Saturday, July 16, 2011

In A Pickle

I do not like dill pickles, but give me a sweet pickle of most any kind. My favorite sweet pickles are the ones my mother always made every summer. I just finished making this year's batch and I'm basking in the glow of accomplishment. These aren't just any 'ole pickle, you know.

When I share Mom's sweet pickles with folks they often ask for the recipe, but shy away when they see that it takes 11 days to make them! Most other pickle recipes take anywhere from a few hours to 3 days max, so you can see why 11 days sounds a bit extreme. I don't know where Mom got her recipe, but it is an old one.  I can tell by the way some of the ingredients are measured: "salt brine strong enough to float an egg" and "2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut." When boiling the pickles on the 7th day, there is no amount of time given to boil them, just "until the slices become clear."

There is a bit of work to these sweet slices, but they are worth it. The first 6 days are easy. After you wash whole cucumbers, they soak in salt brine for 3 days. Rinsing them is a bit gross, as the water gets slimy, with some gunk on top. You can pour the whole business into the sink, getting rid of most of the yuk, and it doesn't take long to wash each one. Then they soak in clear water 3 more days. On the 7th day you need to set aside some time to slice the cucumbers, which now seem kind of rubbery. I haven't yet figured out how long you have to boil them, since some slices do get rather clear, while others don't change at all. I just boil them about an hour, and it works just fine. The syrup is easy to make, but the secret to these delicious treats is in draining the syrup off the slices and reheating it, every day for 4 days. Then, on the 11the day, it takes a while to pack the pickles in jars, cover them with hot syrup, and boil the jars in a hot water bath. Now you see why I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when those jars are finally lined up on my kitchen counter.

Early on I figured out one way to make this pickling project a little easier than it was for Mom. She always used crocks for the whole process. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they were the only thing she had that was big enough (sometimes she made a double batch). Then again, maybe she used crocks because they were what her mother used. I found out very quickly that I couldn't handle crocks. They are just too heavy, even when they're empty. And they can break. I use plastic buckets. They're not nostalgic like crocks, but they sure are a lot easier to handle. When you soak both the whole cucumbers and the slices, you must weight them down with a plate and something heavy on top to keep everything submerged in the liquid. Another improvement I made on Mom's method is using a quart jar filled with water to weight the pickles down. She use half of a brick, which was dedicated solely to this purpose. Even though it was clean, it seemed a bit out of place sitting in something we were going to be eating.

I have fond memories Mom's sweet pickles. I recall watching her slice what seemed like mountains of round discs. Once the reheating stage began, it was my job to dig around in the crock after she drained off the syrup to find the spice bag. The best part, though, was snitching slices from the crock. Even though they weren't "done" yet they were especially delicious because they were stolen. I got a scolding if I got caught. Now I know it was not because Mom didn't want me to have them, but because making them was a lot of trouble! I thought I was pretty good at getting my fill of the forbidden unnoticed, but as I look back, I think she probably knew I was making regular stops by the crock on the back porch table. I haven't reformed my ways much. I still make regular stops by the back porch table during pickle season.

Once the pickles were canned and stored in the fruit room of the basement, they were a gold mine for our kitchen. As a kid, I always put ketchup and Mom's sweet pickles on my hamburgers. I didn't discover the wonders of mustard, onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo until I was well into my teens. When I packed my lunch for school, sweet pickles turned a cold cheese sandwich into a yummy main course that I was not willing to trade. I got a lot of practice with a paring knife as I chopped up pickles for Mom's potato salad and I think the only reason I ever tried tuna salad was because it had Mom's sweet pickles in it.

Now you know all the ins and outs of my mom's sweet pickles. If you think you'd like to try your hand at making them, here's her recipe with some details added by me. I hope they make life a little sweeter for you!

8 pounds whole cucumbers
Wash cucumbers. Arrange tightly in a large crock or clean plastic bucket. Make a brine of water and salt, strong enough to float an egg. Pour over cucumbers and weight down with a plate and large jar of water. Soak three days. Rinse and wash cucumbers. Return to bucket or crock, cover with clear water, weight down, and soak for three more days. On the 7th day, drain and rinse cucumbers. Slice thinly (about 1/8 inch). Place in large kettle and cover with a weak solution of 1 part cider vinegar to 2 parts water. Add 2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut. (I use 2 heaping tablespoons of powdered alum.) Boil until slices become clear, about an hour. Drain. Put hot slices into a smaller crock or bucket. Make syrup of 3 pints vinegar, 7 pounds sugar, and spice bag of 1/3 ounce (1 heaping TBSP) whole cloves and 1 large stick cinnamon. Bring to a boil and pour over slices; weight down. Each day for 4 days, drain off syrup and reheat to boiling, making sure to include the spice bag. On the 11th day, drain syrup off slices. Pack cold slices into clean pint jars. Heat syrup to boiling and pour over slices. Remove bubbles with a table knife. Boil jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 10-11 pints.


  1. I'll be by for a cheese sandwich later. Make sure mine has lots of pickles!

  2. I doubt that I will ever make 11 day pickles, but I appreciate the recipe to keep. I loved seeing it Aunt Faye's handwriting.


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