A famous old authority in cooking tells us that pickles have been called the "Sponges of Vinegar." The prejudice against pickles is fast disappearing. Formerly they were regarded as the most indigestible fare in the whole culinary realm. As fare they certainly are not particularly easy of digestion; but the work of pickles is to stimulate the appetite. In this they succeed admirably, and the fact must not be overlooked that vinegar exerts a solvent action on meat and vegetable fibers, so that pickles are really more digestible than the raw vegetables of which they are made.
Pickles, sweet or sour, are the easiest things to serve to relieve the monotony of an otherwise tasteless meal.
The chief points to keep in mind in putting up pickles are these: Choose vegetables that are whole and sound and not overripe, and clean them by rubbing with a damp cloth, then with a dry one, rather than by washing, unless they are to be boiled and dried; the presence of water, or even the use of a wet spoon, may spoil the pickle afterwards, preventing it from keeping.
The vinegar, sugar and spices employed should be the best of their kind.
In stirring or taking pickles from a jar use a spoon of horn, wood or silver, since these materials are not acted upon by acetic add.
Do not use any vessel or utensil made of metal either in making or storing, as the brine and vinegar may corrode these and form a poisonous deposit on them, which will pass into the pickle. Boil the vinegar in an enameled saucepan, in a stoneware utensil, or in a good unglazed stew jar, setting it in either a large saucepan of boiling water or on the stove.
Store the pickles in glass vessels, stoneware jars, or unglazed earthenware. The glaze which is used inside earthenware jars usually contains lead, which is dissolved by the vinegar.
The vinegar should be pure cider vinegar, if possible.
Manufactured vinegar contains chemicals that will attack the pickles and soften them, or else allow other forces to destroy the material. Vinegar that is too strong will "eat" the pickles and if too weak it fails to "pickle." There are two other things that may soften the materials; leaving too long in a strong brine, when the fiber is softened; heating too long in vinegar, when the material is really cooked.
The heating should be carried on only long enough to cause the flavor to strike in. There are a few exceptions in the case of pickles made up of a variety of materials all of which are to blend into one flavor. If the vinegar loses its strength, pour it off and cover the pickles with new vinegar that has been freshly scalded. If white specks appear, drain off and rescald the same vinegar.
A few nasturtium leaves or some tiny pieces of horseradish give, life to the vinegar and prevent mold. Grape leaves are also excellent to spread over the pickles before closing the jars.
It is better to seal pickles, like fruit, in usable quantities. A well fitted lid should be used for each jar, or, failing that, it is a good plan to place several layers of dean muslin over the jar and then insert a cork. If a tin cover must be used, cover the inside first with melted paraffin.
If a large jar is used for keeping the pickles, there is danger that they will not stay under the vinegar. To avoid this, invert a saucer or plate inside the jar, and weight it down with a clean stone. Never use a metal weight. A little nut of alum may be added to crisp the pickles, but it should be very small in proportion to the quantity, or it will give a disagreeable flavor. If alum is added to the pickles put up for sale each bottle or jar must be marked to that effect, in accordance with the pure food law.
Pickles should be examined often, and if any soft ones appear, they should be removed. To make pickles green put them in a porcelain-lined pan, cover with cold vinegar, set over a moderate fire and heat slowly until they become very green.
To make the brine used for pickling add salt to fresh water until an egg that is fresh enough to sink to the bottom in fresh water will rise to the top in the brine. The brine may be made of hot or cold water, but should be cold when the pickles are put in, if they are to remain in the brine for some time. Twenty-four hours is the time usually given for this bath. There is great latitude, however, in carrying out this rule. The pickles may remain in the brine for months. They should be examined often, to make sure that the brine is not too strong which causes them to soften. If left for a long time, soak in fresh water till the extra saltiness disappears before putting into the vinegar. This precaution is also necessary when one has been forced to defer the pickling for even a few days; in this way one is sometimes enabled to gather material, bit by bit. Most kinds of fruits make fine sweet pickles, especially cherries, plums, peaches, pears, apples and grapes, and also many of the vegetables. Use only the firm ripe fruit for pickling since it should remain as whole as possible to be attractive. Sweet pickles are never so bright a green when put up as are the best of the sour ones. The reason is that the sugar prevents it. Any good pure vinegar may be used for sweet pickles. Tie the spices to be used in muslin or cheesecloth bags before adding to the vinegar.
Pickles should be kept in a cool, dry place.
As a rule, alum is not to be recommended in food. It is helpful, however, in such things as pickled watermelon rind and green tomato sweet pickle. It extracts the water and when used in a very small quantity tends to make the pickles crisp instead of flabby.