Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Preserving A Great Tradition: Making Bread & Butter Pickles

While many have tried and failed, I have successfully created a vehicle that transports me back in time. Granted, I don't make the trip physically, but rather my journey is an emotional one. I can vividly see the people and places, hear the voices and laughter, and smell the smells of my food-flourished past. Just last weekend I took one of these trips, as I often do, while in the cottage kitchen. The spark that launched my time machine was the aroma of a simmering brew, something so unique that a mere whiff of it can only mean one thing: it's pickle time. The combination of vinegar cooking with sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds and other spices immediately connect a thousand dots of my life experience.

The process of canning is a bit magical, I think. There is a lot of science taking place among the jars and lids and water baths. And all of that is easily explained. But the time spent with loved ones, working side by side, creating something together that will be shared with others, is the most enchanting part of the process. These hours spent with my dad, who I love and cherish, and is now 84 years-young, are priceless. The recipe we use comes from his aunt Helen, who passed it along to his mother and other aunts. While all of aunt Helen's generation are now gone, they remain with us every time we make these wonderful pickles.

Like most families, ours is one of many traditions. While canning was a common occurrence before the proliferation of processed foods and reliable refrigeration, our extended Polish family always "put up" bread and butter pickles. And these are not like any you would find in the supermarket, because beyond using the pickles (cucumbers) themselves, the flavor is amplified with the inclusion of green peppers and onions. It also nice to look into a jar of these pickles and know every single ingredient that went into them.

Maybe it's just me, but home preserving of foods seems to be on a bit of an uptick. Stores that normally carried a small stock of canning supplies, if they had any at all, now seem to be dedicating more space to jars, lids, canners and other items necessary to home preserve. It could be the movement to more organically grown foods has transcended into a growing popularity of canning. For whatever reason, I think it's  great that more people know where their food comes from and how it is processed.

Because canning is not something you can't do in an hour, the length of the project from start to finish required me to split it into two videos. Canning is not hard if you follow the basic steps. If you're not already a canner, go in with a relative or friend and have a pickle party! It will be the start of a great tradition!

Bread & Butter Pickles
(amount for one batch - makes about 4 1/2 quarts)

1 gallon (4 quarts) cucumber pickles - sliced thin
2 large green peppers - seeded and sliced thin
1 extra large white onion (or two medium) - sliced thin
1 quart ice cubes
1/2 cup kosher or pickling salt
5 cups sugar
5 cups white vinegar
2 TBSP mustard seeds
1 tsp celery seeds
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cloves
Enough clean and sanitized jars, lids and bands to hold batch. Can use quart or pint jars.

Before slicing cucumbers, wash the outside of each one with cold water and a vegetable brush making sure any dirt is removed. Once washed, remove both bud and stem end of the cucumber. Check for soft or rotten spots and remove those, too. Begin to slice cucumbers. I recommend using something that will provide uniform slices - a food processor with slicing blade, a manual food slicer/shredder (like I use in the videos), a box grater that has a slicer side, etc. Slicing by hand is not only a lot of work, but will generally produce very uneven slices. So take some help!

Once the cucumbers are sliced, proceed to slice the green peppers and onions. For me, it is very hard to slice an onion paper thin by hand, especially if you are using very large onions. So, I employ a mandolin, which makes quick work of the job and yields uniform thin slices. The green peppers, however, can be sliced by hand. There are only two peppers per batch and it goes pretty fast. Add the peppers and onions to the cucumbers in a large bowl and sprinkle 1/2 cup of kosher or pickling salt to the vegetables. DO NOT use iodized table salt - there are too many additives and impurities in that salt and it will react in the canning process. Kosher and canning salt are easily found at most markets. Toss vegetables so the salt is well distributed and bury a quart of ice cubes in the bowl. If you want, you can put a plate on top of the vegetables that is weighted with a jug of water or some other heavy object. Let stand for two hours. You will notice the wonderful aroma of the vegetables - even at this stage.

While the veggies are doing their thing with the ice, take the opportunity to wash your jars and bands. If you have an automatic dishwasher with a high heat cycle, you use that. You want the jars HOT when you put the pickle mix into them. So leave them in the hot dishwasher until it is time to use them. If you don't have a dishwasher, wash the jars in hot sudsy water, rinse and put into a 225 degree oven to stay hot until you need them. Wash the bands (these don't need to stay hot). In a small saucepan, put your lids (with the rubber seals) with water to cover them and bring them to a simmer. Keep the burner on warm until you are ready to use them.

When a couple hours have passed, transfer your vegetables to a colander and rinse well under cold water. You want to wash the salted water (made from the melted ice) off the veggies. Let them drain well. Make your brine. In a large pot (6qt or more), put the vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, turmeric and ground cloves. Bring mixture to a simmer and then back the heat off. Add your vegetables and stir so that they are completely coated with the brine. Bring the pot back up to the boiling point - but as soon as it starts to boil remove pot from heat! Give them a final stir and proceed to fill the jars with hot pickle mixture. Leave a half inch of head space at the top of the jar. Using a long, thin, non-metallic object (I use a wooden chop stick), remove any air bubbles that may have been created when filling the jar. With a clean damp cloth, wipe any brine off the top lid of the jar. Place metal lid on jar and place metal ring over that and hand tighten.

Most canners (these are large pots designed to boil jars in) hold seven jars. Yours may vary depending on the size. You should have the water in the canner boiling BEFORE you start filling the jars. Put filled jars into canner (water bath). There should be an inch or two of water over the lids of the jars. Bring water back to the boiling point and boil jars (process) for 15 minutes. Remove jars and gently set them on a table/counter top that has a towel on it. Place jars a couple inches a part to allow for good air circulation. As the jars cool, a vacuum will be created within the jar that will pull the lids into a concave position. You'll hear them "pop." When jars are cool, gently press each lid to make sure they sealed properly.

Don't eat these pickles right away. Put them in a box or in a cool, dark area for at least two weeks - even better for four weeks. This way all the flavors have a chance to blend. You don't have to refrigerate them before opening, but once the jar is opened you'll need to keep them refrigerated.

Yes, it's work. But once  you taste the goodness of these pickles you'll know it is well worth the effort. Enjoy!

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