Sunday, August 8, 2010

Watermelon Rind Pickles

As you probably know, my country is currently in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. It’s a different world now, and the tricks people used to survive back then won’t always work today. However, having been hit by The Third Depression myself, I have been trying to live by some of the principles of frugality that helped people back then. They tend to neatly align with this new trendy “green” thing as well. I’ve already mentioned my rain barrel, but my clothesline should also get some credit (not using the dryer saves double energy in the summer, since I’m not using the electricity for the dryer or using extra electricity for the AC to cool down the house because of the hot dryer), and since I have some more time on my hands, I might as well put some more effort into my garden, and into cooking everything from scratch.

One good practice is using up everything you’ve got and letting nothing go to waste. I already make my own chicken stock regularly out of saved chicken bones (from buying whole chickens and cutting them up myself instead of using pre-cut chicken pieces), and I skim the fat off the top and use that as a cooking fat, and then finally the bones, after giving up all they had to give, go in the compost pile where they can give even more.

But now I’ve really outdone myself. It started when I scored a free watermelon at my part time farmer’s market job a couple of weeks ago (which is the only job I’ve managed to land since being let go from my last internship in March). The watermelon farmer didn’t want to drag home his leftovers at the end of the day, so asked the other vendors and employees there to please take some of them. Since my sweetie is watching his carbohydrates, and despite my argument that watermelon is good for you so he should eat some, I ended up having to consume the entire melon myself, and this was a real watermelon, not one of those little seedless things that are becoming more popular. As I feasted on watermelon salad, watermelon smoothies, and of course just plain watermelon for days, instead of throwing the rind into the compost pile, which is where most people would think it should go, I saved it up in the fridge to try out a recipe I saw on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, watermelon rind pickles.

Yes, let us rethink our definitions of what is edible and what is waste, and perhaps find a tasty treat in the process. After all, saving up all my chicken bones has been working out quite well. Why not watermelon rinds? And just like how the “green” trend is mostly rediscovering and updating some very old practices, watermelon rind pickles is a very old recipe that still may be known by a few old southern grandmas somewhere. (I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I never got the chance to have recipes handed down from grandmas, so I’m jealous. I have to start everything from scratch.)

I have been trying some other “alternative” pickles since my cucumber crop didn’t really manifest. I’ve made pickled beets, which were already known to my family, though not the canned version, and then I made “dilly beans” out of a bunch of green beans I got from my farmer, which seem to be a fairly standard dill pickle recipe but using green beans instead of cucumbers. I was going to pickle some okra too, since I always love it when salad bars have pickled okra. They taste like they’re probably using a similar recipe to bread and butter pickles, but with okra. Except then I ended up using my okra in gumbo, and then freezing some pre-breaded okra for quick fried okra in the future. I haven’t gotten around to pickling it yet, and now it’s so hot that my okra plants have slowed production way down. Maybe they will pick up again this fall.

Watermelon rind pickles are quite different from these other pickles, though. While pickled beets, green beans, and okra seem to be the same basic pickle recipes I’m familiar with, substituting a different vegetable for the usual cucumbers, the watermelon rind pickle recipe struck me as being kind of weird. For one thing, while making dilly beans can take an afternoon, these watermelon rind pickles were a multi-day process. True, most of that wasn’t active time, but these pickles needed two different overnight soaks!

I was tempted to take some kind of shortcut, but then I realized that I really shouldn’t tamper with ancient pickling wisdom, so I followed the recipe to the letter, with two exceptions. On the first soak where the rinds soak in salt water, I also added Pickle Crunch to the brine. It’s supposed to keep pickled veggies firmer, and the directions on it said to soak the veggies overnight in it before pickling, so I combined that with the salt water soak. The last time I made cucumber pickles they were really mushy, so from now on I’m going to be using Pickle Crunch. After the salt water soak, the rinds are then drained, covered with clean water, and boiled for 10 minutes. To remove the salt? I don’t know, but I did that, and while that’s going you make the vinegar/syrup type stuff. Here’s where I diverged from the recipe one more time. I always use apple cider vinegar for pickling instead of distilled white. It has the same % acidity, but with a much nicer flavor. The liquid was half vinegar and half water, and a full NINE CUPS of sugar! Brought that to a boil to dissolve, with six cinnamon sticks, a full tablespoon of cloves, and a sliced lemon. The rinds were drained again, covered with the hot vinegar-sugar mixture, and put back in the refrigerator for another overnight soak.

The next day, the pot was once again pulled out of the fridge, and this time the whole thing was brought to a boil and simmered for a full hour! I don’t know why these watermelon rinds need to be cooked so much, but it sure did make the house smell good. They smell nothing like watermelon, just a mixture of lemon, clove, and cinnamon, and a little apple cider vinegar. The smell was almost Christmas-like, like mincemeat pie or fruitcake. Weird thing to smell when it’s 103 degrees outside.

Then I got to break in my new steam canner! Yes, ancient pickling recipes combined with the latest in pickling technology! Works with anything you use a boiling water canner for, but with a fraction of the water, which saves a lot of energy not having to boil so much water. And steam is actually hotter than boiling water, isn’t it? As you may remember from my post on pickled beets, I’m finally getting some jar breakage, which may be because I haven’t been using a real canner, just a big stockpot where the jars bump around as they process. I decided to invest in an actual canner, and here the jars sit on a rack nice and still and not bumping into each other.

After the rinds got their second cook, I strained them out and put them in pint jars along with one cinnamon stick for each jar, then poured in the syrup. The weirdest thing about these so-called “pickles” is that the juice is not a salty-vinegary concoction, but really is syrup. I ended up with six pints of pickles, and a little extra left, with about a quart of extra syrup. Not sure how that happened. I did weigh out the watermelon rind to make sure I got really close to the six pounds called for by the recipe, and it was darn close. In the spirit of not wasting anything, I saved the extra syrup. No idea what I’ll do with it yet. Any ideas on what to do with a lemon, cinnamon, clove flavored syrup?

I steamed my jars for 10 minutes, and they started popping as soon as I took the lid off the canner. They’re good and sealed, and I don’t have a huge pot of hot water to deal with. I like my steam canner already.

I started looking around on the internet for more information on watermelon rind pickles, like what to do with them once you have them, and found one blog post where someone tried it, ate some of the pickles right away, and said they were disgusting and threw them all out. Someone else commented saying that when their grannies made watermelon rind pickles in the summer, they never ate them until Christmas or at least Thanksgiving. It seems they need to “cure” a bit to reach peak deliciousness.

I might eat my little dab of extra pickles that weren’t enough to fill another jar after they’ve sat in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but the rest are being saved until Christmas. Aren't they pretty in their jars with their cinnamon sticks? They turned out surprisingly yellow. I did taste some of the pickle juice, and it is very sweet. Not anything like pickle juice from dill pickles or bread and butter pickles or even pickled beets. I have a feeling these will turn out more like pie filling than pickles, so I’m not sure what to do with them. Any ideas? Put them on ice cream? Glaze my Yule ham with them?

Weird, but I feel my culinary horizons have been expanded.

In closing, you may be thinking, “Weren’t you growing your own watermelons?” Well, yeah, I tried, but last week when I prodded my largest specimen, the vine fell off. My watermelon vines are dead, and all but two of the fruits were obviously rotted. I took the two non-rotten fruits in the house, worrying they may not have gotten a chance to ripen, but after washing them off and letting them sit on the counter for a while I’m getting more optimistic. Here’s how they look now:

They don’t look too bad, besides being puny. Maybe they did ripen. The one on the right looks the best. The one on the left is smaller, darker, and has some slight ribbing like a pumpkin or something, which is weird. I’m a bit afraid to cut one open, though, afraid I might find something other than juicy, sweet, crimson watermelon goodness. You can see I am perhaps still traumatized by my disgusting rotten squash incidents. Anyway, I think Blacktail Mountain is not the watermelon variety for me. Not a good idea for me to get varieties (of anything) that brag about cold tolerance. Some sort of classic southern heirloom watermelon would probably be the way to go, like Rattlesnake or Moon and Stars. I went ahead and put Blacktail Mountain on my GardenWeb trade list to see if I can find my remaining seeds a better home


  1. My mother and grandmother made watermelon rind preserves.
    2 part fruit to 1 part sugar, stir often and soak overnight (24 hrs), then cook until soft and syrup is thick and golden. Can into hot jars and seal with hot lids and dry flats. Stores for months in the cabinet. Serve chilled with breads, biscuits, toast or as a "conserve" or "confit" with pork or poultry.

    1. That sounds good! I'll have to remember to try that sometime when I have watermelon rinds again.

      My watermelon rind pickles turned out really good. I was afraid they would turn out too sweet, but ended up having a nice balance of sweet and sour. They do go really well with pork.