Advice for a newbie pickler
I'm experimenting with quick pickles this weekend and I'm at a loss as to where to start. I have recipes (although recommendations are always welcome), and jars, but absolutely no practical experience other than eating them.
Quick pickles are definitely easy and a good introduction to pickling. I would recommend getting a book on pickling from the library (or buying one) and following that. I have "The Joy of Pickling" by Linda Ziedrich and I just adore it. It has a good combination of advice, general recipes, and more creative ones, and all of them are designed for quantities suitable for a couple or small family. The benefit of getting a whole book is that it focuses on techniques and troubleshooting in a way that can be hard to find online.
It sounds like you're looking for advice right now, though, and the best thing I can tell you is to have everything set up and ready before you begin. Think through the process you're going to use step by step and visualize how you're going to do it. This way you are less likely to make a preventable error or find out that you're missing a component.
Another recommendation is making sure that you insert something flexible in the sides of the jar (make sure to sterilize it) to work loose any air bubbles before putting the caps on. I forgot that once and had to toss a whole batch of canned okra that had too much of a gap at the top.
Also, many pickle recipes only need to water bath canned if you're going to store them on the shelf. If you're going to keep them in the fridge, you may not need to can them. That might be a good option if you want to use up some cukes but are intimidated by canning.
Thanks for the advice! The book I have is "Preserving Summer's Bounty."
What do you mean by something flexible? Also, how do you know when you've gone wrong (other than the gap at the top?). I worry about handing out jars of pickled green tomatoes and beets as presents that go bad.
You need to make sure the jars seal -- that prevents spoilage. After 24 hours the lids should not 'bounce back' when you press on the centre. If they are not sealed, you can refrigerate, re-process in a hot water bath or throw out. I have also had some success turning un-sealed jars upside down and they sometimes seal that way. Also, make sure you wipe the top of your jars dry with a clean cloth before sealing. As for the air bubbles, I use a wooden skewer to jostle the veggies around a bit to release them before cleaning and sealing.
Like beggsy said, something flexible like a wooden skewer. You can also use a plastic knife, very small spatula, chopstick, etc... Just make sure to dip it in the boiling water for a while to sterilize it.
As long as the jars seal you're probably fine. I tossed my okra because a lot of it was poking out of the vinegar solution, and it's a low-acidity vegetable. I think my mistake was a) packing them in too tight, and b) not slitting them down the side to allow them to fill with liquid.
Beyond air bubbles, I haven't had too much else go wrong--I haven't even had problems getting my jars to seal. The only other issues I've had were the quality of the produce I used. For example, one year I received a bushel of tomatoes (yikes) that had been picked right after a big rainfall. They had a ton of water in them, so it took a really long time to boil them down into ketchup and the crushed tomatoes I canned had a layer of pale water at the top, but everything tasted fine in the end. Another issue I encountered was making some brine pickles with a friend during a dry year, and while their interior tasted good, the skins were too tough and I threw the rest away after picking out the smaller, more tender cukes.
I think green tomatoes are a good choice for gifts. They're pretty high acidity so they're a safe bet. Beets aren't high in acidity but I've always had good luck canning them, probably because they stack easily and are dense, so there aren't problems with air bubbles.
Like I said before, if you are in doubt, you can keep the jars in the refrigerator to play it extra safe. Also, make sure to follow the directions carefully...when you first start off you should avoid improvising. Even when you're more comfortable with it, it's still safest to follow guidelines for acidity and salinity. That said, don't be too intimidated by it all. After all, humans have been in the food-preserving business for thousands of years and we're still around.