Cucumbers

As a kid, I helped my mom processed dill pickles in vinegar brine and what my family called “sweet pickles,” which tasted nothing like the ones on a restaurant burger. It was years before I learned that what I considered sweet pickles were typically sold as “bread-and-butter” pickles. They fall somewhere between the tangy dills and the sugary sweets. And I could eat them by the jar.

When I started canning on my own, pickles were in my first jars. They’re easy to pack and process, the vinegar ensures food safety, and the options for spices in the standard brine are endless. My mom followed the version in the old Ball Blue Book, but Ball has since updated its recipe and other authors have inspired me to make a few tweaks to the flavorings—and to use the brine once the jar is empty.
Cucumber

Better Bread-and-Butter Pickles

  • Servings: 7 pints
  • Difficulty: 2
  • Print
4-1/2 pounds pickling cucumbers, 4–6 inches long
1-1/2 pounds onions
1/2 cup canning salt
2-1/4 cups cider vinegar (5% acidity)
2-1/4 cups water
1-1/4 cups honey
3 tablespoons mustard seed
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons dry mustard powder
2 teaspoons turmeric
1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons peppercorns
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 fresh red chilies, deseeded and halved

Remove any dirt from the cucumbers by gently brushing or washing it from the skin. Cut a thin slice off the blossom end of each cucumber, and then slice the cuke 1/4 inch thick. Thinly slice the onions. Combine the cucumbers and onions in a large bowl, layering with salt. Cover with ice cubes and let stand at room temperature 2 hours or refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

Shift the cucumbers and onions to a colander to drain; rinse them in cold water and let drain again. Place the remaining ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the honey. Add the vegetables to the pot, and reheat until the temperature is 180°F on a thermometer. Ladle into hot pint jars, adding 1/2 chili to each jar and leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Pasteurize in a water-bath canner for 30 minutes. Makes about 7 pints.

Tips & Tricks
  • There are a few instructions that help prevent cucumbers from softening: removing the blossom ends, salting and chilling the cucumbers, and pasteurizing at a lower temperature instead of bringing the water bath to a full boil. The combined effect isn’t quite as crisp as fermented cukes that never feel the heat, but what you do achieve is worth the extra effort.
  • We often eat these pickles straight from the jar and like the crunch of a thicker cut, but you can slice the cucumber as thin as you like. I highly recommend acquiring a mandoline if you’re going to be doing multiple batches—it gives you even slices and makes quick, tear-free work of the onions.
  • In our latest batch of these pickles, we found a full chili brought on quite a bite; perhaps we just grew some particularly hot chilies last year. I recommend starting with 1/2 fresh chili per jar or substituting a small piece of a dried one.
  • After cutting each fresh chili in half lengthwise, I turn to a grapefruit spoon, running the spoon’s edge from the tip to the stem of the chili to scrape off the seeds and ribs before cutting off the stem end. The cooks at America’s Test Kitchen do the same with a melon baller.
  • Heat-processed, vinegar-based pickles taste best if they sit at least a couple of weeks before you eat them. Once you do open and then empty the jar, hesitate before you pour out the brine. It finds a second life in salad dressings, sauces, and my personal favorite, flavoring potatoes (see below).

Twice as Tasty

We grow a ton of potatoes and particularly love them for breakfast with farm-fresh eggs. With my small kitchen, it doesn’t take long for a frying session to smoke out the whole house, so I limit the fry time and braise the potatoes in stock or water—and a bit of pickle brine. Topped with some home-smoked cheese, a few herbs, and perhaps some salsa, these potatoes are an irresistible start to the day.

Although you can skip the pickle brine and still create a tasty spud dish, I like the little bite that the brine adds. Potatoes absorb flavors easily, and you’ll likely be able to taste the difference among the brines from Definitely Dilly Beans, Asian-Style Pickled Beans, and Better Bread-and-Butter Pickles. You may decide you prefer one to the other, or you may want to adjust the amount you’re adding to the dish.

Braised Breakfast Potatoes

  • Servings: 3–4
  • Difficulty: 2
  • Print
1-1/2 to 2 pounds potatoes
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
1/4 cup brine from Better Bread-and-Butter Pickles
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh basil, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced

Wash and chop the potatoes, retaining the skins. Heat a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil in a large frying pan, and then add the potatoes and fry over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until lightly brown. Pour in the liquids, adding more if needed to almost cover the potatoes. Cook about 10 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed, and then add the paprika, salt, and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes longer, until the liquid is fully absorbed and the potatoes are cooked through. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with basil and oregano, and fold in the herbs. Serve immediately. Serves 3–4.

Tips & Tricks
  • Any potatoes will work in this dish, but those with a lower water content—say, russets rather than reds—create less smoke during the fry stage. I choose sunflower oil for frying because it’s relatively healthy and has a fairly high smoke point.
  • The amount of pickle brine you prefer can vary widely. The 1/4 cup is a good place to start with the sweeter brine of Better Bread-and-Butter Pickles. Using stock instead of water, particularly a thick one, can mellow the pickle bite as well. If you’re using brine from snap beans or kosher dills and love the sharpness of vinegar, you might boost the proportions all the way to equal parts brine and water.
  • This time of year I prefer fresh herbs, but in winter I crumble in dried ones or even Italian Seasoning Blend. Swap the tablespoon for a teaspoon to account for the flavor intensity added by dehydrating, and add the herbs with the other spices.
  • Many other ingredients can be added to this dish: grilled onions, fresh or toasted garlic, roasted red peppers, and even black beans, crab, or (gasp) bacon. Eggs can be scrambled into the potatoes when the spices are added, or they can be basted separately and served on top. Cheese and other dairy are best added as toppings.
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