Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pickling To Preserve Summer Bounty

Abundant rainfall and uncommonly hot weather have led to a surplus of cucumbers in our garden. We grew three hill of 'Pickalot' from Burpee. The vines are supported on a nylon string trellis and have certainly lived up to the cultivar name.

'Pickalot' produces abundant cukes ideal for pickling.
We selected three pounds of the best ones from our earliest picking to prepare my grandmother's sweet chunk pickles. This is a long-brined recipe that has been in my family for generations. The cucumbers remain in brine for three weeks before being transferred to a solution of vinegar, sugar and spices.

Long-brined pickles were once a staple of the American diet. Once the brining process is complete, the pickles can sit in the brine at room temperature for months without deterioration. This feature allowed them to be shipped in barrels via rail to even remote reaches of the country, and the pickle barrel became a fixture in nearly every general store.

The long-brining technique can be used to advantage on the new American homestead. In our case, for example, with only three vines, we need to harvest cucumbers over a period of about three days in order to accumulate five pounds for a batch of pickles. With long-brining, you can add cucumbers to the brine over a three day period, provided you also add more salt to compensate for the weight of added cucumbers.

If you want to try long-brined pickles yourself, start by choosing an appropriate vessel. You need a food-safe, non-reactive container holding three to five gallons, along with a plate that will fit snugly inside the container. The plate is used to weight down the cumumbers to keep them underneath the surface of the brine at all times.

The brine is a 10 percent salt solution made by dissolving 1 cup of pickling salt in 1 quart of water. It is important to use salt labeled for pickling. It has been purified and dissolves quickly. The water should be soft. In hard water areas, use distilled water. Water can be softened by boiling it for 15 minutes and then allowing it to sit undisturbed overnight. The scum that appears on the top should be carefully removed by repeatedly dragging the edge of a paper towel across the surface. The scum will adhere to the towel. You can tear off a strip to expose a fresh edge and repeat as needed. Carefully ladle the water out of the pot, leaving any bottom sediment undisturbed. [Note: in my view, the energy used and the effort required to soften water by this method are probably much greater than needed to produce an equivalent quantity of distilled water. Therefore, if you can afford the modest cost, use distilled water.]

Carefully wash freshly harvested cucumbers and inspect them carefully. Do not use any that have insect damage, etc. Weigh your harvest and make a note of the weight and date. Prepare sufficient brine to cover the cucumbers and place them in your pickling container. Pour the brine over and weight them down with the plate. Make sure all the cucumbers are completely submerged. Place the container in a cool, shady location.

If additional cucumbers are added over the next two days, be sure to:

  1. Weigh them first and make note of the weight and date.
  2. Add enough 10 percent brine to cover them.
  3. Take the added weight into consideration when adding salt (see below)
On day two, add one cup salt for each five pounds of cucumbers that were placed in the container on day one. Do not dump the salt into the container. Instead, pour it on top of the plate and allow it to slowly dissolve. Do this after placing any additional cucumbers and fresh brine into the container.

On day three, add one cup salt for each five pounds of cucumbers from days one and two. Do this after placing any additional cucumbers and brine into the container. Do not add any more cucumbers after today.

On day four, add one cup salt for each five pounds total weight of cucumbers from days one, two and three. Always add the salt on top of the plate, allowing it to slowly dissolve into the brine.

NOTE: Scum will form on the surface of the brine as the cucumbers ferment. Carefully remove the scum with a skimmer or metal kitchen spoon. If allowed to remain, the scum will spoil the pickles.

On day seven, add 1/4 cup additional salt for each five pounds total weight of cucumbers. Continue to remove scum as it forms.

On days fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight, thirty-five and possibly forty-two (that is, at the end of each subsequent week for the next 4-5 weeks) add 1/4 cup of salt for each five pounds total weight of cucumbers.

During the second and subsequent weeks, the pickles will ferment. This will result in the production of carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles that will slowly rise to the top of the container. If you tap on the sides of the container with your hands, you should dislodge bubbles, making them easier to observe.

After four weeks of fermentation, check a cucumber by cutting it in half crosswise. It should be of uniform coloration throughout, there should be no white spots nor the appearance of dark rings. If necessary, allow the pickles to cure another week after adding the requisite amount of salt.

Once the pickles are cured, they may be left in the brine at room temperature for several months without deterioration. When needed, the pickles may be removed from the brine, desalted and packed with vinegar, sugar and spices to produce a variety of products from sour to sweet.

In the next post, I'll share some recipes for using long-brined cucumbers to make pickles.

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