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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pasteurized Pickles

It's that time of year again--the time when our garden is producing overtime and the canning kettle is working several days a week. Our tomatoes are taking their sweet time this year, but the cucumbers are doing well. It's time for our first batch of pickles.

If you've never canned anything before, it's involved, but easier than you may think. The most important things to remember are:
  1. Cleanliness. Everything must be very, very clean.
  2. Use a recipe from a trusted source (not a random person on the internet) and do not mess with the proportions of sugar, salt, or acid in the recipe. You can switch out the flavorings, but you cannot mess with the proportions of sugar, salt and acid. Sugar, salt and acid in a recipe are there to preserve the food as well as flavor it, and if the proportions aren't right you can end up making people very, very sick.
I only use recipes from trusted source like university Extension services, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the Home Food Preservation Site, and the Ball Blue Book. Since I often store my food for over a year, I want to know that what I produce will be safe and healthy for my family. After all, making safe, healthy food for my family is why I go to all this trouble in the first place, and it would be silly to take a chance on a recipe from a questionable source.

For my dill pickle recipe, I use a recipe from the Ball Blue Book and a canning technique from Ohio State University Extension. This makes very strongly flavored garlic dills that are very crunchy. Even Mike will eat them, and he's pickier than the seven-year-old (don't tell him I said that).

First, gather your cucumbers. You need a cucumber variety that's specifically for pickling, and get them young, no bigger than 4-6" long. Those big, smooth salad cucumbers at the grocery store will make an OK refrigerator pickle, but will turn to mush here. Wash them well, then take a 1/16" slice off the blossom end of each cucumber. The cucumber contains enzymes at the blossom end that will make your pickles mushy if left on (If your helper is seven years old, just have him take a slice off both ends so he doesn't have to remember which end is the blossom end. Slice any super fat cucumbers in half.)

While cucumber preparation is underway, fill your canning kettle with water and put it over high heat. You need to get it to about 200 degrees F. After you fill your kettle, make your brine. Pickle brines, whether for sweet pickles or dills, all have the same basic ingredients--water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and spices.

Mixed Pickling Spice is used for both dill and sweet pickles. I think very highly of Penzeys pickling spice. If you look at the Penzeys spice mix side-by-side with a common grocery store brand, you can really see that the Penzeys mix is a much higher quality with a better mix of spices.

I also have a thing about using Heinz vinegar because it's made from corn. I know that the cheap vinegar, which can be made from petroleum won't hurt me and is indistinguishable from any other vinegar, but it's a mental block I just can't get over so I always pay extra for Heinz vinegar (Yes, their advertizing worked on me. I hang my head in shame). I also trust Heinz to be the full 5% acidity. As I said before, acidity is extremely important for canned goods, and I don't want to take a chance with a bargain brand.

Finally, you do need to buy special canning salt. If you use table salt for this, it can discolor the food and leave sediment in the jar.

Since we're making garlic dills today, I also have a bottle of dill seed and a bunch of garlic. You really only need a bulb and a half of garlic for one batch of pickles, but I couldn't remember how much I needed and went a bit overboard (oops). Making the brine is easy--simmer vinegar, water, sugar, salt, pickling spice, and dill seed for about 15 minutes.

You're going to need some special tools for preserving your pickles. These tools aren't strictly necessary, I suppose, but they do make the job easier and much, much safer. Get a canning funnel, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, and a good ladle ready.

While the brine is simmering, wash your canning jars, lids, and rings in hot, soapy water. Rinse them out with hot water, then carefully submerge the canning jars in the hot water in the canning kettle. Tip them to the side and let the water run down the side first instead of sticking them upright under the water. Take if from someone who found out the hard way, if you stick them in straight up and down and don't tip the, the air will rush out of the jar in a big BLOOP and will splash scalding water all over. Not fun at all. The reason you keep the jars hot is so there's no chance they'll crack when you put the hot brine in them.

The reason you put the jars in the hot water is it's a good way to keep the jars hot until you fill them, and it helps you get the water level correct in the kettle. After all your jars are submerged, the water should be 1" over the top of the jars. When you pull the jar out of the water, pull them straight out and dump the extra water into the sink. Then, when you fill the jars with cucumbers and brine, the water level will be correct.

You also need to put your jar lids in a small pan of clean, hot water and bring them almost to the boil. Don't boil them, but they should be very hot.

All your prep work is over at this point, and it's finally time to make the pickles! Pull a jar out of the kettle, and dump the hot water in the sink. Pack the jar full of cucumbers as tightly as you can, but make sure that no cucumbers come within 1/2" of the top of the jar. Add one or two cloves of peeled garlic (for garlic dills, you can leave it out) and a head of dill (if you happen to have it, but not strictly necessary).

Put a canning funnel into the top of the jar and ladle simmering pickle brine into each jar until it's 1/2" from the top--no more. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean, damp towel, and use your magnet to get a lid from the hot water. Put the lid in place, put a ring on to hold it down, and place the whole thing into the canning kettle. Repeat until your kettle is full.

Here's where my recipe departs from standard recipes. Instead of boiling the water in the canner for 20 minutes, I want to pasteurize my pickles instead. For safety, the water in the canner must stay above 180 degrees F for 30 minutes. The cucumbers will start to break down at 185 degrees, so my water has to stay above 180 degrees F and below 185 degrees F. I use a probe thermometer with an alarm function, so it lets me know if the water gets too hot or cool. This is a good time to clean up your kitchen, but a bad time to walk away. I was called away by the kids for five minutes, and look what I found when I came back:

It actually got over 190 degrees for a few minutes, so I know this batch of pickles won't be as good as other batches. Ah, well--that cucumber vine will keep producing, so I know that I will get to try again with another batch next week.

Ball Blue Book Fresh Pack Dill Pickles

8 pounds pickling cucumbers, 4-6" long
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup canning salt
1 quart white vinegar, 5% acidity
1 quart water
3 Tbsp. mixed pickling spices
1 Tbsp. dill seed
green or dry dill (one head per jar, optional)
1-2 peeled garlic cloves per jar, optional

Wash cucumbers; drain. Combine sugar, salt, vinegar and water in a large saucepan. Tie spices in a spice bag (I don't do this; I just throw them in the pot) and add to vinegar mixture; simmer 15 minutes. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, leaving 1/4" headspace; add dill heads and garlic. Ladle hot liquid over cucumbers, leaving 1/4" headspace. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two-piece caps. Process pints and quarts 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.