Okra may be considered one of those uniquely Southern foods. Pickled okra, on the other hand, is no doubt a uniquely Southern food, perhaps even a delicacy. While I suppose I had seen other pickled foods besides cucumbers, pickled beets for example, it had never occurred to me that pickling was a generic preservation method that could be applied to all sorts of foods—fruits, vegetables, even eggs. Pickling, a type of fermentation, dates back to Ancient Mesopotamia, but as history progressed pickles played a key role in the development of many key food preservation techniques.
According to the New York Food Museum, the technique of canning called the “boiling water bath” can partly be attributed to Napoleon, who offered a monetary reward for whoever could develop a way to preserve food safely to ensure his armies had pickles available. In 1809, Nicholas Appert, figured out that if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn’t spoil. It was more than 20 years later when Louis Pasteur explained the microbiology behind that phenomenon. By making the bottle airtight, no microorganisms could enter, and by boiling it, any microorganisms that existed were killed. Another staple of canning is the Mason jar, invented in 1858 by John Mason. Made out of heavier weight glass than normal jars, it was developed to withstand the high temperatures necessary for processing pickles.
North Carolina is home to Mount Olive Pickle Company, a nationally recognized, best-selling brand. Each year, Mt. Olive uses over 160 million pounds of cucumbers and peppers in their processing. Of that, about 53 million pounds are received each summer from independent growers in North Carolina. In fact, North Carolina is third in the nation in the agricultural production of pickling cucumbers.
If you want to try your hand at homemade pickles, you can follow these tips so you don’t find yourself in, well, a pickle.
- Select tender vegetables and firm fruits that show no signs of mold or decay. For highest quality, plan to pickle the fruits or vegetables within 24 hours after they have been picked.
- When pickling cucumbers, choose a “pickling” variety. Do not expect good quality pickles if you use “slicing” cucumbers. If you buy cucumbers, select unwaxed ones for pickling whole because the brine or pickling solutions cannot penetrate the wax.
- Wash well, especially around the stems. Soil trapped here can be a source of bacteria responsible for the softening of pickles. Be sure to remove a 1/16-inch slice from the blossom end of the vegetables since it contains enzymes that also can cause softening.
- Use pure granulated salt, such as “pickling” or “canning” salt. Other salts may contain anti-caking agents that may make the brine cloudy. Iodized salts may darken pickles.
- Use cider or white vinegar of four to six percent acidity (40 to 60 grain). Do not dilute the vinegar unless the recipe specifies; this dilutes the preservative effect. If you prefer a less sour product, add sugar rather than decrease the vinegar.
- Never alter the proportions of vinegar, food or water in a recipe and use only tested recipes.
Many research-tested pickling recipes can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
- Label sealed jars with contents and date. Store the canned pickles in a cool, dry place. Stored properly, canned pickles should retain their high quality for about one year.
- Always be on the alert for signs of spoilage. Before opening a jar, evidence of spoilage includes a bulging lid or leakage. When a jar is opened, other signs to look for include disagreeable odor, change in color or unusual softness, mushiness or slipperiness of product. If there is even the slightest suspicion of spoilage, do not taste the contents. Dispose of the food so it cannot be eaten by humans or animals.