Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 09.11.05
Stanstead, Quebec


Don't panic over pickles

Every jar of pickles is a leap of faith.

I recently chastised my mom, for example, on her lax technique of sterilizing jars by merely pouring boiling water over them. Her reply was, "I haven't killed anyone yet."


The number of pickle-related deaths is in fact quite low. Or at least I assume it is; Statistics Canada doesn't offer any figures (although I did find a YouTube video entitled "Girl is scared to death of pickles").

This is actually surprising when you consider that each pickle-maker has his or her own arbitrary interpretation of recipes and BPP (best pickling practices). And remember, this is a food that's stored on dark basement shelves for months at a time. It's the Christmas decoration of foodstuffs.

In my case, it's more like years at a time.

I recently opened a jar of bread-and-butter pickles that I made in 2003. I have one remaining jar of dilled beans dated September 2001. When I pry open these older jars, I'm never entirely certain whether that "pop" is saying "Fresh!" or "Botulism!" But, as Mom says, we haven't died yet.

I'm justified in being wary since, as the resident pickle maker, I know exactly what I've done to them. It's not always pretty. My pickling process usually involves wavering between fretting about hygiene and scoffing at it. "Bring it on, germs!" I think to myself as I fish carefully boiled jars out of boiling water with a dirty old oven mitt.

If you really want to fret, just read the directions that come with Mason jars. They suggest dire consequences should you stray from the path of pickle purity. "Use ONLY plastic, rubber or wooden utensils." "Do NOT retighten screw bands."

But I NEVER use anything but metal tongs and funnels, and I ALWAYS get too impatient to heat process my filled jars for the recommended time.

And every year, I come across some seemingly new rule, usually something contradicting what I've been doing for years. What do you mean I only have to "heat" my jars in water brought to a simmer? Could Mom be right after all? (Sorry, Mom.)

All this fretting sounds decidedly unmasculine. But don't be fooled. Pickling is not for sissies. This is tough, sweaty work. You're dealing with heavy pots of water, sharp knives, the potential for scalding.

There's the acrid stench of boiling brine (which, by the way, is highly effective for keeping away flies and small children).

There's the inherent rudeness potential in cucumbers and zucchinis that only a guy can truly appreciate and exploit.

And of course, any miscalculation or negligence can result in gastrointestinal discomfort or even death! (Well, maybe not death. Again, I didn't find statistics. But I did see pickles make that girl cry. Cool.)

Which brings me back to the beginning. This past weekend was pickle time in our house. Rather than purchase new Mason jars, I scavenged whatever I could find under the sink. I'm not sure what they had previously been used for. As with many things pickle-related, it's best not to think about it too much.

There must have been a flaw in one of them, though, because when I returned the cuke-filled jars to the pot for heat processing, one of the bottoms cracked right off.

We sprang into action to rescue the pickles. With metal tongs and filthy mitt, we tilted the cracked jar out of the pot, trying to keep the pickles inside. Some slid out into the boiling water. I scooped up the escapees and thrust the works into a new jar, topping them off quickly with leftover brine and shoving them back in the water.

I'm pretty sure it was a clean break and that there were no shards of glass which is not the crunch you want in a pickle.

Just to be safe, I marked that jar with a big question mark. I'm sure they'll be fine. Yeah. They'll be fine.

Did I mention that pickles make lovely gifts?