Sweet pickles are a staple at the Southern table, particularly the lightly sweet bread-and-butter variety. The recipe for these pickles came from my mother-in-law, Jane. During our last trip, she had a jar of these out on the table during one of our lunches. Ascertaining they were homemade, I asked how she made them. As it turns out, these homemade sweet pickles started out as a whole other creature: Store-bought dill pickles.
Jane explained how to take whole dill pickles, slice them down and immerse them in a vinegar syrup to create an instant version of bread-and-butter pickles. Of course the first question that flashed through my mind was, "why not just buy sweet pickles?" Then I tasted them.
I happen to like sweet pickles, but I know many people who do not. For some, the sweetness itself is the problem; they are too cloying and sugary. For others, it’s a texture violation, as sweet pickles tend to be mushier and sometimes even mealy. By starting out with crisp, sour dills, this quick recipe turns out refreshingly balanced sweet-sour and crunchy pickles. My friend Matthew, who is among the clan of sweet-pickle haters, asked, "why would you ruin a perfectly good dill pickle?" Ultimately, he capitulated and said that these were the best sweet pickles ever.
Jane quick-cans these by simply putting heated lids on the jars. I’m a little paranoid about such things, so I did the full-on canning thing, ten minutes in a boiling water bath and all, just to be safe. But she’s been doing it her way for decades, and no one has reported any problems so far, so I may cave in just yet. I imagine the high acidity of the vinegar as well as the high sugar content will keep most pathogens at bay.
Simple though this recipe is, and using store-bought foods besides, it has actually been handed down a couple of generations so far, and anything that has stood the test of time that long is good enough for me. And anyway, they’re your pickles in your jars, so that fully qualifies as homemade. Sorta.
Jane’s (sorta) homemade sweet pickles
1 gallon dill pickles
2 c. tarragon vinegar
5 c. sugar
Dissolve sugar and vinegar over medium heat, stirring frequently, until clear. Let cool. Drain and slice pickles, and pack sliced pickles into sterilized jars. Pour the cooled syrup over to cover, leaving at least 1/2" headspace. Quick-can with heated lids, or can according to whichever method you are accustomed to. The pickles will make their alchemical change overnight.