I love pickles. LOVE them. My mother-in-law discovered this the hard way, when she offered me a jar of her homemade pickles once to take home and eat at my leisure. We phoned her later that evening to let her know that those pickles were great! Great, but now gone… A 1.5 L jar, polished off like it was nothing. (But so delicious!)
Shocked at the speed with which we crunched through those delicious pickles, but excited at the possibility that I might be exhibiting early signs of pregnancy and that she might be a first-time grandmother in 9 short months (babies!), my mother-in-law rushed to give us 3 more jars of pickles. Those pickles didn’t last long either, but much to my mother-in-law’s chagrin, it soon became evident that there was no bun in any oven and that she was out 6 L of homemade pickles…
When I later asked if I could learn how to make those delicious pickles (European-style, also called Sweet and Sour pickles), my dear mother-in-law jumped at the opportunity to teach me! You see, I am not the most conventional of women or daughters-in-law, so any time I exhibit even a slight interest in anything remotely feminine or domestic, hope springs eternal for my mother-in-law. (Babies!) “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes making pickles and other Czech culinary delights, then comes mastering the art of vacuuming and dusting, then comes collecting delicate china and glassware, and THEN, perhaps, comes a baby in a baby carriage? Perhaps??” One can always dream, right? Ah, mother in laws…
Anyway, I learned how to make pickles in the summer of 2006. We had just come back from Czech (where pickles were served with every meal! HEAVEN!), and we were just getting ready to move to Victoria (where hopefully our new kitchen cupboards would be stocked with pickles. HEAVEN!). Hana (my mother-in-law) showed me the pickle ropes, passing down her timeless Czech recipe and teaching me the skills she had honed over decades of domesticity. I learned how to make the jars ‘perfectly clean’ the night before our pickle extravaganza. I was warned not to wear my wedding ring while pickling, lest my ring brush up against the lip of one of the jars, chipping it, and preventing a perfect vacuum seal. (Hana, of course, made pickles with 3 rings on each hand. Pickle Pro.) I learned how to sanitize the seals, how to carefully remove air bubbles from the jars, and how to put the jars in the oven to seal, even when it clearly states all over the jar box to NOT PUT JARS IN OVEN. Heh.
We proceeded to make 20 lbs (approximately 18 L) of pickles together. Needless to say, when we were finally allowed to taste them, they were delicious! But then a year passed and we were living in Victoria. When the pickling season came around in August, I was sans-mother in law, and I was also sans most of the kitchen amenities that had accompanied my lesson in pickle making the year before. A bit daunted but undeterred, I set out to match the 20lbs of pickles I had made the previous year, albeit without the modern comforts of:
– a dishwasher (for sanitizing jars)
– a double sink (for scrubbing and rinsing the cucumbers)
– a big ass pot (for boiling the brine)
– a wee ladle (for pouring the brine into wee little jar mouths, without spilling boiling vinegar everywhere except the inside of the jars)
– ample counter-top space (for housing a 20lb box of pickles and approximately 18 L of jars)
– tongs (for grasping lid seals, also called snap lids, from boiling water)
– ample storage space for a dozen-odd jars of prepared pickles
Well… last year, it took me an entire evening of full-on labour (the sweat! the vinegar!), but I did it. 20 lbs of homemade pickles! Plus, I had just finished tapping the air bubbles out of my jars when my in laws came to visit. *Bonus daughter-in-law points!* (Because even though I am the only daughter-in-law that Hana has, I still view the role as highly competitive. I am constantly vying for points against nobody in particular. So: Evidence of pickle-making when mother-in-law walks in = DANA SCORES!!! Not having a dining room table or functional china set = demerits for Dana, pickle-making notwithstanding.)
But I digress.
Last year, our 20 lbs of pickles only lasted us until approximately April or May. (And they only lasted that long because of severe rationing towards the bitter end.) We determined in a family meeting that 20 lbs was not nearly enough to last Marty and I an entire year, so we decided to bite the bullet and make 40 WHOLE POUNDS of pickles this year. (And let me assure you: this is hard work!) We bought 20 lbs on Sunday from a local market and made many jars of pickles into the wee hours of the next morning. (We weren’t actually able to start the process until 11 pm on Sunday night– yes, I said Sunday night, meaning I had to get up and go to work the next morning– so we didn’t actually finish until 2:30 am! Needless to say, I had a rough Monday. I debated phoning in sick, but I couldn’t handle the guilt of calling in sick because I had to make PICKLES the night before. And even I, I who lied to the priest during my first confession, even I have my limits.)
ANYWAY…. to make a long story even longer, I thought I might share the recipe and the process of pickling for all of you budding domestiques. Even though it takes hella work to get the job done, I can honestly say that nothing is quite as satisfying as having your VERY OWN PICKLES on hand for an entire year afterward! (Unless you are Marty and I, in which case you have your VERY OWN PICKLES for 6-8 months afterward. Ahem.) The cucumber season is NOW, so if you wish to partake in the joy of pickling, do it right away, before it’s too late! You don’t have to pickle cucumbers, either– this recipe can easily be adapted to make pickled peppers, beets, mushrooms, garlic, WHATEVER!
Hana’s Cherished (But No Longer Secret) Czech Pickle Recipe*
*Tiny apartment-sized kitchen approved!
What You Will Need:
– Mason jars (depending on how ambitious you are with the pickle making, you will need anywhere between 5 and 20 L worth of jars. My jars are of the 1.5 L variety, but 1 L jars work well, too. Don’t bother with anything smaller, unless you are feeling particularly masochistic. More jars = more work.) Jars can be purchased in any grocery store, or if you live in a city chock full of senior citizens like I do (bless Victoria!), you can score great jars for an even greater price from any rummage sale or thrift store. I’m talking fabulous jars for 10 cents a piece!
– Lids for mason jars, as well as *new* seals/caps for them. These are also called Snap Lids (if you are looking for them on a store shelf.) You can re-use the twisting portion of the lid over and over again, but for sanitary purposes, you should always buy the flat seal parts brand new each time you pickle.
– A large pot (oversized stock pot works best, but I manage with a regular big pot.)
– Measuring cups. (Me = Dr. Obvious. I use one of the smaller measuring cups as my ‘wee ladle’, so I don’t have to go investing in new kitchen gadgetry.)
– Small pot
– Pair of tongs, or a simple fork and quick reflexes!
– A stove top and an oven
– A sink. Two sinks work best, but I am living, breathing proof that pickling is possible with just one sink.
– A flat-bottomed baking tray (9″ x 13″ or whatever), used for sealing the pickle jars in the oven
– Enough counter space to arrange all of your jars.
– Oven mitts. These are important!!!
– Pickling cucumbers. Cucumbers should be small to medium sized, very firm, green, and free from soft spots or blemishes.
– 3-5 garden carrots, washed and cut into thin coins, approx. 1/4 cm thick (6 coins per 1.5 L jar)
– Around 20 pickling onions (the small kind), peeled and cut into rings, approx 1/2 cm thick (5 rings per 1.5 L jar)
– Sprigs of fresh dillweed, and sprigs of dillweed flowers (1 moderate-sized sprig of each per 1.5 L jar)
– Horseradish root, peeled and cut into coins approx 1.5 cm diameter and 1/4 cm thick. (4 per 1.5 L jar)
For the brine:
Each recipe makes enough brine to fill 6 L worth of pickle jars. To make the 20 lbs of pickles I did, I use about 3.5 times this recipe. Burdensome, yes, but rewarding? Also yes!
– 1 L Heinz Pickling Vinegar. No other vinegar will do.
– 3 L boiling water
– 30 black peppercorns
– 30 balls of whole all spice
– 12 dried bay leaves, coarsely crushed
– 140 g of coarse pickling salt. (I have Sifto salt– it says right on the box “Great for Pickling!”. No other salt will do.) (PS: My recipe actually calls for 14 “dg” of salt. Czechs have this weird thing about dL and dg. WTF? Let’s just stick with regular grams, OK? 140 g. I have no idea what this equals in cups… sorry.)
– 600 g white sugar. Yup, they don’t call these SWEET and Sour Pickles for nothing. Yum, yum!
– 1.5 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
– Before the pickling can begin, it is necessary to make the jars perfectly clean. You can achieve a perfectly clean set of jars by running them through a hot dishwasher cycle and letting them air dry, or you can do it the lo-fi way like me:
No, we were NOT indulging in Starbucks frappuccinos the night before. I swear it.
1. Put a tiny droplet of natural dish detergent at the bottom of each jar, and fill with hella hot water. Let sit for a while, and then thoroughly wash inside of jar. I tend to shake the jars and make the detergent bubbles thick like foam, then I rinse with the hottest water I can possibly stand without causing my skin to blister. Rinse extremely well to rid jars of any trace of soap and/or dust, and then turn upside down (with a little breathing room underneath) to air dry. This needs to be done the night before or a few hours before pickling, to allow most of the water and condensation to evaporate.
Air drying on the tiniest countertop you can imagine. Make sure that the jars are not completely upside down so that the condensation has room to evaporate. I tend to prop the jars up on forks or lids so they have room to breathe.
2. Once jars are mostly dry (or completely dry– it’s up to you), prepare the carrots, onions, horseradish root, and dill sprigs. Turn each jar right side up and add the following garnishes to the bottom of each jar:
– 4 carrot coins
– 3 onion rings
– 4 coins/pieces of horseradish root
– 1 sprig dill weed
– 1 sprig dill flowers (the yellow ones)
This is the fun part. I love counting!
Forgive crappy indoor lighting (at midnight, to boot!) Close-up shown to give approximate size of dill sprigs in relation to carrot coins, which are easier to gauge.
3. Wash the cucumbers! Fill your (possibly one and only) sink with cool to lukewarm water. Dump in your cucumbers. Soak for a few minutes in the water, and then use a vegetable brush to clean each and every cucumber. Rinse with clean, cool water. (This is where a double sink would come in handy. You could use one sink to soak, and one sink to rinse. Alas, if you have only one sink like I do, you will be rinsing a scrubbed cucumber over top of the soaking cucumbers. This will necessitate many drainings of the water. But once again, it can be done.) Immediately place the clean cucumber in one of the jars (and remember: don’t wear your rings!)
A hella lot of cucumbers. Make sure to clean off any dirt, stems, blemishes, etc.
4. Cucumbers that are too big to make into a proper pickle can be washed and set aside to be cut into slices. These pickles are great for picnics! Mmmm… picnics! The same applies to otherwise decent cucumbers with soft spots or hard ridges. Set aside and slice the good parts into coins. Compost the nasty bits!
I made 2 jars of sliced pickles and 12 jars of regular pickles. However, the sliced:non-sliced ratio of pickles depends on the size and quality of cucumbers you buy, as well as on your own personal preferences.
5. Add washed cucumbers to jars until the jars are approximately half full. Then, add:
– two more carrot coins
– 2 more onion rings
to each jar. Continue stacking cucumbers in jars until you reach the bottom lip of the jar top (or about an inch from the top of the jar).
6. Give each jar a bit of a shake to ensure that you have crammed as many pickles as you can into each jar. You do not want any pickles to come up above the bottom lip of the jar, but you do want every nook and cranny stuffed with pickles otherwise. It’s like a challenge: put as many pickles as you possibly can into each jar. (If you put too few pickles in the jar, you will know right away when your jars are sealed and a few measly pickles are floating atop a mason jar full of brine. But by then, it will be too late to do anything about it. So stuff them in there while you are ahead!)
7. Meanwhile, take your baking pan and fill with approximately one inch of hot or boiling water. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and place baking pan with water inside. Position your oven racks to the lowest possible positions, to ensure that jars will have enough room to stand inside.
8. Prepare your brine! Add boiling water, vinegar, peppercorns, all spice, coarse salt, and crushed bay leaves to a pot and bring to a gentle boil for a few minutes. Add sugar and mustard seed and reduce to medium heat.
9. Sterilize the seals/snap lids of your jars by bringing them to a gentle boil in a small pot of water. Keep these boiling until you have used every lid to seal every jar. In other words, your last snap lid will keep on boiling until you get to your last jar of pickles and need a sanitized seal.
10. Start pickling! When brine has been stewing for a few minutes, use a small ladle (or measuring cup, the poor woman’s ladle) to dish brine into 2 or 3 pickle jars at a time. (The number of jars you fill at once will depend on how big your baking pan is in the oven. I only have a 9″ x 9″ baking tray, so only 2 jars fit inside at once. If you are using a bigger tray in your oven, you can likely fill 3 (or even 4!) jars at one time.)
11. Fill jars until brine reaches the bottom lip of the jar. You want to leave around an inch (i.e. the entire lip portion of the jar) empty to allow enough room to create a vacuum seal. If jars are too full, your pickles will not seal and everything up to this point will be a WASTE! For shame.
12. Use your tongs (or, in my case, a fork and some quick reflexes) to retrieve one seal/snap lid from the boiling water for every jar. Place seal over mouth of jar, hold in place (with an oven mitt, probably– those lids will be HOT!), and twist the other half of the lid (the twisting part) down until jar is closed.
13. Place filled, closed jars into the baking pan in the oven. Contrary to everything that warns you NOT TO PUT THE JARS IN THE OVEN, bake them at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Heh.
14. After 10 minutes have elapsed, retrieve jars (carefully!) from the oven. Place on dishcloths on the countertop to begin cooling. They will be extremely hot! If you have managed your time well and ladled brine into more jars during your 10 minute wait, you can put these new jars in the oven to seal for 10 minutes. Repeat until all of the jars have been placed in the oven to seal.
After the pickles have been in the oven, they change colour immediately. The ones on the left have already been sealed in the oven. Sorry for the blur. By this point, it was around 1 am in the morning. So even if our kitchen did have a natural light source (which it doesn’t), it would have been mighty dark anyway. So there.
15. Once jars have been taken out of the oven, use your oven mitts and gently (gently!) twist jars in their resting places to encourage all air bubbles to come to the top of the jar. You do not need to lift or tilt the jar at this point– just a gentle twist in place will do.
Canada’s Next Top Model, demonstrating the fine art of vacuum sealing. Just a gentle twist will do!
16. Some time around this point (i.e. after your jars have come out of the oven), you will hear the most satisfying POP!! sound. This sound indicates that the vacuum seal has been set! You need to hear this sound from each and every one of your jars before your work in the kitchen is done. Unsealed jars mean rotting food, which in turns means a GREAT BLOODY WASTE OF YOUR PRECIOUS TIME! Sometimes the sound of the vacuum seal is a little more subtle, so you can test the jars manually by trying to push on the ‘button’ in the centre of the snap lid. If there is actually a button to be pushed (rather than a flattened vacuum sealed lid), you will need to place the jar back in the oven and hope for the best. Please make sure that all of your jars are sealed!
17. Place more jars in the oven, for 10 minutes at a time, until all of your jars have been oven-sealed to perfection. You might need to make more brine to fill the amount of jars you have. I had to make 3 more recipes of brine during my pickle making extravaganza, so I should know.
18. Once all of the jars have been baked and sealed with a kiss, leave them to cool on the dishcloths on your counter for about 24 hours. When jars have cooled completely, tighten the twist part of the lid (because it will most likely have loosened) and then store your pickles in a dark, cool-ish place to cure.
19. Depending on your patience (mine? not so much) and your desire to eat your pickles (my desire? I AM BURNING WITH LUST!), let your pickles cure in their jars from anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months before eating. I know the wait seems unbearably long, but believe me, it’s worth it!
20. Refrigerate after opening.
21. Feast on your pickles with the passion of Dionysus! Be a pickle glutton!!
Possible Alterations of the Cherished Czech Pickle Recipe:
– You can use pretty much any other vegetable to pickle if cucumbers aren’t your thing. Just take out the dill and dill flowers.
– If you are craving more garlic in your pickles, USE A DIFFERENT RECIPE! I love garlic, but the garlic just tastes wrong in this sweet and sour brine.