Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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bread and butter pickles

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Sweet pickles don’t deserve the opprobrium heaped on them. Yes, a too-sweet pickle is not a good thing (is it a relish, or dessert?). Yes, most sweet pickles are too sweet, too soggy, too syrupy, too meh. No, they are not as respectably pedigreed as fermented dills. But lush-crisp, mildly sweet, tart little chips spiked with subtle heat and layered spices? On, say, a medium-rare burger, or in a grilled ham and cheddar sandwich on sourdough? Yes, please.

Here is my favorite bread and butter pickle script, cobbled together and tweaked from about a million other recipes.

Favorite Bread and Butters

These are only barely-sweet; they use half the amount of sugar I see in many other recipes. I like them that way—the sweetness is a sharpening agent for the other flavors rather than a major flavor in itself. I also find that in this thinner, less-sugar brine, the pickles do not require a hot pack—so they stay crunchier. You can certainly add up to double the amount of sugar for a very sweet pickle, but they may require a brief cooking to keep them from floating in their jars: Add the rinsed, drained vegetables to the brine and bring to a boil; boil for a full minute and then load into hot jars. Process as usual.

Also note: I usually process pure vinegar pickles only very briefly; I process these for 8 or 10 minutes per pint on a raw pack when the USDA would recommend would recommend 10 with a hot pack. I feel safe doing this—the solution is plenty acid to discourage bad things—but your mileage may vary; consult an authoritative source like the USDA or Ball if you have concerns. 

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For every pint jar of pickles, you’ll need about half a pound of pickling cucumbers in good condition (This depends, a little, on the size of the cukes, how thin you slice them, and how you pack them). Wash them carefully, rubbing off all their spines without bruising them and discarding any cucumbers that are going yellow or soft (both are signs of overripeness; save them for seed next year or for making relish). Discard a 1/4” slice off the blossom end; then slice them about 1/4” thick and place in a colander. Slice a large yellow onion per two pounds of cucumbers thinly and put in the colander, too. Toss with a big handful of canning salt and set over a bowl in the fridge to drain overnight.    

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The next day, prepare for every pint of pickles:

  • 1/2 cup of white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1/2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1/8 tsp celery seed
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • a couple cloves
  • a couple allspice berries
  • a pinch of turmeric
  • a sliver of cinnamon stick

Bring all to a boil in a small saucepan while your jars are sterilizing.

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Rinse your cucumber and onion thoroughly; shake off the excess water. Load into hot, clean jars, packing densely but not squeezing, to within 1/2” of the rim. Add a pinch of calcium chloride if you like to help them stay crisp long-term.

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Pour your boiling brine over the vegetables to the same level—I like to do this through a small strainer that catches all the spices, and then distribute the spices evenly between the jars. Otherwise you’ll end up with one jar with nearly all the spices and several with almost none.

Wipe the rims clean, screw on lids and rings, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Remove carefully and let cool; check for seals after 24 hours. Wait at least a week to open. Any jars that haven’t sealed aren’t worth processing again—the cucumbers will go way too mushy. Just put them in the fridge and eat ‘em up instead.

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