pickles in about 2 hours. Add the scrubbing of the pickles and cleaning up after, the entire «ordeal» took a little less than 3 hours. And I had set the entire day aside to make these, sheeezzzz!

Armed with new found confidence, I hoped to dabble in more pickling fun in the weeks to come. My wish was answered just this past week. We hosted an appreciation party at the lake for our beloved cottage neighbours. Since over abundance seems to be my thing when hosting events, I was left with an insane amount of freshly picked corn… I decided to make corn relish. Even if I was at the cottage and even if my kitchen there is smaller than you can even imagine. I didn’t have the traditional pickling spices (pre-made mix,  mustard seeds or celery seeds) on hand. I had however coriander seeds, fennel seeds, garlic and fresh cilantro. I also had onions and yellow and orange peppers, as well as vinegar, sugar and salt. I was not too sure how everything would turn out but it was worth a try… It was. As a matter of fact, the corn relish turned out so wonderfully delicious, my King said it should definitely be added to my blog! I am such a good little Queen!!! I have listened to his request and you can find the recipe bellow as well. LOL!

So I can confidently say that my summer of pickling and preserving is off to a good start. So far, I have made jams (strawberry, mixed berries and blueberry/lemon), dill pickles, corn relish and basil pesto (pesto is in the freezer, not in a jar). I hope to make a few more things before the end of September but you know, sometimes, life simply gets in the way…

The Pickling Diaries

Before I continue forward, I wish to thank my trustworthy source for many basic details: thank you BA Magazine for that insight! Here are a few tips on how to proceed:

Crunchy, Lovely, Home Made Dill Pickles

What you need

The brine: It’s a simple matter of proportion and I used Bon Appétit’s guidelines

1 cup vinegar
2 tbsp pickling salt
2 tsp sugar
up to 2 tbsp pickling spices (I think 1 tbsp is enough)
2 cups water

I used half distilled white vinegar and half apple cider vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is not recommended for this application. For half a bushel of cucumbers, I made 6 times the amount of the brine recipe above, using the same proportions. I was left with about 2 cups of brine, which I am now using as a base for vinaigrettes. No waste!!!

For dill pickles, I recommend fresh dill weed that is at the seeding/flowering stage as well as some of the younger type of dill that is greener: it yields a stronger dill taste. A few garlic cloves per jar is also a great addition. If you don’t have mixed pickling spices, you can make your own with mustard seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds and  black peppercorns in equal proportion.

Mix all the ingredients together in a pot and bring to a boil, then keep on a simmer while you assemble the jars.

Starting with clean jars (I run them through the dishwasher first), place fresh dill weed fronds at the bottom with a few pieces of garlic. I used 2 cloves per jar: you can increase or decrease according to your affection for garlic. Pack in your pickles: they can be left whole, sliced or quartered, the cut will not affect the end result. For fun, I tried all three.

Using a clean wide mouth funnel, fill the jars with the hot brine, enough to cover the cucumbers but leaving about 1/2 inch of clearance at the top. This will allow the preparation to expand slightly while in the hot boiling water without any of the brine spilling over. If the brine spills over, it may affect the air tight seal once the pickles cool off. Once your jars are filled, remove any air pockets by sliding a knife alongside the cucumber slices. Cover with the lids and secure with the metal ring.

At this stage, you have 2 options: you can simply place your jars in the refrigerator and let them «brine» for a few days or you can “can them” for longer storage.

If proceeding with canning: Place your jars in a large pot full of boiling water, completely submerged in the water. Keeping the water boiling, let the jars «cook» for 15 minutes. Once this step is completed, remove jars and place on a thick layer of dish cloths or on a wooden cutting board. To avoid cold shocking the glass which could cause it to crack and break, it is not recommended that the jars be placed directly on a cold surface such as stone counters when they are removed from the hot bath.

Let your jars cool completely. Within an hour or so, the top of the lids should «pop» and the small dot in the middle should pull inwards. If you can press on that dot after a few hours and it still bounces up and down, your seal did not happen and you may have to start the canning process again which may affect the final texture of the pickles.  I recommend instead that you keep the improperly sealed jars in the refrigerator instead.

By skipping the canning process, you save a lot of time. Keep in mind that refrigerator pickles will last about 2 months in the fridge (well, unless your pickle monsters eat them all before the time is up lol). Canned pickles will last up to 12 months without refrigeration, as long as the seal is not broken. Once a jar is opened, it should always be refrigerated. I opted for the canned version for 2 reasons: 1 – I want summer fresh pickles in the dead of winter and 2 – I only have one fridge. But I do have access to a small cold storage space which is perfect to keep my bounty.

Since I am a curious kind, I wanted to see what the difference was between the two ways of pickling. I made 2 jars of pickles using the refrigerator method while I proceeded with the canning process for the rest of my loot. I let both sit for a week before we were all able to taste test the pickles. It demanded quite a bit of willpower to wait that long… For one entire week, I had absolutely no idea what the pickles would taste like! At first, the uncooked pickles still boasted a deep green colour (as you can see in my featured picture) while the others had change slightly to a yellowy green colour reminiscent of store bought pickles. However, after one week in the refrigerator, the raw pickles took on that same yellow shade of green. It is the same principle as making ceviche: vinegar (or other acidic liquids such as lemon juice) «cook» foods without the use of heat.

The results? Both types of pickles taste really good. Both had retained a good crunch and both had been well infused with the wonderful flavours of the brine. Both the King and one of the Princes thought they were fantastic. I thought the spices may be a little overpowering so I will probably adjust to 1 or 1.5 tbsp of pickling spices instead of the 2 tbsp I used.

Happy Go Lucky with What I Have in the Pantry Corn Relish

This is certainly not the prettiest picture. The colours were amazing in the bowl. I got so involved and excited making this relish I completely forgot to take photos of the step-by-step process…

This relish is fresh and vibrant and slightly runny. It is not of jam consistency because the sugar is kept to a minimum as well as the cooking time in order to maintain the «freshly picked» taste of all the ingredients.

What you need

How to make it

  1. This is really too easy!
  2. In a large saucepan or cooking pot, combine the brine ingredients: vinegar, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, grainy mustard and turmeric. Bring to a boil and turn off heat. Set aside
  3. With a sharp knife, remove the kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl. Add the chopped onions and peppers. Mix to combine
  4. Add the corn to the brine, mix well and bring back to a boil, cooking for only about 5 minutes. Add the cilantro. Let the entire mixture sit for about 15 minutes. taste and adjust the salt and the cilantro to your taste.
  5. Jar the relish and can using the hot water bath method as explained above

This relish is great on grilled meats, with sausages, fish and on top of burgers and hot dogs.

Mix with equal proportion of sour cream or mayonnaise and voilà! A new interesting dip for vegetables.

Parting words: I hope I have inspired you to dabble in home preserving. I am currently investigating how I can bring a pressure canner into my kitchen world without ruining my stove top. Once (and if) I figure that one out, I will definitely share my findings on this blog. Until then, happy canning everyone! I know what I will be doing in the next few weeks: I feel marinara sauce invading my cold storage room!!!