It’s pickling season here on the coast of Maine and, like sour dough bread-making, like banana bread baking, like the steady flow of bean soups since March 15, pickling has taken over as the top kitchen activity to relieve pandemic angst. And white vinegar is the latest pantry ingredient to disappear from grocery shelves after flour and bananas and, incredibly, beans.
It’s August in Maine. The sun rises a little later and sets notably earlier. Our beaches are packed with virus-defying sun bathers, our mountain trails are clogged with unmasked hikers, our downtowns are thronged with streams of tourists, plodding from one T-shirt shop to the next in a relentless search for something, anything, if only one of those balsam-stuffed pillows with a Maine fragrance, to take home. But out here in the Real Maine, we’re hard at work, thinking ahead to winter. In the blueberry fields the wild berries are being harvested, corn and tomatoes are ripening fast, and apples are on the horizon, the first tart, crisp earlies showing up by the middle of the month. It’s time to freeze the berries, can the tomatoes, clean out the cold cellar where the apples will be stored, check the woodpile and order another cord for the stove. And time to make pickles.
My mother had a series of pickle recipes that she made every year as August began to wane—Grammy Harmon’s sour pickles which sat in big glass jugs in the cellarway, and then on shelves in the cold cellar, rows and rows of Mason jars with mustard pickles, bread-and-butter pickles and, a favorite from Downeast where my father’s family came from, a green relish called Pottsfield pickles.
The key with any pickles is the ratio of sugar to vinegar and this is when I so wish my mother were still alive to ask her. Alas, she would be 113, if she were still around, and probably not very forthcoming. So I search Google and I look in cookbooks, including old-fashioned ones like my prize Good Maine Food by Marjorie Mosser, and the recipes are all over the map, including one from the Farmer’s Almanac that calls for twice as much sugar as vinegar. That recipe has pretensions to being the original from the 1920’s when Citizen Farmer and his Iconic Wife, with a bounteous crop of cucumbers but not much else, made these and traded them at the local store for bread & butter. A likely story.
Despite the enormous quantities of sugar we’re told we ingest (mostly, it’s true, through highly processed food and fast food), I think modern tastes actually prefer pickles that are tarter than they are sweet. Nonetheless, and keeping all that in mind, some sugar is definitely necessary otherwise the pickles would be unbearably acid. But brown sugar or white? Or maybe a mixture. As for the vinegar–while my instinct is to use the fine apple cider vinegar produced by my Lincolnville neighbors, Bob and Mia Sewall, in this case I’m using mostly ordinary supermarket white vinegar (which I was sure to have on hand early in the season)—simply because it shows off the colors in the pickles better. And displaying colorful jars on the pantry shelves is part of the joy of pickling.
Keep in mind that once you’ve worked out the proportions of sweet to acid, the other ingredients can vary enormously, the exception of course being the cucumbers themselves. The salt should be sea salt or kosher or pickling salt—the important thing is that it should not be iodized.
A mandoline (no well-supplied kitchen should be without one) is ideal for slicing all these vegetables to a consistent thickness.
This makes 5 or 6 jars but I have 7 prepared in case there are any leftovers. I do use white vinegar but I throw in a cup or so of locally made cider vinegar because it has flavor the commercial stuff lacks.
- About 2 ½ pounds pickling cucumbers 3 to 4 inches long
- 2 medium-size fresh white onions
- 3 or 4 fresh garlic cloves
- 1 sweet red pepper
- ½ cup pickling salt (or sea salt or kosher salt)
- 3 cups white vinegar
- 1 cup apple cider vinegard
- 2 cups sugar (half white, half brown)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 tablespoons mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon celery seed
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon Mediterranean (Turkish or Italian) red pepper flakes
Wash the cucumbers well, remove the blossom and stem ends, and slice about ¼ inch thick, using a mandoline or a chef’s knife. Slice the onions similarly, along with the garlic and the sweet pepper. Combine in a big bowl and toss with ½ cup pickling or sea salt (or kosher salt—important not to have iodine). Add water just to cover and then 24 to 30 ice cubes. Let stand 3 to 6 hours, then drain and rinse well under cold running water. Taste for salt. If the cukes taste too salty, rinse them again, or cover them with cold water, let stand a few minutes, and then drain.
Have ready 6 or 7 sterilized pint jars. (To sterilize, place the jars in a cold oven on a rack about an inch apart, set the oven on 250 degrees, and let the jars heat for about half an hour. Or set in a large kettle, lined with kitchen towels to keep the jars from banging together, fill the kettle with water, bring to a boil and let boil gently 6 to 8 minutes, then drain. Or run through the dish washer on the hottest cycle.) Set the metal screw tops and the disk lids in a bowl and cover with boiling water.
Bring the remaining ingredients, the vinegar, sugar and spices, to a boil in a large kettle, about 8-quart capacity. As soon as it boils, add the vegetables and bring just to the simmering point. Do not let the mixture boil, or the finished pickles will be soft. Immediately, using a slotted spoon, fill the hot sterilized jars to within ½ inch of the top. Add boiling liquid to ¼ inch from the top. Wipe the jar edges with a clean cloth. Set the disk lids on top and screw down the bands. Let cool overnight, then further tighten the bands if necessary. The lids should have depressed slightly, with a little ping, indicating a perfect seal. Wipe the jars clean and store in a cool, dark pantry for as much as several months, refrigerating after a jar is opened.
If you’re made nervous by unprocessed pickles you can process these in a boiling water bath, submerging the sealed jars in room temperature water, then bringing to a boil and boiling for 8 to 10 minutes. Or follow instructions from your state Extension Service.