We spend all summer looking forward to crispy, crunchy cucumber goodness.

But cucumbers can be sneaky little buggers. One minute they are delightful, yellow flowers turning into petite green nubs . . . and all of a sudden their green vines have taken over a large portion of the garden. Practically overnight there is an abundance of green gems lurking under leaves and hiding quietly even after you swear you’ve checked every, shady nook.

So you start eating them daily — in a sandwich with sharp cheddar, in a salad, alone with pepper and salt.

When you’ve had your fill and feel as if your skin is turning green and starting to grow prickles, you give them away to anyone who doesn’t have a wealth of their own.

Mavis Peaco of New Gloucester has a solution for anyone overrun with cucumbers.

“Make pickles!” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been making them for close to 80 years . . . ever since my Mumma taught me when I was a little girl. They’re simple, taste wonderful and they are good for you.”

And make pickles, she does, for family and friends. In addition, she is a critical part of the pickle-making operation (dozens upon dozens) for the North Pownal United Methodist Church’s bean suppers.

“There is just something special about a pickle that everyone loves,” Peaco says. 

For one, it’s the anticipation of the tangy flavor that makes you salivate even before taking that first bite. And even more important is the audible crunch that only a pickle can offer. It doesn’t hurt that pickles are full of vitamin C and A, and high in fiber, magnesium and potassium.

“And it really doesn’t take that long to make them,” says Peaco. “You can easily make a batch of dill or bread and butter pickles in under an hour.”

“I can’t wait for the end of summer to start canning pickles,” she says. “My favorite is the cooked mustard pickle, and that’s what we make for the church suppers. They have a thick, sweet mustard sauce and they are just delicious.”

The best part of a cooked mustard pickle is that you can use the older, fatter cucumbers from the garden.

“They are peeled, deseeded and cut up, along with cauliflower, onions, green tomatoes, peppers and even zucchini if you want. The sauce has lots of spices and even flour to make it thick. It’s cooked until clear and combined with the vegetables and simmered until they are cooked,” Peaco explains.

The beauty of making pickles is that you can adapt the spices to your particular taste.

“I wouldn’t alter the amounts of vinegar, salt or sugar, but spices are something you can adjust to fit your own taste,” says Peaco. “For example, the cooked mustard pickles often call for curry and I don’t like curry, so I don’t put it in. If you are making garlic dills and want more garlic, add more. If you feel there is too much mustard seed, leave half of it out. And if you prefer cider vinegar over white, use that instead.”

The New Gloucester pickle expert even came up with a recipe for her two at-the-time-single sons.

“I call them Bachelor Pickles and it’s a simple refrigerator pickle. It’s one quart apple cider vinegar, one cup of water, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup dry mustard. All you have to do is slice about 6 quarts of cucumbers and put them in a large pan. In a separate pan, bring the brine to a boil and pour it over the cucumbers and reheat until cucumbers are hot throughout. Put one teaspoon of salt into each sterilized, hot quart jar and pack cukes and brine to about 1/2 inch from the top. Use processed canning covers and lids, and leave out until cool. Place in the refrigerator and wait a week or two to open.”

Helpful hints, especially for the first-time pickle maker.

* Know your cucumbers. There are basically two groups: pickling and slicing, and you can tell the difference based on shape and color. Pickling cukes tend to be short and stalky, and are a dark green with lighter green on the ends. They have spines and prickles and the skin is generally thicker. A slicing cucumber will be long, smooth and round, with a dark green color all over.

* Use pickles intended for pickling. Avoid slicing cucumbers, especially waxed ones, as brine can’t penetrate the wax. Burpless variety are also not recommended because they produce an enzyme that causes them to soften.

* Cucumbers lose their crispiness as they age, and they can’t become firm again. For a crisper dill pickle, use small cukes and process immediately after picking. Medium cukes are fine for bread and butter pickles and they can be refrigerated for a day or two before canning. If you like cooked mustard pickles, save the larger and yellowed cukes for those.

* Alum has little effect in making a cucumber crisp; if quality ingredients are used with up-to-date methods, there is no need to add chemicals.

* Cut both ends of the cucumber off, especially the blossom end as it contains an enzyme that causes softening.

* To prepare cukes, always scrub, removing prickly bumps and rinsing before using.

* Quart jars will take a bit longer to come to a boil during processing; if a crisper pickle is desired, use pint jars.

Peaco says that ensuring safety is the key to anything that is consumed.

“Read and follow recipe instructions carefully, and keep everything as sterile as possible,” she says.

“Making pickles is something I really enjoy making for myself and others,” Peaco says with a smile. “It’s fun to hear each jar pop as it seals. Just have fun and try it, it can be rewarding to look at a shelf full of homemade goodness.”

While this writer has no proof, it seems likely that the homemade goodness of a crunchy pickle is one of Mavis Peaco’s secrets to a long, happy life.

Pickle recipes

For any questions or doubts about canning and canning safety, contact the Maine Cooperative Extension at 581-3188 or 800-287-0274 or download the USDA Guide to home canning at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website

Mavis’ cooked mustard pickles

Ingredients

6 quart jars, lids and covers

1 head cauliflower, cut up

6 quarts peeled, deseeded and cut up cucumbers

1 quart cut up onions

2 quarts sliced green tomatoes

2 red and 2 green peppers, cut up

(Zucchini can replace green tomatoes)

Sauce

5 tablespoons dry mustard

1 tablespoon turmeric

1 cup flour

1 quart vinegar

4 cups sugar

Directions

Prepare water bath, jars and lids.

Put prepared veggies in a large sauce pan and set aside.

Combine all sauce ingredients in a medium-sized pan and cook slowly until clear.

Pour sauce over veggies and cook till desired consistency — Mavis cooks them until they are clear — stirring constantly on low heat. Ladle into sterilized hot jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.

Garlic dill pickles

Ingredients

7 quart jars, lids and covers

6 pounds small cucumbers (sliced or whole)

3 cups white vinegar

3 cups water

3 tablespoons canning salt

Bunches of dill

7 garlic cloves, sliced

2 teaspoons mustard seed

Directions

Prepare water bath, jars and lids.

At the bottom of each jar, throw in desired dill, 7 large cloves of garlic and 2 teaspoons of mustard seed. Bring vinegar, water and salt to a boil in a pan.

Pack sterilized, hot jars with cucumbers and top again with more dill. Pour brine to 1/2 inch of jar top. Seal and place in water bath and process 10 minutes.

Wait two weeks to open.

Bread and butter pickles

Ingredients

15 cups sliced pickling cucumbers

3 onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup canning salt

4 cups cracked ice

2 1/2 cups cider vinegar

2 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1 tablespoon mustard seed

Directions

Prepare water bath, jars and lids.

Combine cucumbers, onions, salt and ice in a large bowl. Mix well.

Place a plate on top of cucumbers to weigh them down, using something heavy on top.

Let sit 3 hours. Rinse and drain thoroughly.

Combine brine ingredients in a large pan and bring to a low boil – cook 5 minutes.

Pack cucumbers in prepared hot jars and pour brine to 1/2 inch of jar top. Seal and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Single jar refrigerator dills

Ingredients

1 pint clean jar, cover and lid

2-3 small-medium pickling cucumbers, sliced

Vinegar, white or cider

Water

1 teaspoon canning salt

Cloves of garlic

Dill

Mustard seed

Directions

Put desired dill, garlic and mustard seed in clean jar, with the salt. Pack with cukes and fill jar with equal amounts of water and vinegar. For a touch of sweetness, add 1 teaspoon of sugar if desired.

Pickles are good at any stage, be it at two days or two weeks. Good for 3 weeks to a month.

Canning basics

You will need:

Boiling water bath canner

Jar lifter

Canning funnel

Knife

Preserving jars, lids and bands

Heavy towel

A pickle recipe and the ingredients

Basic instructions:

Read through the recipe and instructions. Assemble equipment and ingredients. Review guidelines for recipe preparation, jar size, preserving method and processing time.

Check jars for nicks and cracks. Check lids for scratches or incomplete sealing compound. Clean jars and all equipment with hot, soapy water.

Add water in bath canner and place clean empty jars in basket and put on a low boil while preparing your recipe. Simmer covers and lids in another small pan for a few minutes (do not boil). Have a pan with spare boiling water.

Prepare pickle recipe.

Remove hot jars from hot water, using a lifter, and empty any remaining water inside jars. Fill jars one at a time with prepared food using a funnel, leaving recommended space at top. Slide a knife down the sides to release trapped air. Clean rims and threads with a damp cloth to remove any food residue.

Apply lid and band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight. Place filled jars onto rack and lower back into the canner. If water is not 1-2 inches over jars add boiling water from spare pan. Place lid on canner, bring water to boil. Processing time begins when water is back to a boil. Process for the duration suggested in the instructions.

When processing time is complete, turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Pull up rack and remove jars with lifter and place on heavy towel to prevent breakage. Leave jars undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours. Bands should not be retightened as this may interfere with the sealing process.

Be sure each jar has sealed. If the lid is not indented or if it springs up when you push down on it and then release your finger, it is not sealed. Label and store in a cool, dry, dark place up to one year.

For any questions or doubts about canning and canning safety, contact the Maine Cooperative Extension at 581-3188 or 800-287-0274 or download the USDA Guide to home canning at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website


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