I've spent many hours over the past week scrubbing away at an old Fowlers preserving pot. It had been sitting in my parents’ garage, moved from house to house, and I didn't know it existed until after I told my family I was planning to purchase one second hand. There's one of those in the garage. Mum used to make those peaches, don't you remember? No, I don't. Apparently having a third child was the tipping point; there were only supermarket tinned peaches in my childhood memories. Not that I'm complaining, I'm a big fan of tinned peaches, but it did mean that I was completely unaware that this beast of a unit, and all the accompanying jars, was at my disposal.
The huge preserving pot was once painted in dull brown, but is actually made of copper with a stainless steel lining. I've been taking off the verdigris, a blue-green rust like substance, and in the process found the bright metal shining through. The lid took a lot of scrubbing to get it even a little shiny, and I suspect my patience might run out before I get the whole thing done. The copper, though, is merely aesthetic. Most importantly the interior is clean and free of rust. So I've started to have a go.
Pickling isn't a new concept for me; my old head chef is a Southerner who loved to pickle just about anything. As an apprentice I once infamously messed up the maths on a recipe and made a brine that was one hundred times as salty as it should have been. Remember all those times you asked your maths teacher when will I EVER use this in real life? Yeah… stay in school kids. Anyway, I'm big fan of pickles but I generally have the luxury of a commercial cool-room to store them in. Even when I pickle at home I've usually made small quantities and kept them in the fridge, however, heat-treating jars, either by waterbathing or using the Fowlers Vacola Method, creates a vacuum seal that will allow you to keep the preserves on the shelf for years. Assuming you can wait that long to eat them: I made pickles last week and it has been extremely difficult to restrain myself from opening the jars immediately.
Early Autumn is the perfect time to stock up on preserves. There's an abundance of wonderful fruit and vegetables and a lot of it is pretty cheap. This is the time of year that your grandmother's grandmother's grandmother was likely preparing a stockpile in the pantry to see the family through Winter. Tapping into that matriarchal tradition seems to awaken some old survival instinct within me. Women have been putting things in jars for a long, long time.
Basic Preserving Liquor
I go by the basic rule five parts liquid to one part sugar. For pickles that I'm intending to keep for a long, long time I would usually make that five parts entirely vinegar- usually white wine vinegar but I do occasionally use apple cider vinegar too. For a less intense flavour you can use three parts vinegar, to two parts water, to one part sugar. You'll need a hefty pinch of salt in there either way.
Your spices and aromats are entirely up to you. I almost always use black peppercorns and mustard seeds. Depending on what I'm pickling I might also add bay leaf, cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, garlic or dill. My recent batch of pickled cucumbers had some onion and a whole dried chilli thrown into the mix as well.
Sterilise your jars well. This means washing them thoroughly by hand in very hot soapy water, then letting them dry in an oven at about 50ºC. They will be hot. This is good. If you are using metal lids then once you have washed them, simmer them in a pot of water for about 15 minutes. Fowlers jars can be treated in the same way, and rubber rings should also be soaked in hot water. Metal clips should be clean but won't actually come into contact with the inside of the jar.
Once sterilised, pack your jars tightly with your chosen vegetables. You want to fill them up as much as possible without squishing and bruising them. You can either slice them thinly, as I do with zucchini, or often with larger cucumbers, or leave them whole. Whole vegetables should be pricked with a skewer, to allow the pickling juices to better penetrate the inside. If you are pickling whole chillies then you should pierce them with a sharp knife. Pour the pickling liquid over the top and gently tap the jars on the bench to release air bubbles, or give them a pick of a poke around with a chopstick. Chillies especially will have quite a lot of trapped air. Secure the lids tightly: screw tops need to be screwed on as hard as you can screw them. I used the Fowlers clips to secure my lids with their rubber rings.
There are a couple of ways you can process your preserves. But quite frankly that's a lot of information and there are lots of good places to find it. I'll tell you what I did in the Fowlers (which is essentially just a big pot).
Fill up your Fowlers unit to cover the jars. If the jars are still hot then use warm water; a rapid temperature change will shock them and may break the glass. I line the inside base with a tea- towel to stop the jars jostling and breaking. Slowly bring up the temperature to just below boiling point- around 92ish degrees and hold it there (or as close to that point as you can) for 45 minutes. This required the use of a thermometer. There are modern units that are electric and, quite frankly, require a lot less fucking around. I'm on the lookout for one. After 45 minutes, very carefully remove the jars from the hot water and allow them to cool completely overnight. There are specialised tongs you can get for this, but I just wrapped some regular kitchen tongs with a whole bunch of rubber bands because I am a) resourceful and, b) cheap.
If your jars have sealed properly, the cooled lids will be slightly concave. Any lids with 'pop' seals will make the satisfying 'pop' sound as they cool down.
The only thing left to do now is label the jars and store them. And try to avoid eating the contents immediately…
This is by no means a comprehensive guide; there are a lot of experienced preservers out there who can give you more complete advice. I would recommend Sally Wise's book My Year in A Jar or the Cornersmith recipe book. The Cornersmith cafe in Sydney also runs workshops and has an active Facebook group of pickling enthusiasts. Fowlers users should definitely join the Fowlers Vacola Users group on Facebook. The moderator named Anne is something of a genius and she will answer all of your questions, give you access to great recipes and call you Love. This is a wonderfully wholesome group that will make you forget (momentarily) how horrible the internet can be.