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Preserving pickles and relishes

First We Eat: Making your own means personalized flavours from ingredients you can trust

Whenever one of my sons visits, he invariably rummages through the fridge, hunting for a jar of beet pickles or dills. When he finds it, he devours half of its contents. It’s been that way for years; I am the Condiment Queen. My pantry — and my sons — are full of preserves. They are made with personalized flavours, from ingredients I can trust, and I know they are carefully made and safe to eat. And delicious.

Canning invokes more science than most people realize. Here’s what you need to know.

Preservatives

Salt — If you reduce salt, the salt in the cucumber migrates into the not-quite-salty-enough brine, causing soft pickles. (I warned you about the science…) AND reduced salt can lead to spoilage due to micro-organisms. So do not adjust the recipe’s salt content.

Sugar plays a role in preventing spoilage too. Do not alter it.

Use pickling or apple cider vinegar with an acidity of five per cent to eliminate any risk of botulism. In fermented pickles (see below), too brief a brining time makes vinegar cloudy as liquid seeps out of the vegetables.

Get the freshest vegetables and process them promptly.

Processes

  • Old-fashioned processed pickles (sauerkraut, dills and kimchi) are made by a slow process of brine fermentation, whereby the bacteria in the vegetables reduce the sugars present. This takes three to five weeks in a large crock.
  • Fresh-packed pickles are made by covering raw or cooked vegetables with hot brine or syrup, then pasteurizing in a boiling water bath to kill bacteria.
  • Refrigerated pickles are made by placing raw vegetables in a flavoured brine and refrigerating them. Even unopened jars must be kept refrigerated.
  • Relishes are made from chopped fruits and vegetables, seasoned and simmered in sweet or tart brine. Chutneys are fruit-based relishes, simultaneously sweet, tart and hot.

Of course you can buy pickling spice, but self-made means better flavours. Use whole spices. For about 1 cup, mix 1 tbsp. each allspice berries, black peppercorns, green cardamom (optional), celery seeds, cloves, coriander seeds and mustard seeds. Add 30 crumbled bay leaves, 4 broken cinnamon sticks, and 10 to 15 crumbled red chilies. Mix together and store in an airtight jar.

Use a boiling water bath to preserve your canned goods, and a pressure canner for low-acid vegetables and proteins to prevent botulism.

Sterilize jars, tongs, rings. Simmer flip lids for five minutes to soften the sealing compound on the inner edge.

Use canning jars, wide-mouth canning tongs, wide-mouthed funnel; a chopstick to position foods and remove air pockets.

“Headroom” refers to the space in the jar that is left unfilled. Overfilled jars do not seal; underfilled jars take too long to force out all the air left inside. Rule of thumb: 1/4 inch for eight-ounce jars, 1/2 inch for everything larger.

Use a clean damp cloth to wipe the rim after you fill the jar. Tighten ring to fingertight.

Return full jars to water at least one inch deeper than the jars in a single layer on a metal rack for processing. Cover the pot and start timing when the water boils. Average processing times at sea level: 15 minutes for half-pint jars; 25 minutes for pint jars; 30 minutes for quart. Add 10 minutes for altitudes above 3,000 feet.

Cool jars on a cloth away from drafts. Check for a seal: the top of the lid should not move, should be slightly concave, and should ring clearly when you tap it. As the jars cool there will be an audible ping as each lid seals.

I told you there’d be a lot of science. There is more to discuss, but first we eat.


Chili Cha Cha

The recipe for this chili sauce is at least four generations old, handed down from the southern Ontario branch of my family tree. For concentrated, clear flavours, put the pickling spice directly into the mix, but warn people to beware of crunchy peppercorns and cloves! Yield: 8-10 pints.

  • 24 c. quartered Roma tomatoes
  • 6 c. finely diced celery
  • 6 c. finely minced onions
  • 1/2 c. pickling salt
  • 4 c. white sugar
  • 2 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 c. pickling spice
  • 3 red bell peppers, seeded and finely diced

Combine the tomatoes, celery, onions and pickling salt in a large stainless or glass bowl. Let the mixture stand on the counter all day. In the evening, transfer the vegetables into a large colander or strainer with a bowl beneath it to catch the drips. Cover and drain overnight. Next day, discard the liquid. Dump the vegetables into a shallow heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer to sauce-like consistency, about 20 to 35 minutes. Stir regularly. Ladle into jars and process.

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