Making What’s Hopefully Not Bottled Botulism (aka Pickling)

This long weekend, I learned a lot about myself; for there is nothing to bring out the best and the worst and the Crazy in you like a full day of pickling for the first time ever. I laughed, I cried, I called my mum. A lot.

I used to think that the biggest deal about pickling was how time-consuming and laborious it is. And sure, it’s both of those things- in a big way. But the biggest deal of all is safety. If you don’t can properly, you could get sick. Really sick. As in, dead. So clean working conditions are a must. Get your surfaces and equipment as close to sterile as you can and follow the “official” procedure for canning your items meticulously. And this post is just about what I did, which is definitely not to standard. For legitimate information on canning safety and recipes, check with your local… er… food safety agency. Here: these guys look pretty legit.

I, on the other hand, used my mum’s recipe. Here’s what it calls for:

LIQUID MIXTURE (I had to make this about 4 times for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers):

  • 8 cups water (I used distilled because Peterborough tap water tastes like licking the bottom of a cow’s hoof)
  • 4 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar- because it had a picture of pickles on the front!?- but now wish I’d used Pickling Vinegar. At 7% acetic acid, it’s 2% higher than white vinegar and therefore more likely to kill micro-jerks that could make you sick)
  • 1 cup pickling salt

FOR PACKING THE JARS:

  • Pickling cucumbers, which need the following prep the night before you can them: wash in cold water and scrub with a soft brush, paying special attention to the knob on the end where the flower used to be. Then soak them overnight in a cold 8:1 water:pickling salt solution. Drain in the morning.
  • Fresh Dill (it’s best to use the flower head while it’s still green)
  • Garlic cloves, peeled (1-2/jar; cut in half if large)
  • Other things I added to some jars for kicks (in shot-in-the-dark quantities): pickling spice (1tbsp/jar), pepper flakes (I used 1/8 tsp/jar); 1-2 bay leaves/jar, pepper corns. Keep in mind that if you put any kind of powdered herb or spice in there, it will make the brine cloudy which may be off-putting.

TOOLS: Pickling jars (I used 21x 1-Litre jars for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers), ongoing pot of boiling water for sterilizing, pot of simmering water for heating jar lids, large pot for boiling pickling solution, metal ladle and tongs, metal lid picker-upper tool (optional)

And here’s what I did:

  1. Wash hands and kitchen surfaces very thoroughly. Keep hand-washing throughout the pickling process.
  2. Mix the water, vinegar and pickling salt in the big pot. Bring it to a rolling boil and keep it there. The metal ladle needs to be sterilized, so keep it in this pot.
  3. Take the circular lid tops off of the Mason jars and place them in a saucepan full of simmering water (they should have a thin ring of rubber on the underside- the heating is what activates that ring so it will seal to the jar later). Also keep a pot of boiling water around in case the tools need to be re-sterilized at any point.
  4. Place the jars in the oven and turn it on to 220 degrees F. And don’t add the jars to an already-heated oven. They crack. I may or may not have learned this the hard way.
  5. After at least 5 minutes at 220 degrees F, take a Mason jar out of the oven. Do not touch the inside of the jar or the rim- that would introduce bacteria to the newly-sterilized jar.

    I read today that it’s actually better to boil the jars for pre-packing sterilization; apparently the oven doesn’t distribute the heat well enough.

  6. Carefully pack the jar with pickles, a head or 2 of dill, 1-2 garlic cloves, and whatever else you might want in there- again, no touching the rim or inside!
  7. Using the sterile ladle, pour the boiling pickling liquid in the jar to within 1/4 inch of the very top.
  8. Dip a clean cloth in the boiling water and wipe the top of the jar so there is no food residue left behind.
  9. Using a sterile tool or a special magnetic picker-upper, lift a lid out of the simmering water and put it in place, without touching the rim with your hands, and then screw the ring on overtop.
  10. Place the jar aside to cool. It should make a POP sound later due to the vacuum that’s been created. After cooling, check to make sure this has occurred by pressing down on the lid; if it “gives” under the pressure, then the sealing didn’t work. Store such duds in the fridge and eat them within 3 weeks or so.
  11. Label (with date) and store properly-sealed jars in a cool, dark, dry place for 4-6 weeks before eating.

    Dear New Treats: Please don’t kill me

** A NOTE ON SAFETY: To make sure you don’t get botulism, food safety agencies very clearly state that after you screw on the lid, the jar should be completely submerged in a pot of boiling water for something like 20 minutes. My mum does not do this because she says it makes the pickles less crunchy. In her words, “I’ve been making pickles without boiling them after for 30 years and no one’s died yet”. It’s a small but serious risk. I only boiled a couple of jars to see for myself how mushy they will get. I don’t plan on giving any of these first unboiled batches away. But before committing to the risk of the non-boil, I did a little research and here’s what I found:

From Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante (1999):

ON THE BOIL-BATH PROCESSING DEBATE: “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism. However, traditional lacto-fermentation methods such as those described here seem to effectively prevent botulism by creating a sufficiently acidic environment…”

ON CHECKING FOR SPOILAGE: “In most (though not all) cases, food that has spoiled in storage should be readily apparent. Signs to look for include mold growing inside the lid of the container, on the food itself, or on the outside of the jar. Food that is badly discoloured or darkened, or that is smelly or slimy, is likely suspect and should be thrown away. When food is going bad, small bubbles form inside a storage jar, and gas or liquid may escape in a rush when you unseal the container”.

So, there you have it. I didn’t post-boil and I stand by that choice. But if my posts suddenly stop in the next 4-6 weeks, you should definitely, definitely not let them serve these pickles at my funeral reception.

*** UPDATE***: I tried the first (unboiled) batch of pickles, 5 weeks later, and it killed me. I died.

… Just kidding! STILL ALIVE! They are delicious! Very salty- more than Gabe likes, but just right for me. I will update again later on the degree of mushiness of the batches that were boiled.

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6 thoughts on “Making What’s Hopefully Not Bottled Botulism (aka Pickling)

  1. You know, you could have asked your brother, AKA “Professor Pickles”, on some great pickling recipes as well as pickling best practice. 🙂

    Andrew is right: you don’t have to worry so much about botulism on regular pickled cucumbers. Cucumbers have a high, natural acidity so they’re quite safe to pickle in a traditional water / salt / vinegar brine. Here’s a handy page to get some more details: http://www.pickyourown.org/ph_of_foods.htm

    Generally, the acidity of pickling vinegar ensures you don’t have to worry about botulism in pretty much anything you pickle. You may want to pressure cook any pickled sausages that you make, though. XD

    Here’s a few other tips:

    – Buy your cucumbers from farmers markets from mid-late july to early August. I recommend this time because it’s easier to get smaller cucumbers (baby) which are more resistant to sogginess (see http://pbfcomics.com/224/) which result in pickles you can trust even one year later.

    – Never use any of those silly flavour packets for pickling. I did that once and I ended up with pickles that had the consistency of mushy bananas.. without the delicious banana flavour.

    – When boiling your brine, try making a packet of flavouring. I wrap a parcel of pickling spices in cheesecloth, tie it up tight with string, and then boil it in the brine – usually tieing the string to one end of the pot for easy removal.

    – Yes, you can enjoy your pickles after 6 weeks, but the longer you can wait the better the flavour will be. The acidity of the vinegar becomes subued, as does the flavour of the garlic and any hot peppers you may have thrown in there, while the dill stays strong.

    – Use dill heads. LOTS OF THEM, right in your jar. I also always throw a pinch of salt in every jar before I add the brine, to help to create a ‘dill pickle chips” flavour that I know you enjoy.

    – If you can, store your pickles in a fridge – or a really cold cold cellar – to help ensure crispiness. The fridge, especially, really helps to remove any fears of botulism.

    – Finally, make sure that you keep a recipe book handy when you want to experiment. Keep good records of what works and what doesn’t, so that next year’s preserves are better than this year’s.

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