One of the challenges in a successful polytunnel garden is working out what to do with any excess produce that you cannot eat right away. Pickling is one of the ways in which you can make use of a glut, or simply preserve some of the fresh produce of summer for the colder months to come. Learning how to pickle gherkins, for example, can provide a delicious addition for barbecues and other meals later in the year.
What Are Gherkins?
Gherkins are small cucumbers, often pickled and served atop a burger and a familiar ingredient from a range of fast-food meals. While gherkins are technically a specific member of the cucumber family, almost any small cucumber grown in your polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden can be treated the same way.
If you are growing your own cucumbers, you may be familiar with the fact that cucumber plants can, if positioned and cared for correctly, be incredibly productive. You will likely wish to remove a number of small cucumbers to allow remaining fruits to grow to full size. These small cucumbers, or gherkins, are perfect for pickling – these are known as pickles in North America.
Preparing Gherkins for Pickling
Harvesting your baby cucumbers/ gherkins is of course the first step in the process. It is best to use a sharp knife to cut the stems just above the fruits. Use your knife to remove the blossom end of the fruit along with any remaining blossom. Removing a centimetre or so should be more than enough.
Check over the fruits thoroughly. Any that are blemished or bruised or otherwise imperfect are best eaten right away. Save and use only the best, most blemish-free fruits for pickling or other preserves. Be sure also to wash your gherkins well before you begin.
Choosing a Recipe for Pickle Gherkins
Before you progress to the next stage, it is important to consider which recipe you wish to use. It is important to realise that there are a range of different types of pickle, and each one requires a somewhat different process. Of course, the ingredients that you use in your pickling brine will determine how sweet, salty, or sour your pickle will be. A soft, sweet pickle recipe will require a very different technique to a sour dill pickle, or a crisp pickle of some kind.
How to Make Sweet Pickle Gherkins
To make a soft, sweet gherkin, you will need to:
- Cover your washed cucumbers in boiling water and leave them overnight.
- The next day, drain off the water and replace it with a brine. (salt and boiling water). Again, leave the cucumbers submerged overnight.
- On the third day, remove the cucumbers from the brine, and prick them all over with a fork.
- Make up a pickling syrup by bringing your ingredients to the boil and then pouring this over your gherkins. (The ingredients for a pickling syrup will vary considerably depending on which recipe you choose to use, and can easily be altered to taste. Generally, however, for sweet pickles you will use equal parts vinegar and sugar, along with a spice mix of your choice. Common spices often included are turmeric, cinnamon, celery seeds and fennel. Vanilla is also sometimes a feature in such recipes.)
- In some recipes, subsequent days of soaking and boiling are called for, with more sugar, vinegar or spices added at the different stages.
- Next, cram the gherkins into a sterilised jar and cover them with your pickling syrup. Make sure that the gherkins are fully covered by the syrup.
- To pasteurise the pickles (and for greater food safety) head the jars and their contents to a temperature of 82-85 degrees Celsius for at least 30 minutes.
Perfecting a sweet pickle gherkins recipe that suits you perfectly can be a bit of an art, but do not be afraid to experiment a little until you find the recipe that is right for you.
How To Make Dill Pickle Gherkins
A more sour and less sweet dill pickle can also be made by following a huge range of different recipes, which can vary incredibly widely depending on tastes as to the texture of the pickles and the sweetness/sourness ratio.
At its simplest, making a dill pickle involves:
- Soaking gherkins overnight in a brine, completely covered by the salty water. (This mix is sometimes boiled, though sometimes cold, to preserve some crunch. Note: hot preserving makes the gherkins soft and mushier, but they will last longer. Those cold pickled are generally shorter in shelf life, and best kept in the fridge.)
- Gherkins are then placed in a sterilised jar along with plenty of dill, mustard seeds, a clove of garlic and salt to taste.
- The gherkins are covered with a pickling fluid, which is often around 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water, this is usually boiled before being poured into the jar. (Gherkins must be fully covered by the pickling fluid.) If more sweetness is required, sugar is sometimes also added, in varying quantities.
- The jar should then be boiled (upright in water) for 30 minutes if you plan to store the pickle for any length of time.
- Allow your pickle gherkins to develop in the jar for at least a few days before you enjoy them.
What Else Can I Pickle?
If you get a taste for pickled gherkins, you should realise that pickled cucumbers are not the only option. You can also find and use a huge range of similar recipes to pickle other produce from your polytunnel.
You can also easily pickle:
- cabbage or other brassica
- or, if you keep chickens, eggs.
If you wished, you could also use gherkins, other cucumbers, or any of the above to make variations on piccalilli and sweet pickles (like Branston pickle), which can be delicious and useful condiments. Again, there are a huge range of recipes out there to choose from, which make use of a wide range of different herbs and spices.
How to Make Piccalilli
To make a traditional English piccalilli:
- Finely chop onions, cauliflower, gherkins, French beans of whatever other vegetables you are using.
- Sprinkle them with plenty of salt and toss them, cover them up and leave them in a cool place for 12 hours.
- Make up your pickling fluid with vinegar, English mustard, turmeric and ginger and bring it to the boil.
- Rinse the vegetables well and add them to the vinegar. Simmer the vegetables in the vinegar for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
- Add sugar to the mix and continue to simmer the mix for another couple of minutes.
- Use a little cornflour to thicken the watery mix around the vegetables until it is glossy and thick.
- Spoon your piccalilli into hot, sterilised jars.
- Store in a cool, dark place for at least three-four weeks before eating.
How To Make A Preserve Like Branston Pickle
Though it is difficult to make something exactly like the bought condiment Branston Pickle at home, you can make something that comes very close, and which tastes great. This is another way in which you can choose to pickle gherkins and other fruits and vegetables from your garden.
- First, get tomatoes, celery, onions, carrots, cauliflower, swede, gherkins, apples and dates or prunes, and a handful of sultanas.
- Finely chop your fruits and vegetables and add them to a large pan with vinegar, demerara sugar, a generous sprinkle of allspice, a tbsp of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
- Bring to the boil and then simmer the mix for around an hour and a half, skimming off scum as it forms on the top.
- Decant the mix into sterilised jars and leave for several months before tasting it to get it at its best.
There are plenty of different pickling recipes out there to experiment with, so why not take some time to find your own favourite recipes and make some pickles using the gherkins and other fruits and vegetables that you grow in your polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden? Let us know how you get on, or tell us about your favourite ways to pickle gherkins or other vegetables in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.