Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Canning 101: Okra Pickles

If you've never canned anything before, okra pickles are a good place to start. It's so simple:  you sterilize the jars, cram the okra pods in the sterilized jars, pour the pickling brine over them, put them in the canner, and process for ten minutes. There's none of that long cooking and checking for "set" that making jam involves. You don't even need an official "canner":  I use a stock pot with a round cake rack in the bottom. I have found that the big pots with racks sold for canning don't work well on the small burners of most electric stoves. (They probably work great on wood-burning stoves, where the whole stove top gets hot.) I wired a round piece of hardware cloth to my cake rack to make it hold the jars a little more steadily.

The first thing you do in any canning session is you sterilize your jars. Put them on the rack in your canner and start filling it with hot water. The water should fill each jar.  Keep adding water until it reaches the top of the empty jars.  (When you fill the jars with product and put them back in, they will be about an inch under the top of the water.)

Meanwhile, sterilize your lids. Canning jar lids have two parts: the lid and the band. The lid has to be brand new; you can't reuse old lids. But you can re-use the bands indefinitely.  When you buy canning jars, they will have new lids and bands with them. If you already have some appropriate jars (don't use mayonnaise jars), buy a box of new lids, and bands if you need them. The lids and bands come in two sizes: regular and wide-mouth. For the okra pickles, I'm using half-pint jars, which use regular size lids.

Back to sterilizing your lids:  place the lids (not the bands) in a small pot and bring to a simmer. They don't have to boil; they only need to reach about 180 degrees. The same goes for sterilizing the jars. So when you see a lot of bubbles and steam but not a rolling boil, that's a simmer.  If you have a thermometer, you can measure the temperature, but it's not really necessary. These are the lids:

You will need some special tools for canning. You can buy a set that includes a jar funnel, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, and a plastic knife that you use to remove bubbles.  Here's my set. Isn't it cute that they all match?

So your jars and lids are sterilizing. While you wait, get the pickling brine ready.  I am using a recipe from an old Gourmet magazine that I found on the site. But most recipes for okra pickles are pretty much the same. One thing about pickling and canning recipes: you can't mess with them too much.  The amount of acid in the recipe is critical to safe canning and spoilage prevention. So, don't change the amount of vinegar or water. You can change the seasoning of the brine, though: for example, you can use less cayenne, or add some other pickling spices.

The brine in this recipe is 3 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water, some cayenne, mustard seed, dill seed, salt and sugar. You bring all that to a boil in a separate pot. It's ok for this to simmer for a while, while you wait for the jars to reach 180.

When the jars are hot enough, use your jar lifter to take one out of the hot water. (Now you see why you need a jar lifter!) Pour the hot water out of the jar and place it on a clean towel on the counter. Fill this jar as tightly as you can with 3 inch to 4 inch long okra pods, plus a garlic clove in the bottom. The tighter you pack them in, the easier it will be when you pour the brine in. Some of my okra was pretty long, so I had to select the short ones that would fit into the jar. You're not supposed to trim the cap off the okra entirely, but I trimmed some of the stems back a little to make them fit in the jars. If you like very hot pickles, you can add a hot pepper piece to each jar too.

Here are the packed jars:

Now all you have to do is ladle the pickling brine onto the okra pods in the jars. By now it should be boiling. Put the funnel on one of the jars and ladle the brine into the jar until it reaches 1/4 inch from the top. This is important: you don't want the jar to be too full, or have too much air space at the top either.

Now you see why it's good to really cram that okra in:  if it's too loose, it starts floating when you put the brine on. If it does, just cram a few more pods in until they sort of stay down.

Wipe the rim of the jar carefully with a very clean cloth or paper towel. Take your magnetic lid lifter, and lift a lid out of the hot water. Place it carefully on the jar rim, rubber side down. Make sure there is no little bit of spice or okra on the rim; this will prevent a good seal. Screw the band down on the jar to hold the lid in place. Use the jar lifter to put this jar in the canner, which is still simmering.

Do the same with all your jars. You can use the knife thing to remove any bubbles around the edge of the jar, but this is not really necessary with okra pickles.  It's something you have to do with jam, though. This tool also  has a handy measuring device on its end that helps you estimate what 1/4 inch clearance is at the top of the jar.

All your jars are back in the canner now:

Put the lid on and bring it to a rolling boil. Once it boils, start the timer. Boil the jars for ten minutes. Remove them from the canner with the jar lifter (now you're REALLY glad you have one of these!) and set them gently on the counter. In a few minutes you will hear the characteristic ping that the jar lids make as they seal.

Occasionally you may have a jar that doesn't seal. You can tell because when you press the lid in the middle after it has cooled, the little indentation will go down. The rest of the jars will already have that little dent down. No worries: just put that unsealed jar in the fridge and eat it soon. The rest of the jars can be stored on a shelf for six months or a year.

At first the okra pods will look as if they are floating too much in the brine in the jar. Don't worry. They'll "sink" later and look like the ones in the grocery store.

So this is the basic method for canning: sterilizing jars and lids; getting the product ready (which sometimes involves cooking it in a separate pot); filling the jars; processing the jars; and cooling the jars. I label the lids with a sharpie: I write the name of the product and the date on the lid.  Now that you know the basics, you can try almost any recipe. Start with The Ball Blue Book or The Complete Book of Home Preserving, if you don't have a canning cookbook. Both of these books have good general directions about canning.

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