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A look at pickling in the old days
Cooked pickles in agate canner
An agate canner full of steaming hot pickle. - photo by Photo provided

In early days before refrigeration, fresh vegetables would only last a few days and needed to be cooked or eaten raw. Some vegetables or fruits are not very tasty just canned so a method called pickling was used to preserve them. Pickle is a preserved fruit, vegetable or fish that has acquired a sharp taste by preserving with brine or vinegar, spices and sometimes sugar.

The brine solution pickle we often think of is dill pickle or sour pickle. They are made by packing clean whole cucumbers into sterilized jars and covering in about a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water. Salt, garlic, dill and sometimes mustard seed are added and the lids and bands are sterilely secured on the jars.

The jars are placed underwater in a canner and processed by boiling on the stove (known as a water bath) according to the recipe for the desired time. They are removed and left still for a minimum of 24 hours before the bands are removed and then the pickles can be stored. If any jars do not seal, they must be consumed right away or nowadays refrigerated.

Beets, onions, okra, cauliflower and squash are among the items pickled but most people are most familiar with the cucumber pickle. An old time recipe called 14 day pickle called for packing whole washed cucumbers in a crock in a brine solution strong enough to float a raw egg.  That is probably about a cup of salt to two quarts of water. At the end of 14 days, the cucumbers are washed off in cold water, sliced and put in an alum solution to crisp them for a period of time. When that time is up, they are washed off in cold water and packed into the crock or jars and covered in vinegar.

Some time later, the vinegar is discarded and the pickle is packed back into the crock or jars layered with sugar and spices.

This pickle would keep indefinitely in gallon jars or a crock but could be put into smaller jars and processed if desired.

Modern recipes for cucumber pickle call for a crisping method. For a chunk pickle, I soak the cucumbers in lime and water for 24 hours then chilled with ice. For a bread and butter pickle, sliced cucumbers and onions are salted and iced for three hours to crisp and draw out water from the cucumbers.

The pickles, according to the recipes, are put in vinegar and sugar solutions and pickling spices are added. Bread and butter spices include turmeric and mustard seed (this will cause the pickle to be very yellow in color) while most sweet pickles have cloves, mixed spices and celery seed. The pickles are cooked by recipe instructions and then hot packed into sterilized jars and lids and bands applied and allowed to stand for no less than 24 hours before bands are removed.

Any unsealed jars must be reheated and sealed again or refrigerated and eaten promptly. Some recipes call for processing jars in a water bath. I usually have good luck without that step, being very careful with each jar as I seal it. A stored jar of pickles with a broken seal should be discarded as a toxin known as botulism can grow in the product.

In order not to discard vegetables, people learned to mix items for pickling calling them relishes or chutneys. Chow chow, a concoction of finely sliced cabbage, onion, peppers, corn, cucumbers, squash, etc., is common in this area and is eaten with cooked vegetables or on sandwiches and hot dogs. Pear relish, made of grated pears, onions and peppers, is delicious served with roasted pork or venison and is great on sandwiches and hot dogs.

My Aunt Rebecca made an easy pickle called “Candied Cukes” that is shown in the large jar on the right in an accompanying photo. The recipe for her pickle is:

Candied Cucumber Pickle

Fill gallon jar with sliced cucumbers and cover with solution of one cup of salt dissolved in two quarts of water. Let soak for five days. Discard the ones on the top which are moldy or mushy and rinse in cold water. Repack in the jar which has been cleaned. Cover in water with 2 1/2 ounces of alum dissolved in it and leave for 24 hours.

Rinse pickle and pack again in clean jar. Cover in vinegar for 24 hours. Drain well, remove pickle and discard the vinegar repacking pickle slices in the jar in layers with five pounds of sugar (not quite all is needed) and one tablespoon of mixed pickling spice divided over each layer. Stir off and on for the next few days to dissolve the sugar. This may be put into jars or stored indefinitely in the large jar at room temperature in a cool dark place.

When you enjoy homemade pickles, you will find a lot of work went from picking the cucumber to getting it onto the table.

There is nothing else like the pucker power of a crispy sour or sweet pickle.

This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: