Lib’s Fourteen Day Pickles

Lib was my grandmother, and this recipe was handed down to me by her.  You can’t buy pickles like these in a store.

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Ingredient List:

  • 2 gallons of sliced cucumbers, in a large crock
  • 2 cups of pickling salt
  • 12 cups of apple cider vinegar (any vinegar used must have 5% acidity)
  • 9 cups of white sugar  (total)
  • 1 teaspoon of powdered alum  (newer recipes no longer call for alum)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 teaspoons of whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons of whole allspice
  • Any other pickling spices you wish (e.g. mustard seeds and celery seeds are popular)
  • Ball jars and lids sufficient to hold 32 cups of pickles after they are made  (For example, this could be eight quarts, sixteen pints, 32 half pints, or a whole bunch of the teen-insey size jars.)

 

THE STORY

When I’m in my kitchen preparing this recipe, I remember good times spent with Lib, whom I adored. Growing cucumbers in the garden, picking them, washing them, chopping them, concocting the spice mixtures.  When my hands are making these pickles, I feel that I’m participating in a heritage that has been handed down for a long time, from woman to woman, for generations.

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Lib, in about 2004, with one of her great grandchildren.

As an example of how important this “lived experience” is, my grandmother’s handwritten recipe card, for example, just says, “Two Tablespoons Spices.”    When I read this, I thought to myself, “nooooooooo!”  It is the particular combination of spices that make these so great!  Did she take that secret with her to her grave?!  If I could not find the particular spice combination, the recipe would not be the same!

But when I searched in my own recipe collection for my own handwritten notes, I found where I had written down specific spices and specific quantities.  Sigh of relief.

It is true, however, that each daughter adds her own special touch.  (All of us, from generation to generation, seek to improve and to add our own special flavor to life, right?)   You can see from the photograph above, that the spices include a few things other than cinnamon and cloves!  I alter the spices according to my whim, but not so much that the basic flavor is altered very much.  You wouldn’t want to mess to much with this recipe too much, because it’s already pretty close to perfection.

THE CROCK

To make Lib’s Fourteen Day pickles, you will need a non-metallic crock, with a lid.  I confess, my grandmother did use a one gallon glass jar to start these pickles, but it’s NOT A GOOD IDEA.  Do you know why?  Each day for several days you pour a boiling liquid over the sliced cucumbers.  When glass is exposed to extreme variations in temperatures, it will explode.  I have scars to prove it.  Don’t take that chance.  Use a crock!  The thick, clay walls of a crock will also insulate the liquid so that the temperature changes are more gradual.

This recipe calls for starting with two gallons of sliced cucumbers.  I actually have a two gallon crock, compliments of my grandmother, but in today’s world we tend to have smaller families, make smaller batches, and have smaller kitchens.  This year, I found and purchased a half-gallon size cooking dish that I consider ideal.  It is a half gallon crock with a handle and pour spout that I purchased from an Asian market.  Chinese people use it for cooking Chinese medicine.  For me, it seems perfect for making a small batch of pickles.  It’s small enough that you won’t mind having it sit on your kitchen counter for fourteen days; and also the pour spout is ideal for pouring off the liquid and re-boiling it each day.  Even the handle is great, for when the crock gets hot and you want to move it.

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THE CUCUMBERS

When making pickles, choice of cucumber is important.  For these pickles (which are made from cucumbers sliced cross-wise), you want crispy, firm, fresh cucumbers ideally with thin skin and no seeds.

Don’t be fooled by terms like “Boston Pickling Cucumber.”  Boston pickling cucumbers are great for making fat, kosher dill pickles.  They are too fat and seedy for these crispy, sweet morsels.  Far preferable is the long, skinny cuke like the one shown growing on the vine in the left photograph below.

The cucumber shown on the vine is a good example of what  you’re looking for.  It’s getting a bit large, but it is not so large that it is bitter, pithy, or seedy.  In fact, I would say it’s almost too large.  The photo on the bottom left shows some of the cucumbers that were cut to make the pickles in the photo at the top of the page.

In the photo on the right of the collage, from left to right there are two slices each of three different types of cucumbers.  The one on the far left is a Japanese variety called Soarer.  The one in the middle is a Boston Pickling Cucumber, and the one on the right is a Park Seed Variety.  (All of these were picked on the same day, and I did a taste test on them.)   The slice on the bottom left is ideal.  See how the slice on the bottom left is white, firm, and has no seeds?  That will be perfect for a sweet, seedless, and crunchy pickle.  Another good one is on the top right.  The others will be fine for eating, but they’re not going to win the prize at the State Fair.

On the University  of Pennsylvania extension web site, I read that one should not use burpless cucumbers because of enzymes they produce.  They also caution not to use waxed cucumbers because the wax prevents the brine from soaking in.  That makes perfect sense!  Slice the cucumbers cross-wise in the approximate sizes you imagine you would enjoy eating.  (I prefer mine thick sliced.)

THE SPICES 

In addition to getting your crock and your cucumbers, you will need some other ingredients.  For a crock that holds TWO GALLONS of sliced cucumbers, you will need:

  • 2 cups of pickling salt
  • 12 cups of apple cider vinegar (any vinegar used must have 5% acidity)
  • 9 cups of white sugar  (total)
  • 1 teaspoon of powdered alum  (newer recipes no longer call for alum)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 teaspoons of whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons of whole allspice
  • Any other pickling spices you wish (e.g. mustard seeds and celery seeds are popular)
  • Ball jars and lids sufficient to hold 32 cups of pickles after they are made  (For example, this could be eight quarts, sixteen pints, 32 half pints, or a whole bunch of the teen-insey size jars.)

Obviously, if I am making just one half gallon of cucumber pickles at a time, I use one fourth the above quantities, except for the cinnamon.  I just use a stick of cinnamon, period.  It is the magic ingredient!

THE METHOD

Days One Through Seven:  For the first seven days, all you do is soak the sliced cucumbers in brine.  Hence, for seven days the only ingredient that is essential is pickling salt.  (Sometimes, this gives me the incentive to get started, knowing that I don’t have to have every item already in my kitchen before I can get started.  Then, I have seven days to pick up the rest of the ingredients!)   Pickling salt has no iodine in it.  I don’t know why, but they say it’s important not to used iodized salt.  While they’re soaking, stir them once per day with a wooden spoon.  Don’t worry if they get some film or cloudiness in the water on top.  Just make sure they’re all covered in the salt water and stir them.  Once in awhile, if the water starts to look really “off,” I pour it off and substitute freshly boiled salt water again.  (I suspect (no one has ever told me) that the reason for this step is to kill germs and stop the enzymes that cause deterioration, etc.)

Day Eight:  On the eighth day, you pour off the salt water, and discard it.  Then, bring cold tap water to a boil, and pour the boiling water over the cucumbers.  (For two gallons of cucumbers in a crock, you boil a gallon of water, but for smaller quantities of cucumbers adjust volumes accordingly.)  Let that plain water sit on them for 24 hours.  Fundamentally, the salt that has gone into the cucumbers comes back out again.  After the cucumbers have soaked 24 hours in the plain water, you pour it off again.  (The old water you pour off tastes salty, and the cucumbers still taste a little salty, too.)

Day Nine: On the ninth day, you will need alum.  Boil water again (same quantity, whatever it takes to fully cover the cucumber slices), but after you boil it add in alum in the ratio of one teaspoon of alum per gallon of water.  Since my little crock only holds 1/2 gallon of pickles, I boil 1/2 gallon of water and add 1/2 teaspoon of alum.  Then, you pour this over the cucumbers and let them sit another 24 hours.

Day Ten: On day 10, you drain off the alum water, boil more water and pour over the boiling water again.  Let it sit another 24 hours.

Day Eleven:  Day 11 is when the fun begins.  On Day 11, you will need vinegar, whole sticks of cinnamon, whole cloves, and whole allspice.   The original recipe was based on two gallons of cucumbers in a crock.  The amount of vinegar for this quantity is twelve cups.  Boil that, then add six cups of sugar to the mixture.  Then, add 2 teaspoons of whole allspice, 2 teaspoons of whole cloves, and 2 sticks of cinnamon.  Bring it back to a boil, and pour it over the drained cucumbers.

Day Twelve:  On day 12, drain the brine into your pot and bring it back to a boil.  Add another cup of sugar, and then pour the boiled mixture back over the pickles.

Day Thirteen:  Repeat this on day 13.  Drain the brine into your pot, add another cup of sugar, bring it back to a boil, and then pour the boiled mixture back over the cucumbers.

Day Fourteen:  Repeat on day 14.  Drain the brine into your cooking pot again, add another cup of sugar and bring  it back to a boil.  This is the final syrup, the syrup that will be poured over the pickles after they are packed into jars and ready to can.

THE CANNING

To preserve the pickles, they will be sterilized and sealed in canning jars, using what is called a “water bath.”  The marinated cucumbers are placed into jars (specially made jars that resist breaking when hot), and the jars are placed into hot water that is being brought to a boil.  The jars must be completely submerged and boiled for ten minutes.

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Wanna know what happens when the jars inside the water bath are boiled?  The air inside them expands as it heats up.  The extra air is forced out.  Germs are killed.  Then, the rubber on the inside of the fresh canning jar lids gets soft and creates a seal.  As the jar cools, a vacuum is formed.  Wa-la, all the excess air has been forced out, the rubber liner on the special jar lid has softened enough to create a vacuum seal as the jar cools, and the now sterile, vacuum sealed pickles will last all winter.  If you can resist eating them for that long.  (They also make great gifts!)

Now for details.  To can the pickles, you will need some sterile canning jars and new canning lids.  (I use Ball Jar brand.)  Although you can re-use the rims (the part of the lid that screws down), never re-use what they call the “flats” (the part that forms the seal).

When you’re ready to can the pickles, go ahead and start the water for the hot water bath to boil.  The water needs to be deep enough to cover the jars completely, plus about an inch.  (It’s important for the lids to be submerged at all times.)  If you don’t have a pot deep enough to do this, you’ll need a different pot, or smaller jars!

While the water is coming to a boil in your cooking pot, pack the marinated cucumber slices into the jars.  Don’t crush the cucumbers, but it’s okay to jiggle and push them down tightly to make as many fit into the jar as you can!  Then, after the jar is full of cucumbers, fill it to within half inch of the top with the sweet vinegar brine.  Leave 1/2 inch of space at the top of the jar for air.  This is called “head room.”  You don’t want the syrup to be on the rims of the jars. For this reason, I recommend using a funnel when you fill the jars with the liquid.

After the jar is packed properly, place a new, unused canning lid onto the jar and tighten down the lid by screwing on the cap. Don’t screw it too tightly, though!  It just needs to be snug, not wratcheted down.  Now, you have jars that are filled with marinated cucumbers, packed with the sweet brine, proper head room, lids tightly closed and screwed on, and all ready to be placed in the hot water bath.

When the water is hot, begin putting the jars down into it.  You will need to use a special tool to do this, because of the danger of burning yourself on the hot water.  The Ball Jar company makes a kit that has a special tool for lifting jars, as well as a funnel and a few other useful items.  Consider purchasing this kit, if you don’t already have the tools you need!  After the jars have been placed into the very hot water, continue to bring the water to a boil.

Once the water is boiling, start your kitchen timer for ten minutes.  Keep the water at a rolling boil for a full ten minutes.  (It doesn’t need to be an intense boil, but there should be big bubbles forming at a steady pace.)  After ten minutes is up, turn off the heat.  It doesn’t matter where the jars cool down.  At this point, the pickles are done.  If it’s late at night (as it usually is in my case), it’s okay to leave the jars in the water until you have time to tend to them.  If you have more than one batch, or if  you want to remove the jars while they’re still hot, use the special tool made by the Ball Jar company to lift the jars out of the hot water.   (Tongs work too, but I like the special tool because it’s shaped just right for lifting the jars.   The jars are extremely hot and can be challenging to handle otherwise.)

I specified ten minutes for the water bath on the assumption that you will be preserving the pickles in pint jars.  If you are preserving them in quarts, I would recommend a longer processing time, fifteen minutes, because it takes longer to heat up the larger jars.  (The goal is to sterilize and seal, not to cook, by the way.)

If you pull the jars out of the water while they’re still hot, you will hear the pop! pop! pop!, pinging sound of the lids as they vacuum seal one at a time.  It’s a fun sound!

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These are tiny jars!

THE LABELS

Whenever you’re ready and the jars have cooled, it’s time to label them.   You can be as creative as you like in how you do this!  It is one of your special touches that add to the home-made flavor of these wonderful pickles!  The Ball company makes special labels that can be used for canned goods.  These are cute, but I usually purchase labels from an office supply store and make my own.  You can print them, use markers to make them, whatever you like!  Always put the name of the product and the date.  That way, you’ll know what they are and how old they are.  If there’s any chance that they will be used by someone who has food allergies, specify the ingredients on your labels, too.

No matter what else you put on the label, I’d appreciate it if you’d label these as “Lib’s Fourteen Day Pickles.”  After all, it’s her recipe and her legacy to me, and now to you.

 

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