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This is adapted from Andrea Chesman's book, The Pickled Pantry (Storey Publishing, 2012).
When it comes to making crispy pickles, heat is the enemy. Although you could guarantee crisp pickles by never subjecting them to heat, that would mean avoiding the canner, which is necessary for long-term storage.
When you’re making pickles to preserve from your garden surplus, the challenge becomes how to make and process them in a way that preserves their texture. Luckily, you can follow several tricks to make crisp pickles while still following the safety guidelines established by the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Some people remember the shatteringly crisp pickles their grandmothers used to make. These preservers had two tricks in their apron pockets. The first was alum, an aluminum salt, which is no longer recommended because it’s toxic in large quantities. Though alum helps create crisper pickles, it’s not necessary when you use higher-quality ingredients and modern canning methods.
Grandma’s second trick for crispness was lime, or calcium hydroxide, the same chemical that’s applied to farm fields to raise the soil pH. In food-grade form, the calcium in lime bonds with the pectin in a vegetable’s cell walls and increases its firmness. But after soaking in a limewater solution for 12 to 24 hours, the excess lime must be removed to make safe, edible pickles. To do so, you must drain, rinse, and soak the vegetables in fresh water for an hour. This rinsing process is repeated several times to remove all traces of lime. At the end of the process, the cucumbers are left with no flavor at all. When compared with a cucumber that’s soaked in salt water (a common step in pickling), the difference is obvious.
Crispness starts in the garden. Many people take up pickling because they have an excess of salad cucumbers. Instead, I grow pickling cucumbers and enjoy any excess in my salads.
In addition to growing cucumbers specially developed for pickling, I always grow some of the newer Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern cucumber cultivars, which tend to grow long, not fat, and are mostly seedless and thin-skinned. I’ve tried several different cultivars of each, and find that, though the yields are lower, the flavor is far superior.
If someone gives you a bushel of salad cucumbers to pickle, you can still pickle them and improve the texture by removing all the seeds. The fewer and smaller the seeds in a cucumber, the crisper the resulting pickle. (If someone gives you a bushel of zucchini, make relish! You’ll never make a zucchini pickle as pleasing as a cucumber pickle.)
During the growing season, be sure to pick early, pick often, pick small amounts, and keep the cucumbers chilled before pickling. These same rules hold true for green beans and other vegetables you pickle. I often pickle in small batches, so I’m only canning as much as I’ve harvested, be it one jar’s worth or dozens.
The blossom ends of cucumbers contain enzymes that speed softening. Be sure to cut those ends off before you start pickling. Can’t tell which is the blossom end? Cut both ends off. While many people put grape leaves in their canning jars to prevent softening, grape leaves only help because they contain an enzyme that counteracts the pickle-softening enzymes present in blossom ends. So, if you cut off the blossom ends, you won’t need to bother with grape leaves.
Never omit the following step: Soak the sliced cucumbers in an iced saltwater bath for 2 to 6 hours prior to canning. The salt draws some of the excess water from the cucumbers, resulting in a crisper pickle. Adding a crisping agent is also helpful. Ball Canning makes Pickle Crisp (pelletized calcium chloride), another naturally occurring calcium salt. Like lime, the calcium binds with the pectin in the cell walls and stiffens the vegetable. Because of its formulation, you only need to spoon a small amount into the jars right before you seal them for canning. Be sure to follow the package directions.
Canning will soften the pickles — there’s no getting around it. However, using a steam canner exposes the jars to less heat, because it takes less time for the water to start boiling. The result is a crisper pickle.
If you pick cucumbers early and often, as I recommend, you may end up with too few pickles to make a 7-jar batch. I also pickle often, but in small batches. The following recipes make 1-pint jars. You can scale them up by multiplying the ingredients based on the number of cups of sliced cucumbers you’ve harvested.
Check out some DIY pickle recipes: Dill, Curried or Classic Bread ‘n’ Butter Pickle Recipes