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Rule-breaking comes with pickles and jars

July 30th, 2008 · 11 Comments · Food preparation, Tools

Home canning has enough rules to fill a peck of pickled peppers, which is probably why:

  • Most canning seems to be done by people who learned it from their elders.
  • Most canners break the rules.

I arrived at those conclusions after years of interviewing home cooks, including some who canned. They included individuals who:

  • Never processed their jams, jellies, preserves or pickles in a boiling-water bath.
  • Used paraffin to seal their jellies.
  • Always saved jars and lids from commercial salsas, pickles and so forth and used them for their canning.
  • Never added citric acid to their canned tomatoes.
  • Added unauthorized items to their jars. Peach pits come to mind.

Each of these practices is strictly forbidden by the canning authorities, notably the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning and any ag extension agent you might want to ask. (If you like your guidance and recipes in book form, it’s also available from Amazon.)

Hazardous but…

If I understand correctly, the first three banned practices above might result in food spoilage, which would be a shame but not something to panic about. The fourth item, the citric acid in the tomatoes, has the potential to allow botulism poisoning, which is big deal, although it’s worth noting that only 19 cases of food-borne botulism occurred in the most recent report, for 2006, I could find at the CDC. (The botulin toxin can develop in low-acid foods, and many of today’s tomatoes aren’t as acidic as old-time tomatoes.) Of those 19 cases, only two resulted from home canning. Oh, and nobody died. I’ve ranted about this before.

I mention all this as prelude to my new adventure in pickling. I came into more free food the other day, in this case cucumbers from my neophyte gardening baby sister who is overrun with cucumbers. I offered to take some off her hands and attempt to pickle them, inspired as I was by Jennifer the Baklava Queen and Ed “Mr. Pickle” Bruske at The Slow Cook.

This decision plunged me into pickle research and then back to my conclusions that most people who do these things learned it from their elders and break the rules. I decided I could break rules, too. Maybe if I’d gone and bought or borrowed the highly recommended by all Ball Blue Book I wouldn’t have been as frustrated. I didn’t, though, so I muddled through using the USDA guide’s recipes, sort of, so that I’d do it right, mostly, this first time I really canned. (I’m not sure last fall’s two half-pints of unprocessed pickled okra count.)

Rules I broke

In an upcoming post, I’ll get into the pickling process, but for the moment, here are rules I broke:

  • Use pickling salt. I don’t have pickling salt, but I do have kosher salt and sea salt and both, contrary to the rules, contain an anticaking agent, although a different one (yellow prussiate of soda) than in my table salt (calcium silicate). I used the sea salt, and so far, the pickle juice hasn’t turned cloudy.
  • Match jar and lid brands. Oops. I can’t remember why I have jars or lids, but one is Kerr and the other is Ball. They sealed anyway.
  • Use lids that are less than a year old. Oops again. I don’t know how long I’ve had those lids, but it’s a lot longer than a year. They looked fine. The seal compound wasn’t cracked or otherwise bad-looking. Again, they sealed anyway.
  • Process correctly. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. The official way is to put your jars in warm water about halfway up the sides of the jars, then add hot water to cover by an inch and quickly bring to a boil and boil 10 minutes. I guess I did. Sort of. It took more water than I anticipated. It took longer for the water to boil than anticipated. I didn’t use a ruler to measure the 1 inch. I think they boiled for 10 minutes. Hope that works.
  • Use unblemished produce. Yea. Sure. Not.
  • Use Kirby or pickling cucumbers. I have no idea what kind of cucumbers these were. Guess I’ll find out whether it matters.

So, there’s my list, at least as far as I can recall it. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Adventures in Pickling.

Credit: Top photo courtesy of Xandert at

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Jennifer

    Pickles!!! I’ve wanted to start trying this since I had some homemade jalapeno garlic dill pickles a couple years ago and, despite my search, cannot find any commercial pickles that matched their deliciousness. Can’t wait for part 2.

  • Gills n Thrills

    Do you know how to make refrigerator pickles? I tried once, and they were pretty good, but the flavor wasn’t quite “vinegary” enough.

  • Janet Majure

    Jennifer: Thanks! Hope it’s what you’re looking for.
    Gills n Thrills: I originally thought about trying one of the cazillion refrigerator pickle recipes out there, but decided against it for a variety of reasons. If you were making dills, though, my guess is that you won’t be happy with the results unless you ferment them first, which is how traditional dill pickles are made. But that’s just a guess. This one (scaled down already!) at Country Living claims to be a tested recipe. If you try it, let us know how it works for you!

  • AlisonH

    Found you via Joanne Seiff today. For whatever it’s worth, we had a woman in our town in our newspaper last week for botulism poisoning, apparently from stuff her friends had canned and lovingly shared with her. She has permanent neurological damage and to her eyes and is lucky to be alive, so, it does happen–thank you for the heads-up on good practices.

    And though I don’t can often, I read your list with relief. My mom did teach me well; nice to have it verified.

  • Jennifer (Baklava Queen)

    I’m sure Ed will be tickled (or pickled?) with his new nickname… I love it!

    And don’t worry, Kerr and Ball lids and jars are interchangeable. The key term is Mason, which is the name of the gentleman who originally patented the screw-top glass canning jar. If you’ve got Mason jars (no matter what brand) and lids for such, you should be fine.

    Glad you had fun pickling!

  • Joanne

    Hey friend, if I wrote a food blog, it would be like yours, only yours is better! The key hints about canning or pickling, according to my biologist husband:
    A) Boil the hell out of everything before and after putting the stuff in the jar. So, 10 minutes sterilization for the jars before, 10 minutes in the water afterward. (for 8 oz or pint jars) Boil the rings and pour boiling water over the lids.
    B) Use enough vinegar/sugar to preserve the food safely. This is why I make mostly chutneys, pickles and jams. I have done slow fermentation (with salt) to make sauerkraut. Once, it was delicious. Once, it grew pink mold and I had to throw it away…humidity and heat really affect this stuff, and I’d guess that’s why vinegar is in most old time Southern recipes instead!
    C) As you say, people do a lot of dodgey things. The most important thing is to check the produce before eating it. If it seems like it’s lost color, smells off, or looks yucky in any way? Pitch it. Not worth getting sick.

    Oh, I’ve used both pickling salt and the kind with the caking agents. You’ll find over time that the ones canned with straight pickling salt look brighter and less “cloudy” but the caking agent salt ones taste ok too. They just don’t look as appetizing.

    I’ve taught a few people to can but I figured it out by myself: reading the Ball jar guide and the USDA stuff. My friends who are my age (mid-30’s and younger) learned the same way and tend to can more safely (I think) than the “learning from the elders approach that I’ve observed!”

  • Janet Majure

    AlisonH–Good reminder; thanks. If you’re the one with the food poisoning, statistics don’t matter!
    Jennifer (Baklava Queen)–Thanks for the reassurance. :)
    Joanne–Drat. Two more rules I broke. I read somewhere (I’ll have to go check my sources later) that the dishwasher was adequate for jar prep. And thanks for the reminder about using good sense to judge whether the food is OK or not.
    everybody–The biggest hazards seem to be in canning (vs. pickling) low-acid vegetables such as beans and carrots and meat or meat products. In the unlikely event I try any of those, I promise to break no rules!

  • ed bruske

    Janet, Mr. Pickle here.

    I remember my dad making jams and jellies. He definitely used the parafin. This year will be a first time canning for us. By that I mean putting up tomatoes and tomato sauce and such. Until now, you’re right–it’s all pickling. I got my start with lacto-fermentation. Sauerkraut. Fermented turnips (shredded, then cured, they’re the best). My favorite pickles are the ferminted deli-style dills. Awesome crispness and flavor. Otherwise, the acid created in the pickling process definitely creates a margin of safety where pathogens are concerned. Still, some of the pickles are processed in the boiling water bath so they can be safely tucked away in the pantry for long-term storage. I have used pickling salt in the past but ran out and they no longer carry it at the local grocery, so I’ve switched to sea salt with no additives. I used pickling lime to firm up the bread and butter pickles. Damn, they are good. I’ll be doing a pickle round-up soon.

    Ed Bruske

  • Janet Majure

    Hey, Ed. I trust you know I meant that sobriquet in the best way. I’m in awe of your pickle packing. You might want to consider moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where we have pickling salt, pickling lime, pickling spices and all manner of other pickling products in the supermarkets. I’ll look forward to your pickle roundup. (Is that the same as a relish tray?)

  • Maxine

    This brings back memories of my Dad’s pickles.

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