What to do with all those cucumbers? Make pickles, and more
So. Many. Cucumbers.
My garden — more correctly, my husband’s garden — was overflowing with cucumbers. Lots of tomatoes and peppers, too, along with lesser amounts of carrots, eggplant, Egyptian spinach, zucchini and the list goes on.
We tried everything to use up the cucumbers: Cucumber and avocado salad, cucumbers with couscous, cucumbers in adult beverages, and we made gallons and gallons of cucumber water. We gave some away to friends. Even then, so … many … cucumbers. We knew what we should do with them but were just too afraid to try: Make pickles.
There are easy ways to make pickles. Our friend Daniel Neman has a video on how to make Quickles (quick pickles). But those last in the refrigerator just a few weeks. We had a bigger cucumber problem on our hands. We needed to venture into the world of canning. None of my family or close friends can. Left to my own devices, I started with the internet. As is often the case there, I found conflicting reports on how to can. But after reading enough stories from reputable sources, I finally felt confident that I knew how to do it.
Kaitie Adams, a full-time farmer and educator at Earthdance Organic Farm School, says pickling is nothing to be afraid of. “It is a lot easier than people think it is. And it allows you to eat really good food you made, to connect to your food system. … It’s the best way to enjoy seasonable produce year-round. Canning basically is to stop food from decomposing, so you create this environment devoid of oxygen and harmful bacteria, locking in the nutrition.”
She says most people start with cucumbers and tomatoes because they can be found in abundance this time of year. But those can be like a super-healthful gateway drug. “Once you get the basics in, you can pickle just about anything; there’s a funny ‘Portlandia’ skit about it.”
Oh, I’ve seen it. And while I’m not there yet, I do have a dozen or so jars of pickles in my cupboard, several more in my refrigerator and even more pickles in my belly. Bread and butter, spears, whole, chips, spicy, mustardy. If you are afraid, as I was, here’s a simple how-to on canning pickles, with advice from Adams and me. I’ve also included a recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles. Those are done a little differently from the way explained in the following directions, but are a favorite in my house:
How to make pickles
1. Buy the right equipment.
A few things are absolutes: You must have jars and lids (you may reuse the jars and rings, but you’ll need to replace the actual lid each time so it seals properly). Almost as important are the canning tongs. Not just any tongs will do. I bought some in a kit with a bunch of other gadgets for $9.99 from Farm & Home Supply in Cottleville, Missouri. They are a canner’s dream. The kit also came with a spatula-like tool for getting the air out, a lid tightener (good if you aren’t very strong), and a jar lifter and a funnel that I have never used. I’d also recommend springing for the pickling and canning salt ($2.99 for 3 pounds) and pickling vinegar ($2.99 for 5 quarts). I’ve found apple cider vinegar and distilled white vinegar also work well. Lastly, you need a big pot to cook them in. I just use my stock pot, which fits four quart-size jars, but they make bigger pots that fit many more. A canning rack is also a great investment, as your jars need to be off the bottom of the pot. But you can make one yourself by tying canning rings together with cooking twine.
2. Sanitize the jars.
Start by placing your jars (no lids) in a stock pot. Fill the pot (and jars) with water, to about an inch over the jars. Boil for about 10 minutes. Use your tongs to remove the jars to a wood cutting board or to a work surface covered by towels. I’ve read differing reports on what to do with the lids. The easiest and most reasonable seems to be to rinse them under hot tap water for a bit.
3. Make the brine.
A general rule seems to be 2/3 vinegar to 1/3 water plus salt. I use 2 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoons salt, brought to a boil. Canning salt is best, and kosher salt is good, but never use iodized salt. If I’m making bread and butter or sweet pickles, I’ll add as much as 2 cups of sugar (see recipe).
4. Get creative with the jars.
Now comes the fun part. My 11-year-old son likes to help here. We line up a bunch of ingredients and let his imagination run wild. Add any (but probably not all!) of these ingredients to the empty jars: dill, thyme, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, mustard seeds, jalapeno, onion, black peppercorn, garlic, coriander seeds, fresh ginger (peeled and sliced) or red pepper flakes. Then fill the jars as much as you can with cucumber, either whole, sliced into chips or quartered into spears. Next, pour the brine to within about a half-inch of the rim. Use a spatula or one of those special tools to get the air bubbles out, running it along the sides of the jar. Adams also says a chopstick will do the job. Now, put the lids back on. Seal them tight, but there’s no need to He-Man that thing.
5. Cook them, store them.
Put the sealed jars back in the stock pot of water, turn it on so it comes to a low boil and cook, about 10 minutes for pint-size jars and 15 for quart-size jars. But if your recipe says different, follow that. Use those special tongs to remove the jars to a safe surface (I use a wood cutting board). Let them sit for 24 hours. Then test the seal to make sure they are secure. Press the middle of the lid with your finger, and if the lid springs up when you release your finger, the lid is unsealed. I also like to remove the ring and gently see if I can pry the lid off. If I cannot, it is sealed, and into the cupboard it goes, where jars can be stored for a year. No worries if the seal is broken, just put it in the fridge and use within three weeks.
Note that water bath canning is perfect for high-acid foods and jams and jellies, but a pressure canner should be used for lower-acid foods such as beans, beets, meats and other naturally low-acid foods.
Not a pickle fan? Here are some other cucumber ideas.
Recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
6 cucumbers, about 8 inches long
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon dill or basil
3 to 4 tablespoons minced green onion
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Peel the cucumbers. Cut in half lengthwise; scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut into lengthwise strips about 3/8 inch wide. Cut the strips into 2-inch pieces.
Toss the cucumbers in a bowl with the vinegar, salt and sugar. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, or up to several hours. Drain. Pat dry with a towel.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Toss the cucumbers in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the butter, herbs, onion and pepper. Set uncovered in middle level of preheated oven for about 1 hour, tossing 2 or 3 times, until cucumbers are tender but still have a suggestion of crispness and texture.
Per serving: 75 calories; 6 g fat; 3.5 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 5 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 100 g sodium; 30 mg calcium.
Makes 6 servings
Recipe adapted from OMGFood.
1 cucumber about 12 inches long, peeled
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt, see note
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 1/2 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Note: For best results, use full-fat (whole milk) Greek yogurt. Two percent fat is acceptable, but do not use nonfat yogurt.
1. Grate the cucumber into a mesh strainer. Sprinkle with salt and let sit in the sink or in a bowl to sweat out the moisture for 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much of the remaining moisture as you can with paper towels.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, dill, olive oil and vinegar. Add the strained cucumber and stir until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Store in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours to allow the flavors to combine.
Per serving: 34 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 4 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 2 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 130 mg sodium; 37 mg calcium.
Makes 8 servings
PEACH-AND-TOMATO GAZPACHO WITH CUCUMBER YOGURT
Recipe from Southern Living magazine
5 large peaches, peeled and divided
3 large tomatoes, cored and divided
1/2 cup coarsely chopped sweet onion
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Salt and white pepper, to taste
3/4 cup finely diced English cucumbers
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Cut 4 of the peaches and 2 of the tomatoes into quarters and put in a food processor or blender. Add the sweet onion and vinegar and process until smooth.
Chop remaining peach and tomato. Stir into pureed mixture. Season with salt (if it tastes bitter, the salt will add sweetness) and white pepper to taste. Chill 1 hour.
Meanwhile, combine cucumber, yogurt and the 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill 1 to 24 hours (chilling can dull the seasoning, so you may need to add more salt and pepper before serving).
Ladle gazpacho into bowls. Spoon cucumber mixture over gazpacho. Drizzle each serving with about 1 teaspoon olive oil and serve immediately.
Per serving: 112 calories; 6 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 3 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 7 mg sodium; 25 mg calcium.
Makes about 8 (1-cup) servings
MINTY CUCUMBER MELON DRINK
Adapted from veganyackattack.com.
1 (7-inch) cucumber, peeled
2 cups honeydew melon, seeds scooped and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh mint
3 ounces lemon vodka
Blend the cucumber and honeydew in a blender. Place the mint in the bottom of 2 highball glasses and add a little of the juice to each. Muddle the mint leaves. Add the rest of the juice and the vodka and fill to the top of the glasses with ice.
Makes 2 servings
Recipe from “Pojanee Vatanapan’s Thai Cookbook”
1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 sweet bell pepper, red or green, julienned
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
In a small saucepan, heat the vinegar and sugar until the sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes. Let cool completely. Place the remaining ingredients in a bowl and add the vinegar mixture. The salad is best if marinated for at least 2 hours. It will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week.
Per serving (based on 4): 110 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 18 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 28 mg sodium; 39 mg calcium
Makes 4 to 6 servings.