Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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spiced elderly cucumbers + pickling lime notes

Have you had a killing frost in your area yet? We still have a couple of weeks, I think.

These sweetish, spicy pickles are a good way to use up the overripe cucumbers that always appear, despite careful and seemingly-thorough picking. A careful treatment with pickling lime, some interesting spices, and you have a very respectable spiced pickle rescued from the compost pile.

I like to treat overripe cucumbers in the style of watermelon rind pickles—some sugar, mixed sweet and savory spices, definitely with warm, sweet heat. These particular ones, with ginger, mustard, and black pepper, will be a fine relish against the creamy, rich, earthy flavors of winter. 

On pickling lime

Pickling lime is an interesting thing. You can usually find it packaged in the canning aisle (I buy the Mrs. Wage’s brand), or you might find it in the mercado as “cal”. It’s just calcium hydroxide, a low-toxicity alkali with a lot of industrial and food-production uses. For example, posole is corn treated with cal to free up nutrients and change the texture. Lime is part of what gives lutefisk its crazy jelly consistency. Stuff like that.

It’s used in preservation to give crispness, especially to sweet pickles and cooked pickles that might go very soft without it. I’m no chemistry expert, but as I understand it, it invades the cells of the fruit or vegetable and replaces some of the pectin with calcium. I tend to find that produce treated with lime has a distinctive “crisp” texture—the quotation marks are there because it’s not really a crisp-like-a-fresh-vegetable texture, more like a dry, almost crunchy kind of mouthfeel. 

It’s not super-user friendly to prepare produce with lime. Because lime is an alkali, there’s a risk of raising the pH of your pickle solution to unsafe levels for long-term storage if you don’t soak and rinse the treated food carefully. And now we have calcium chloride (sold as PickleCrisp), which is easier to use, since it doesn’t affect the pH either way. So lime is usually called for only in older recipes.

I still like the specific texture pickling lime gives, though, for certain things, and use pickling lime occasionally when I’m working with food I know won’t survive the canner’s heat very well: it’s useful for things like green tomato pickles, soft cucumbers, thin-skinned peppers, fruit pickles, stuff like that. If you’ve never worked with it before, try making a batch of something with it, processing it as if for storage, and sticking the jar in the fridge. Wait a while and crack the jar open. You won’t have to worry about the safety of the jar, and you can see if you like the texture.

Spiced Cucumber Pickles

Choose the big, yellowing cucumbers for these pickles—they should have lost most of their warts and have big, developed seeds with sharp points. Peel and halve them, cut off both ends, and scrape out the seeds. Cut into strips about 1/3” wide. 

Mix up enough lime solution to cover your cucumbers at 1/2 cup lime to 1 gallon of water. Put the bowl in the fridge and let the cucumbers soak overnight—give it a good stir before you go to bed. 

The next day, pour out the lime water and rinse the cucumbers in at least three changes of clean cold water, until the water runs completely clear. Fill up the bowl again with cold water, put the bowl back in the fridge, and let soak at least four hours, or overnight again.

The cucumbers will have taken on a distinctive icy-clear appearance. Bite into one now and again to see if there is a gritty, chalky core—they should be safe after four hours, but if you can taste the lime, they’ve still got too much lime for optimum flavor. Let them soak longer, until all you taste is cucumber.

Spices: Prepare some spices for each jar. I’m using a couple slices of fresh ginger, a half teaspoon of yellow mustard seed and half a dozen black peppercorns for each pint.

Brine: Prepare 1/2 cup of white vinegar (5% acidity) and 1/4 cup white sugar for each jar. Bring to a boil.

Sterilize your jars, lids and rings. Bring your canner to a boil.

Trim your cucumbers to fit your pint jars with 1/2” of headroom (cut one cucumber to get the length; cut all the others to match in one fell swoop). This makes life SO MUCH easier. 

Working quickly, pack hot jars with drained cucumbers and spices. Top up with boiling brine to within 1/2” of the rim. Wipe rims and sides; seat lids and rings; process in a BWB for 15 minutes, counting from when the water comes back to a boil. 

Ideas: Tweak the brine up to 1 part sugar and 1 part vinegar for very sweet pickles—try making mock spiced apples this way, with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Or use more mixed spices—mustard, clove, and cinnamon—for something more like classic watermelon rind. Use some or all apple cider vinegar for more fruit flavor. Or go savory—flavor these however you like, with garlic or bay or citrus. Once you’ve limed them, overripe cucumbers become a great canvas for whatever you want.

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