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“The time will come when winter will ask you what you were doing all summer.”
— Henry Clay
Though I am not by nature fearful when it comes to food, I have always avoided canning and preserving because of a somewhat irrational fear of accidentally poisoning a dinner guest with botulism. So this summer, when I saw that the Institute for Culinary Education was offering classes that could teach me the techniques, I decided it was time to overcome my phobia. I signed up for “Puttin’ Up With Richard,” a class on pickling, preserving, and canning. Historically, the urge to preserve was motivated by necessity. In order to survive the long winter months, our ancestors had to devise methods to keep food from spoiling. Technological advances such as refrigeration and air transport give us the option of eating peaches year-round now. But many New Yorkers choose to “eat local,” reaping the benefits of just-picked produce that doesn’t have to travel far to the table. “Puttin’ up” a mason jar crammed full of surplus fruits and vegetables is a way to enjoy the flavors of summer all year long.
“There’s something elemental about being able to save this wonderful produce from rotting,” the founder of Brooklyn’s Wheelhouse Pickles (www.wheelhousepickles.com), Jon Orren, said recently. He began pickling at home as a hobby when he was a child, and turned professional last year. There’s “a satisfaction you gain from conquering nature, an elemental competitiveness against the bacteria that want to devour these vegetables. By pickling I’ve somehow beaten them.”
As Mr. Orren’s extremely creative, artisanal line of preserved produce proves, pickles aren’t just cucumbers. He pickles pears in rice wine vinegar and lime juice, turnips in Hendrick’s gin, beets in sherry vinegar, and pairs wax beans with horseradish. Even his traditional cucumber pickles — sour barrel and bread and butter — have a surprising freshness and flavor.
Wheelhouse Pickles isn’t the only hobbyist turned artisanal pickler in the city. Mr. Orren received guidance from Rick Field of Rick’s Picks. Mr. Field, who also lives in Brooklyn, turned his passion for pickles into a business in 2004. Its phenomenal growth reflects America’s increasing interest in vinegary, brined vegetables: He now sells pickles in retail stores all over the country. Though some view these picklers as rivals, the fact that both Rick’s and Wheelhouse are thriving means New Yorkers have big enough appetites for both.
The pickling process relies on acids like vinegar and citrus, along with salt to deactivate enzymes, kill bacteria, and keep the fruits or vegetables crisp. The produce usually isn’t cooked before being bottled. Pickles are processed in a 190-degree water bath for eight minutes. When making preserves, jams, or jellies, it’s sugar that keeps the microbes away. Cooking the fruit with added sugar brings out the natural pectins in the fruit, causing it to jell.
Mr. Orren attributes the crispiness of his pickles to the freshness of the produce he starts with: “I’m very picky about how long the gap is between when it’s picked and when I pickle it,” he said. He sources his ingredients as much as possible from local farms and adds salt to cucumbers before pickling them. “It adds a lot of time to the process, but they stay crunchier.” The chef-instructor at ICE is another excellent guide to the alchemy of turning summer produce into super-hot chili sauce, tangy watermelon glaze, vanilla peach butter, and garlicky cucumber pickles. A farmer’s market fanatic and the author of “The Farmer’s Market Cookbook,” recently released in paperback, chef Richard Ruben started teaching the class last year, after he became fascinated with preserving. “The winter months are so sad otherwise, and tomatoes are too mealy,” he said. He suggests starting with the freshest produce and gave the class tips on how to find the best fruits, vegetables and herbs at the farmer’s market. Mr. Ruben isn’t averse to using modern technology like the freezer. He takes whole tomatoes, wipes them clean, places them in re-sealable plastic bags, and freezes them for up to six months for sauces. He also preserves fresh corn at its peak by slicing the kernels off the cob and freezing them. Peaches can be halved or quartered for freezing. He also suggests dehydrating cherry tomatoes over a bed of rock salt in the oven at 175 degrees for 12 hours. At the beginning of the class, Mr. Ruben confirmed that although botulism rarely occurs, my fears are based in reality. When canning, which allows fruits and vegetables to be stored in sealed mason jars outside of the refrigerator for years, you have to be “surgically anal,” he said. “You can’t touch anything.” Everything must be sterilized for canning, including the tongs used to move jars. (Even gloves can have bacteria on them, and you can’t wipe a sterilized jar with a towel.)
On the other hand, it’s easy to know whether canned goods are spoiled. Sterilized jars make a sound — ping! — when the seal is airtight and a vacuum has been created. If the lid is springy and if you can press down on it, don’t open it. Throw it away. Before canning at home, review the guidelines at www.usda.gov. Both the Department of Agriculture and Ball (the company that makes those ubiquitous glass mason jars) recently released paperbacks that offer guidance and recipes for home canning and preserving.
Apparently, I am not alone in my trepidation. On the day I took the class, a student across the hall in chef Melanie Underwood’s class “Preserving and Canning,” Catherine Hoyt, was there to conquer her fear of the large vats of boiling water required to sterilize the jars. She’ll need confidence, since she plans to start her own line of gourmet preserves and jams. (There are other ways to sterilize, but boiling water is the preferred method for home cooks.)
Those still intimidated by sterilization, however, can “put up” without canning. Many of the recipes we made in class, such as garlic pickles and green tomatoes, will ferment in the refrigerator in acid brine. Beginners should “start with baby steps,” Wheelhouse’s Mr. Orren suggested.
“Don’t try canning immediately,” he said. You can get great results doing quick pickling. Make your brine so that it tastes good when it’s hot. That’s what the pickles will taste like. Pour over preferred vegetable, and then cool and put in fridge. Depending on the density of the vegetable, the pickles will be ready within a matter of days and you can keep it refrigerated for several months.”
Still, there are other obstacles to overcome. Though pickling and preserving don’t take as much prep or cooking time as I anticipated, it’s hard not to eat all the peaches I buy at the farmer’s market, and to save the husked tomatoes long enough to dry them. Even refrigerator pickles need to sit in the refrigerator for two weeks for the brine to penetrate the membrane. Now if only I could take a class in patience.
Saturday is NYC Pickle Day on the Lower East Side (with a demonstration by Rick Field). For more information, see www.nyfoodmuseum.org, or call 212-966-0191.