I love condiments, especially in the summer. And these small batch spicy sweet pickles are a perfect summer condiment. Add them to burgers or hot dogs, serve them on the side with cold meats or pâté, or munch on a few.
Even better, spicy sweet pickles are a wonderful homemade gift when you’re invited to someone else’s home. Whether you pack them in small (jam) jars or full pints, spicy sweet pickles keep for months so you can have a jar on hand for a last minute invite. No more quick trips to grab a bottle of wine or a box of cookies before heading to a party.
I have been meaning to make pickles for a long time. When my neighbor, preserving guru Cathy Barrow, a/k/a Mrs. Wheelbarrow posted on Facebook that our local farmers market had small cucumbers (known as Kirby cucumbers) for a good price, I knew the time had come to get in gear.
I used Cathy’s recipe for Luvey’s Seven Day Pickles. She kindly gave me permission to include the recipe here for these delectable spicy sweet pickles. I made a 5 pound half batch instead of the 10 pounds she called for, edited the recipe wording slightly, and provide a few notes from my experience. Otherwise, the recipe is entirely hers. If you prefer a sweet pickle (without spice), check out the version that Cathy provides in her book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry.
Speaking of the book, it’s a treasure trove of information and recipes. Whether you’re into home preserving or just curious about canning, curing, and/or cheese-making, Cathy’s guidance and comforting explanations will guide you through those techniques with creative recipes and hints about how to use the preserved vegetables, condiments, and meats, as well as homemade cheeses. Plus, she provides “bonus recipes” that don’t involve those techniques – rugelach and pie crust, for example. I love her fennel, orange, & olive refrigerator pickles and I’m planning to try her papardelle with smoked salmon and spinach.
Anyway, back to spicy sweet pickles.
The ingredients are simple. The only one that I couldn’t find immediately was alum, which Cathy describes in her book as a natural mineral that acts as a crisping agent. It turns out that it isn’t tough to find; I just needed to look in a grocery with a decent-sized McCormick spice display.
The process is a week long, but the only day that involves significant effort is the first one. After soaking the whole pickles in ice cold water, you slice them or cut them in chunks, pack them into a food safe container, such as a huge glass jar – or two if you must – and cover them with boiling water.
When you open the jar(s) on the second day, you might find some foam. Cathy assures us that it is natural. With those comforting words, I didn’t panic and carried on.
The rest of the days until the seventh are all about draining liquid, adding more liquid (first water with salt, then water with alum, and finally cider vinegar with pickling spice.) On the last day, you drain (and reserve) the cider vinegar and spices, let the cucumbers sit in sugar, and pack them in sterilized jars, adding back in enough cider vinegar to cover the pickles before closing up the jars.
Cathy says the pickles are shelf-stable for a year. That means they don’t have to be refrigerated. But I have space in my refrigerator and I’m a bit of a food safety fanatic, so I’ll keep mine refrigerated.
Spicy Sweet Pickles
- 5 pounds cucumbers preferably Kirby (small)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon + 1 1/2 teaspoons alum
- 2 quarts apple cider vinegar (1/2 gallon)
- 2 tablespoons pickling spice
- 2 cups sugar
- Day One - Soak the cucumbers in ice cold water for 30 minutes. Drain the water, trim off the ends of cucumbers, and cut them into 1/4-inch slices or chunks. (For simplicity, I'll refer to them as slices. A mandoline works well for slicing - just be careful toward the end of the cucumber not to cut your hand or fingers.) Pack the slices into 1 or 2 food safe containers. Cover the slices with boiling water, cover the container(s) and let the cucumbers sit overnight.
- Day Two - Drain the water and rinse the jar(s). Add salt to 2 quarts (1/2 gallon) of boiling water. Pour the salt water over the cucumber slices, cover the cucumbers again, and let them sit overnight.
- Day Three - Drain the salt water and rinse the jar(s) again. Add the alum to 2 quarts (1/2 gallon) of boiling water. Pour the alum/water over the cucumber slices, cover the cucumbers again, and let them sit overnight.
- Day Four - Drain the alum water and rinse the jar(s) again. Bring the 2 quarts (half gallon) of apple cider vinegar to a boil. Put the pickling spices into a cheesecloth bundle tied at both ends or a tea ball. Add the spices to the boiled cider vinegar, pour the mixture over the cucumber slices, cover them again, and let the slices sit that way for three days.
- Days Five and Six - No work, all play.
- Day Seven - Pour the cider vinegar off, reserving 2 cups of the mixture and disposing of the pickling spices. Put the cucumber slices (now officially pickled) into a giant stainless, pottery, or glass bowl. Pour the sugar over the pickles, gently stir the sugar throughout the slices, and let the mixture stand for about one hour.
- Pack the slices into sterilized jars, then scrape or spoon out the sugar syrup that accumulated in the bottom of the bowl, dividing it equally among the jars.
- Cap the jars. Turn the jars over and over a few times in the next three to four days, which disperses and dissolves any sugar that might have fallen to the bottom of the jars.
To sterilize the jars, Cathy advises either immersing the jars in boiling water (totally covering the jars) for 10 minutes or putting them through the hot dishwasher cycle. The rings that hold the jar lids in place should also be boiled or put through the dishwasher. (Another wonderful canning expert, Domenica Marchetti, advises boiling the rings in a small covered pot for 10 minutes shortly before using them.) The lids have a plastic seal that will not withstand the boiling water, so they should be washed and put into the pot of hot water containing the rings just before sealing the jars.
In her recipe (link at the beginning of this version), Cathy advises that you need only save 1 cup of the vinegar for adding to the jars. Actually she advised 2 cups for 10 pounds, but I halved the recipe. I found that wasn't enough; it is better to reserve more and throw out whatever remains after filling the jars, rather than reserving less and wishing that you had more to cover the slices once they are in the jars ready to be sealed.