A reader with a boatload of cucumbers asked for some recipes to help preserve the bounty. As it happens, I have an abundance of cucumbers as well, and spent a happy morning turning them into snappy garlic dills. While I was at it, I also pickled several other things, because I love the contrast a piquant pickle provides to a rich or lean meal. Spicy, savory or sweet, pickles can be made with fruit or vegetables and sometimes combine both. Back in the day, our ancestors pickled lemons, onions, and watermelon rind, and enjoyed garden-based concoctions like chow-chow, piccalilli and relishes. Before refrigeration, pickling was an easy way to preserve fruits and vegetables well into winter. Every well-stocked larder boasted rows of pickled beans, pickled peaches, pickled lemons, and even pickled eggs. Whether tart-sweet or savory, pickles graced American tables nearly every day of the year.
Today as then, salt-cured pickles are bottled in brine, while vinegar-cured pickles are generally made with distilled white vinegar, which remains clear. White vinegar may turn garlic blue or green, but it is perfectly safe to eat, just colorful. Specialty vinegars will work as long as they’re 5% acetic acid; many fruity vinegars are not, and low-acid vinegars don’t always preserve pickles adequately. Kosher or sea salt is best for pickling, as table salt can darken pickles and make brine cloudy. The best pickles are made with freshly picked fruit and vegetables in prime condition. You can always soak limp produce in ice water for an hour to crisp it up, but imperfect fruits and vegetables are better used in relishes and chutneys (cut out dings and bruised bits for the chickens).
Cucumbers don’t keep well, even with refrigeration, so only pick as many as you plan to eat fresh or preserve. If you prefer very crisp pickles, cut a thin slice off the blossom end (not the stem) of your cucumbers, because it contains an enzyme that can make pickles turn soft. Young cukes, 3-4 inches long, make the crispest pickles. Slice larger ones lengthwise to make spears, the classic garnish for sandwiches and burgers. Prepare jars and lids, and your canning tools (jar funnel, tongs, ladle) before pickling, and always prep an extra jar or two as volumes can be tricky to estimate.
Snappy Garlic Dill Pickles
4-6 pounds small (3-4”) cucumbers
6-7 dill seedheads plus sprigs of dill foliage
12-14 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups white vinegar
1/4 cup kosher or sea salt
Cover cucumbers with cold water and soak for several hours. Drain and pack into sterilized pint canning jars, adding dill and garlic to each jar. Bring vinegar, salt and 6 cups water to a boil and pour over cucumbers, leaving an inch of headroom, and seal, tightening jar bands well. Process sealed jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes about 6 pints.
If you enjoy sweet pickles, here’s a very fast and tasty version:
Cucumber & Onion Refrigerator Pickles
1 English cucumber (unpeeled), thinly sliced
1 Walla-Walla or any sweet or white onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch (about 1/8 teaspoon) each of: kosher or sea salt, mustard seeds, celery seeds, and ground turmeric
In a jar or bowl, layer alternately cucumber and onion slices. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil, boil for 1 minute, then pour over the vegetables. Cool to room temperature, cover tightly and refrigerate for 4-5 days before eating. Keep refrigerated and eat within 30 days.
To expand your pickle repertoire, explore the possibilities offered by your garden harvest. Old time pickle relishes often combined sweet corn and peppers, pickled pears made a grace-note side for grilled meat, and roasted Brussels sprouts might be tossed with pickled peaches or tart cherries. Experiment freely to create your own signature recipes: add brown mustard seed and hot pepper flakes to give pickles a lively kick, or tuck in cardamom pods and slices of lemon peel when pickling small beets or carrots.
Pickled Zucchini Spears
2 pounds 4-5 inch zucchini, quartered lengthwise
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup fresh dill sprigs
1 tablespoon whole mustard seed
1 teaspoon whole fennel seed
4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
Soak zucchini in ice water to cover with half the salt for an hour. Combine vinegar, sugar, remaining salt and 1-1/2 cups water, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Divide seeds and garlic between 4-5 pint canning jars. Drain zucchini, pack into jars, pour in hot vinegar. Seal jars, then process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Let cure for 2-3 weeks and refrigerate after opening.
Pickled Green Beans
2-1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 pounds green beans, trimmed and halved
1 large white onion, cut in wedges
1 tablespoon pickling spice blend
Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar, and 1-1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Add beans, cover pan, bring to a boil, boil for 1 minute. Drain into a colander set over a bowl, return liquid to pan and bringing back to a boil. Divide pickling spices between 2-3 pint or 4-5 half-pint jars and pack with beans and onion wedges. Cover with hot vinegar, leaving at least 1/2 inch head room. Seal jars, then process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Let cure for 2-3 weeks and refrigerate after opening.
Pickled Baby Carrots
1 pound 2-3 inch carrots, peeled
4 sprigs oregano
4 small cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup chopped red sweet pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1-1/2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
Boil baby carrots in water to cover for 2 minutes, drain. Divide herbs and spices between 2 pint or 4 half pint jars. Pack jars with carrots, leaving at least 1/2 inch head room. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup water, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour hot vinegar into jars, leaving at least 1/2 inch head room. Seal jars, then process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Let cure for 2-3 weeks and refrigerate after opening.