Pickle School with the Austin Learnshop

Earlier this year I joined a hippy work space collective. I’ve been freelancing for two years now, and working from home breeds madness. Going to cafes is expensive, and I have a medical condition where I need to be coldly ignoring lots of people before I can do any work.

As an added perk, sometimes my office holds events for its members. Last month I attended Austin Learnshop‘s pickling workshop. I currently live in a household that is at the whim of a kombucha scobie, so pickling seemed like something I could probably incorporate into my lifestyle.

The class was led by a young pickle entrepreneur named Sheena, of Sheena’s Pickles Facebook Page fame.

Sheena’s Pickles: A Brief History

Sheena got into pickling right before one “broke-ass Christmas.” She spread pickled cheer throughout the land, and forever after her pickles were in high demand. Sheena’s fridge is continually packed with pickles, and the hordes of wailing pickle-gobblers are never far from her door.

She also makes jams.

“Any questions?” she asked before we began. Some Paranoid Patty asked about botulism. Sheena explained that botulism only forms at very high temperatures. You only need those kinds of temps for canning – jarring doesn’t get hot enough for that kind of freak funk to form.

Pickle Ingredients

At each table the picklers had an array of flavoring agents at our disposal. Sheena warned us to go easy with the jalapeño: “I don’t want you all shitting fire.”

Sheena passed out latex gloves and warned the gentlemen in the room about the dangers of mixing spicy peppers and penises. Women also put on gloves, who knows why.

(Don’t be naive. In case we wanted to touch penises later.)

We were free to paint our pickle canvases in shades of carrot, green bean, okra, and zucchini. Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an organic farm in Austin, provided all of the vegetables.

Eli, one of my co-workers, sank into a deep depression once he learned that there was no cucumber. He looked at his zucchini, betrayed. “This isn’t cucumber?”

I sharply reminded him that Sheena had specifically announced cucumbers weren’t in season. “Weren’t you paying attention?”

Another woman at our pickling table was more compassionate. Mary kept handing Eli odds and ends to add to his jar, in hopes of cheering him up.

There there. Have a carrot.

Pickle Pout

He pouted for the duration of the class.

“I thought we were making REAL pickles.”

Eventually someone pointed out that Eli’s vegetables were too short for his jar, which increased his sorrows by tenfold.

(I stuffed my jar perfectly. Everyone noticed.)

Dry Jar

For my veggies I tossed in mostly carrots and green beans, along with a couple of okra. Then I threw in some zucchini, so as to not hurt the zucchini’s feelings. I also chucked in a couple of sprigs of fresh dill, slam-dunked a small clove of garlic from the 3-point line, and catapulted in a few hearty pinches of seasoning using a tiny, medieval trebuchet.

Trebuchet

For those of you all who thought pickling was just taking a nap while your cucumbers soak in vinegar: You think you grown, but you ain’t.

There is an arsenal of special pickling tools. This is similar to what our pickling fairy godmother brought for us to use.

pickling kit

This kit includes a special contraption to lift your jar out of boiling water, a lid-lifter for transporting lids without touching them with your grubby hands, and a special wide-mouthed funnel to keep the lip of the jar clean.

Now I’m going to tell you the instructions, to give you an idea of the magnitude of the undertaking. If you find yourself feeling bored, ask yourself this: Is the Apocalypse boring? Because this might be your only way of storing vegetables when it comes. Pay attention or your whole family will die. (You can find the actual instructions on the Ball website.)

  1. Boil your mason jar to sanitize it.
  2. Fill the sanitized jar with your seasonal vegetables of choice. If you’re using cucumbers, make sure chop off the cucumber butts. Did you know that cucumbers have butts? They do, and they contain an enzyme that makes them less crunchy once pickled.  Pickling salt
  3. Carefully pour the pickling brine over the vegetables. Brine is usually made from white vinegar, pickling salt, and all your secret extra brining ingredients.
  4. Heat the the lid in boiling water. This makes the red, adhesive ring on the inside of the lid sticky. Once it’s hot, carefully press the lid onto the mouth of the jar.
  5. Screw the ring around the lid, but not too tightly.
  6. Boil the entire jar.

Sheena and the Austin Learnshop host boiled all the jars and lids for a class of about 25, as purposeful as midwives delivering 25 babies simultaneously.

Our vegetables packed, we approached Sheena’s cauldron to receive our brine. Sheena will take the recipe for her brine to the grave, so don’t bother asking. We didn’t pressure her – pickler’s honor.

After we returned to our jars, Sheena instructed us to run a wooden plastic stirrer around the outside of the jar. This serves to remove any bubbles. If bubbles are trapped inside the jar, they will cause the jar to explode late at night, killing everyone in the house.


Dangerous Pickle Bubble Removal

Then Sheena gave us hot lids to a put on our jars.. Sheena instructed us not to screw the rings on too tightly, or the lids wouldn’t be able to comfortably seal. If the lid doesn’t seal, the vegetables will become poison and – you guessed it – everyone’s dead.

Our pickles would be ready in 4 weeks. Sheena promised to make herself available in the meantime for pickle troubleshooting.

And what happens when they’re done? “I’ve known people to black out and eat the whole jar,” Sheena cautioned. “But they can last 2 to 3 months after they’ve been opened.” Left unopened, these bad boys could live for a full year in the refrigerator.

I opened mine on the appointed day, November 15th.

My carrots and green beans had an above-average crunch, and an especially feisty vinegar snap.

Pick Jar Above

As I had feared, the okra had a polarizing slime.

Trigger warning: Slime.

ACTUAL FOOTAGE.

Okra_Goo

But slime doesn’t deter my ferocious appetite, and I made sure my pickles knew that loved all of them equally.

I noticed, however, that my garlic had turned blue.

What is THIS??? Botulism???

Blue Garlic

I found the answer in Harold McGee’s “Curious Cook” column:

Under the right conditions these chemicals react with each other and with common amino acids to make pyrroles, clusters of carbon-nitrogen rings. These rings can be linked together into multipyrrole molecules.

The ring structures absorb particular wavelengths of light, and thus appear colored. The two-pyrrole molecule looks red, the three-pyrrole molecule looks blue and the four-pyrrole molecule looks green, as does its cousin tetrapyrrole, the chlorophyll molecule. Like chlorophyll, all the pyrrole pigments are perfectly safe to eat.

THE GARLIC IS PERFECTLY SAFE TO EAT, PEOPLE.

(Don’t worry. I threw it out.)

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