I am not an expert… yet… on pickling, but here are a few nuggets that I’ve learned over my pickling this season.
1. Be aware of where you get your cucumbers from. We practice organic gardening, so there are no pesticides or fertilizers in our soil to be concerned about. If you buy your cucumbers from the store that is not the case. It’s best that if you can’t grow your own (and don’t have any desperate friends, neighbors or coworkers who have grown too many cucumbers), then try to buy your pickling cucumbers from the farmers’ market or local farm stand. Be sure to ask about how the cukes are grown (specifically for pesticides, etc.), since anything that is one the skin of your cucumbers will end up on your pickles. Even aside from the pesticide issue, most supermarket cucumbers are either slick with waxes or so expensive that it makes pickling seem like a waste of money.
2. If you want crisp pickles, whole or sliced, include a small, fresh grape leaf in the bottom of each jar. I first read about this from Alice Waters, but have come across it multiple times. Apparently grape leaves contain alum, which will help your pickles stay crisp when processed.
3. Always trim off about 1/8 of an inch at each end of the cucumbers (whether for whole or sliced pickles). The blossom end of the cucumbers contain an enzyme that keeps your pickles from staying crisp, so you definitely want to remove that.
4. Pickles are fun to make, and feel a bit more like potion brewing than preserving. You can be creative with your blend of spices, since pickles can be pretty forgiving. And if you’re not free to experiment, where’s the fun in pickling.
5. If you are experimenting with different spices in your pickles, use a light hand. The first batch I made were so heavy in spice that it gave the pickles a slightly weird taste, and in effect wasted a ton of spice. A little goes a long way.
6. Always wear latex gloves when packing the hot jars with vegetables for pickling. They protect your hands a bit from the heat.
7. When pickling (or doing other types of preserving) don’t answer the phone, the door, or a plaintive dog wanting to go in or out. Choose a time when your kids won’t be needing your attention, or you can otherwise stay focused. You’re dealing with hot substances and you want to be focused and uninterrupted.
8. You can be creative with the spices you use in your pickles, but don’t vary from the water, sugar or vinegar levels in the recipe. Those are tested to preserve your foods the best.
9. Never ever tell someone that you are interested in trying pickling things (especially if they have a garden), unless you want to be inundated with enough fresh produce to feed a small army.
10. Your own homemade pickles taste better than anything you’ve ever had in the stores. But that may just be because of the energy you put into making them. :)