|By Lee Franzel
We Texas gardeners love fresh vegetables from the garden. But some foods take on their special taste and usage from the preservation method — a necessity in the days before refrigeration, but now enjoying new popularity as a craft. Pickles are certainly quite different from cucumbers. Their crisp, sour crunch takes tuna salad or potato salad to a “whole ’nuther level.” That’s a good reason to make them, and kids especially love them. The art of canning and pickling fell largely into disinterest in the last half of the 20th century, but is now enjoying a revival by folks who wish to preserve not only the product but also the know-how. Those who “put up” their garden produce will enjoy the experience and the resulting jars in their own pantry, but also may create memorable and appreciated gifts for family and friends. A home-crafted and highly personal “gift from the garden” with a nice label and ribbon is not something that will soon be forgotten.
Texas Timing Trick
My mouth salivates at the thought of my grandmother’s dills up in Kansas when I was a child. While gardeners in the Midwest are able to grow dill in the spring and have it mature at the same time as the cucumbers, the timing is tricky in most of Texas. Dill is a cool-weather herb surviving temperatures in the 20s, while cucumbers can’t take the slightest frost. My method in South-Central Texas is to grow the dill in the winter, which matures in about mid-March, and freeze it until the cucumbers are ready. Recipes can be found on-line that use a tablespoon of dill seed or a little package of fresh dill from the supermarket. But a good home-canned jar of dill pickles requires a large amount of the herb in each jar, so growing and freezing solve the problem, providing ample amounts. The dill plants are left to grow until they produce the umbel seed heads and are harvested when the seeds turn brown, but before they dry and fall. The stalks are 3–4 feet tall and they are cut in five-inch bundles (to fit nicely into the jars later), wrapped in plastic wrap, rubber-banded and stored in a paper bag in the freezer. When the cucumbers are ready, in May through early July, the dill can be thawed on the counter or in the microwave and it’s ready for the canning process. Same result as fresh. If dill is not in your garden, try a local farmer’s market.
Canning Preserves Food
It is important to understand that two different types of microbes cause food to spoil: fungi and bacteria. Fungus is killed by temperatures over 170º F. But bacteria will survive at higher temperatures. Non-acid food requires a pressure canner which raises the temperature above 240º F. However, bacteria cannot live in a fairly high acid environment. Thus acid foods like tomatoes may be canned using a boiling water bath. Non-acid foods such as cucumbers can be safely preserved by using a brine of vinegar and salt. Boiling-water-bath canning is pickling, and the process adds a different flavor dimension to the final product. It is recommended that persons new to canning and pickling consult an authoritative source, such as the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, sold at most hardware stores. Or they can get bulletins from the local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension office. Many AgriLife locations even teach classes on the subject.
The Mason Jar
John Landis Mason patented the Mason jar in 1858, ushering in an era of preserving fruits and many vegetables that had its heyday in the early 1900s up to the advent of most homes having refrigerators in about 1950. After the patent expired in 1879, many companies created their versions of the jar. By the turn of the last century, a standard threaded top was used by all manufacturers and rubber seals on lids improved — Kerr introducing that improvement.
From the necessity to have something on the table during the 1930s depression, through the Victory Gardens of WWII, canning was a way of life. The Ball Company bought out Kerr and is now the sole maker of canning jars in the U.S. It is easy to access the history of the Mason jar on-line and there is some interest in collecting still-usable jars which may be 90 years old. Some jars are clear glass and some are tinted blue. Antique jars made in the 1920s and 1930s sell for $8–15. Giving a jar of canned food in an antique jar adds another level of value to the gift.
To make pickles, use “pickling cucumbers.” That may seem obvious, but a novice might think a slicing variety will work. Slicers have thin skins and don’t make good pickles. Pickling varieties have thicker skins which result in a firmer, crunchier product. I haven’t observed much difference in the variety — ‘National Pickling,’ ‘Boston Pickling’ and even ‘Fin de Meaux’ seeds from France intended for the tiny cornichons all work fine. The important thing is to pick them daily at a size 3–4 inches so they pack into the jar nicely. Cucumbers grow quickly and it’s easy to miss some until they are overly large. In that event, either use a recipe for sliced pickles such as sweet ones or bread-and-butter pickles. But pickling cucumber varieties can also be used as slicers. Most start producing fruit in about 48 days from planting.
Cucumber vines produce male flowers first, so be patient when looking for baby fruits. They are insect pollinated, so encourage bees, including the native bumble bee. Bees are most active early in the morning. All the cucurbits (gourd family, melons, squash included) are susceptible to powdery mildew. I raise my cucumbers on vertical eight-foot cattle panels, an idea learned from a Texas Gardener article. The panel is held upright by 7-foot T-posts. Good air circulation reduces powdery mildew to the point of not needing any spraying, an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) technique. Also, avoid watering leaves with a sprinkler — drip irrigation or careful hand-watering is best. My cattle panel trellis is on the north side of the garden to avoid shading other plants. Our summer breeze is from the southeast, so the leaves, in a sunny and breezy situation, hardly get any mildew. The small amount of powdery mildew that might occur is ignored as the vine is growing new leaves through the season.
Timing is important in growing cucumbers. Seeds can be started inside at the same time as tomato seeds, about mid-January — 48 days to first fruit. It’s important to get the plants going early, protected from cold weather at first, because planting early favors the plant and disfavors insects (such as aphids). Nursery-bought transplants are also readily available. Planting in May would likely give the advantage to the insects. Planting in mid-summer will likely provide a feast for aphids and other insects. Noting the dates on the canned pickles in my pantry, early May through July 4 is seen.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is an annual plant which self-seeds readily starting in October if a few plants are left until fully mature. People who’ve grown dill one year will usually have volunteers in following years. The seeds come true, being an open-pollinated plant. ‘Bouquet’ and ‘Mammoth’ are two varieties if you buy seed. Plant when weather starts cooling in fall. It’s nice to have baby dill to snip into a salad over winter. Recipes for fish, especially salmon, use dill. Mature height is 3-to-4 feet.
Making the Pickles
The old family recipe makes a sour pickle — kids absolutely love them and they’re fabulous diced into potato salad, tuna salad and sliced on a relish tray. One gallon of brine is made by boiling three quarts of water to one quart of 5 percent cider vinegar, plus one level cup of pickling/canning salt. Don’t use table salt. It’s important to use lots of dill. One whole seed head full of seeds, plus about five stems. Using quart jars, place the dill in with a sprinkle of cracked black pepper — you may wish to add a clove or two of garlic sliced in half, and an optional dried chili pepper. Load the cucumbers in tightly as they shrink some in the processing. Fill the jars with boiling brine, leaving a space of 3/8-inch at the top. Wipe the lips of the jars. The lids and rings are put on barely tight so pressure is allowed to release during the processing. Process quarts 15–20 minutes — I set the timer for 18. When removed from the water bath and placed on the counter to cool, the lids will “clink” in a few minutes, indicating a good seal. Recheck later that the lids are concave. Any jars that did not seal should be placed in the refrigerator for current use. After cooling, the jars can be washed to remove the brine so the rings don’t rust. Rings can be reused, but always use new lids. Date and label the jars, and store in a dark place such as the pantry. The pickles are ready for use in six weeks and are good for more than one year.
It is not necessary to tighten the jar rings when the finished product has cooled down. The vacuum from the processing will hold the lid tight — in fact the rings are not needed at that point. I remove the rings, wash and dry the jars, and then replace the bands so that they are available after the jar has been opened to keep in the refrigerator.
The vinegar/salt brine method may be used to pickle okra, peppers, beets, carrots and relish among others. Be sure to use and follow instructions from a reliable source to assure food safety.
Hardware stores carry 21.5-quart enamelware canners that come with a wire rack. This size makes up to seven quarts at a time. My canner is more than 40 years old. Additional useful items include a canning funnel and jar lifter tongs. Kits are available with the funnel, tongs and other items.