One of the most common fall flavours in many Island households surrounds pickle, chow, and relish-making. I love the smell of fresh mustard pickles in the house – not so much the mess, the tedious job of peeling and cutting up the cucumbers, and the “distressing” task of peeling strong pickling onions – an activity sure to bring a tear to the eye! In many Island households, a meal of any kind is not complete unless there are mustard pickles on the table. So, for most of us true cooks, we endure the process knowing the end result is worth the effort.
There are as many recipes for mustard pickles as there are cooks on the Island. There are any number of sites on the Internet that will give detailed and scientific instructions on how to make pickles. As for me, I follow the tradition of my mother and grandmother.
Here are my hints and tips for ensuring a good batch of sweet mustard pickles. At the end of the post, you will find the recipe I have used for mustard pickles for many years.
Assemble the Necessary Ingredients
Just like anything, fresh is always best. Some say only cucumbers that have been picked no longer than 24 hours should be used. Cucumbers that have been picked for days start to get soft and “punky” and are not good for pickling because they have already started to deteriorate and lose their freshness. So, look for firm pickling cucumbers, sometimes referred to as “field cucumbers”. Ask for them at your local farm stand and inquire when they were picked.
Look for firm, fresh onions. Strong, fresh onions are needed for flavouring in the pickles. Sometimes, but not always, there are bags of “pickling onions” available on the market. These are smaller onions and are so named because they are a stronger tasting onion – you’ll quickly know their strength when you start to peel them!
I have no secret for avoiding the “tears” when peeling the onions. Some claim if you hold the onions underwater while peeling them, that works. Others say to peel them outside. No matter what method I have tried, it’s a teary job!
Cutting the Cucumbers and Onions
I always peel the cucumbers. Some cooks like to leave a few of the cucumbers with the peeling on them but I find this makes the pickles tough and I don’t particularly care for the appearance of them in the pickles. Once the cucumbers are peeled, slice them in half, lengthwise, then halve them again. Remove and discard all the seeds from each cut section.
I am not too fussy when I cut up the cukes and onions – I don’t worry about getting the pieces all perfectly uniform sizes. I tend to like the cukes and onions cut in about ½”-3/4” pieces – any smaller and the pickles are starting to resemble relish. This, of course, is a personal preference. There is no right or wrong size of pickles.
Cauliflower and Red Pepper
While certainly not necessary, cut-up cauliflower flowerets and sweet red pepper can be added to the pickles and I always do add them. The red pepper adds color and dresses the pickles up, both in the bottle and on the table. The cauliflower adds texture and variety to the pickles.
For both taste and preserving the pickles over the winter as well as for color of the pickles, it is very important that proper pickling salt be used in the water/salt brine that is used to soak the cut-up cucumbers and onions. This is a coarse salt specifically made for pickling and it will be marked on the label. Never use fine iodized table salt in pickles as this will produce a cloudy sauce that is a poor and unappetizing color (e.g., sort of a mossy-green-yellow color). It will also make the pickles taste too salty because the vegetables absorb too much of the salt. I can always tell when I see a bottle of discoloured pickles that someone has made them using regular table salt. The pickling salt is a slower dissolving salt. For this reason, make sure you stir it into the water for the soaking brine really well and that it is fully dissolved before pouring the brine over the cukes and onions. You don’t want any salt granules sitting on the cucumber mixture for hours.
Soaking the Vegetables
Unless you are using a recipe that specifically gives directions to the contrary, plan on soaking the cukes, cauliflower, and onions in the salt and water brine overnight or at least for 8-10 hours during the day if you are making the pickles in the evening. Cucumbers have a lot of water in them so, in order to have crisp pickles, the excess water needs to be removed from them. Soaking them in a slow-dissolving salt/water brine draws the natural water out of the cucumbers, opens their cells, and allows the mustard pickling sauce to penetrate them. This gives the pickles greater flavour, good color, and a longer shelf life.
Add the red pepper (if using) after the veggies have been rinsed and drained (the peppers do not need to soak in the salt water brine).
Draining the Vegetables
After the soaking period has ended, drain the vegetables thoroughly in a colander and rinse with cold water to remove any excess salt. Then, let them drain for about an hour or so to get as much water drained off of them as possible. If too much water is left on them, it will dilute the mustard sauce and make the pickles too runny.
Of course, the right mixture of pickling spice is necessary for flavourful pickles – the wrong combination of spices or too much or too little will leave you with pickles you won’t be satisfied with. Pickling spice, as a product, is not always available on the store shelf and sometimes I have had to create my own mixture using some or all of the following: mustard seed, whole allspice and cloves, coriander seed, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, cinnamon stick pieces, peppercorns, and whole or coarse pieces of dried ginger. Whole spices (as opposed to dried) are said to be better because they will not cause the pickles to darken in color. The look you are going for is that nice, bright mustard yellow color.
You don’t want whole spices and junks of cinnamon stick or bay leaves making their way into the pickle jars and on to the plate so it is necessary to contain them in a sachet. To make a pickling spice sachet, you will need a small piece of cheesecloth (available at fabric stores). This will have a very loose weave so I usually double or even fold it over 3-4 times and then place 1-1 1/2 tablespoons of the pickling spice mixture in the centre. Gather up the cheesecloth around the spice and tie it with a thread. This sachet then gets dropped into the boiling vinegar and sugar mixture and left in during the entire pickle-cooking process. It then gets removed just before bottling the pickles. This sachet allows the vinegar and pickles to be infused and flavoured with the spices without having the spices directly in the pickle mixture when they are bottled.
Be sure to use vinegar that is specially labelled for pickling – it will usually have 7% acidity, making it stronger than table vinegar and will help to preserve the pickles longer.
Boiling Vinegar and Sugar
It is important to boil the majority of the vinegar the recipe calls for along with the sugar. This helps the sugar to dissolve before the vegetables are added. The heat from the boiling mixture will also help the flavours from the spices in the sachet to infuse the vinegar.
Making the Mustard Sauce
Mix part of the sugar the recipe calls for with the flour, dry mustard powder and any other spices. Then add the remaining vinegar from the recipe ingredient list to make the paste for the pickle sauce. To this paste, add about ¾ cup of the boiling vinegar that will have already been heated. This “tempers” the paste it so it doesn’t go lumpy when added to the boiling vinegar already in the pot.
Cook the sauce slowly to thicken it and stir often to prevent scorching. Be patient – this process can take several minutes. The mixture should coat a spoon and drip very slowly off the spoon when the sauce is thick enough to add the vegetables.
It is important that the sauce gets thickened to the right consistency before adding the drained vegetables as they will still have a lot of moisture in them and the sauce will not thicken any further after they have been added.
Heating the Vegetables
Heat the vegetables in the sauce slowly, stirring periodically – you want the veggies to stay crisp and crunchy, not be cooked to mush.
Bottling the Pickles
Bottling, of course, is very important – make sure the bottles are sterilized and hot when you bottle the hot pickles. I have a large old pot that I fill with hot water and put on the stove to sterilize the bottles. Make sure there are no nicks in the tops of the glass Mason jars and that you use new lids each time and that the rims are not dented or rusted.
Sweet mustard pickles are a fine addition to many entrées from “meat and potato” meals to casseroles to baked beans and fishcakes. Pickles do take some time and know-how to make but nothing beats homemade mustard pickles that no store-bought version can match.
Do you make mustard pickles or have recollections of your mother or grandmother making mustard pickles?
Mustard Pickles – My Island Bistro Kitchen Style
• 8 cups pickling cucumbers, chopped
• 4 cups onions, chopped
• 2 cups cauliflower flowerets (apx. 1 small cauliflower head)
• 4 cups white pickling vinegar
• 3 1/2 cups sugar
• 1/2 – 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, depending on how juicy or thick you like pickles
• 1 1/2 tbsp tumeric
• 1 1/2 tbsp celery seed
• 1 tbsp mixed pickling spice, tied in a cheesecloth sachet
• 1/2 cup dry mustard
• 1/4 tsp ginger powder
• Pinch cayenne
• 1 small red pepper, chopped
• Coarse pickling salt
1. Peel the cucumbers. Slice in half, lengthwise. Slice in half again. Remove and discard the seeds. Cut cucumbers to desired size, apx. 1/2″ – 3/4″ pieces.
2. Peel the onions and cut into pieces similar in size to cucumbers.
3. Separate the cauliflower into individual flowerets.
4. Place cucumbers, onions, and cauliflower flowerets into a large bowl.
5. Make a brine of pickling salt and water using 1/2 cup coarse pickling salt to 4 cups of water. Pour over the vegetables, ensuring they are completely covered. (I use apx. 6 cups water and 3/4 cup pickling salt.) Let stand overnight or 8-10 hours.
6. Drain vegetables in a colander and rinse with cold water to remove any excess salt. Let vegetables drain for apx. 45-60 minutes. Add cup-up red pepper.
7. In a large stock pot, bring to a boil 3 cups of the vinegar and 3 cups of the sugar along with the pickling sachet made of pickling spice tied in cheesecloth. Boil 2-3 minutes.
8. Mix remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the flour, tumeric, celery seed, dry mustard, ginger, and cayenne.
9. Add the remaining 1 cup of vinegar to the dry ingredients and whisk till smooth. Add apx. 3/4 cup of the hot vinegar-sugar mixture to this sauce. This will “temper” it and keep it from going lumpy when added to the hot liquid mixture in the pot. Stir and pour into the vinegar-sugar mixture in pot. Cook sauce over medium heat until thickened, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. When sauce coats a spoon and drips off slowly, it is thick enough to add the vegetables. (This could take 25-30 minutes.)
10. Add the drained vegetables to the thickened mustard sauce and cook over medium-low heat just until vegetables are heated through, apx. 12-15 minutes.
11. Bottle pickles while hot into hot sterilized bottles. Heat bottle lids and apply to bottle tops. Place rims on bottles, finger-tip tightening only. Listen for the “pop” sounds as the bottles seal over the next few hours. Store in cool area.
Yield: Apx. 7½ pint bottles
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