If there is one food I associate with my Grandma Mills, it is her homemade watermelon rind pickles.
She used to keep the jars, filled with bright green syrup and clove-seasoned pickles, on a shelf in her kitchen, behind an old sheet that had been fashioned into a curtain.
Whenever Grandma cooked a family dinner, the pickles were always on the menu. It seemed she always had a jar open in the fridge — and there were plenty others at the ready in her makeshift pantry.
Watermelon rind pickles aren’t your typical pickle. The most obvious difference is that they’re made from the rinds of ripe watermelons instead of from cucumbers.
The way my grandmother made them — and the way I like them — they are crunchy and sweet, with a strong flavor of cloves, cinnamon and ginger.
My grandmother always added green food coloring to her watermelon rind pickles, and that’s how I will always make them. But you can leave them their natural color, as well.
Cooks have been making watermelon rind pickles for centuries.
Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the first cookbook published in the United States in 1796, includes a recipe for preserving watermelon rind.
Abby Fisher, a former slave from Mobile, Ala., who was the first black American woman to record her own recipes, also offers instructions for making pickles from scraps of watermelon. Her recipe, which is recounted in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, calls for 10 pounds of rind and 20 pounds of sugar.
Though cooks in other part of the country make them, watermelon rind pickles are a quintessentially southern food, staking out a place on the table at many a church social or family reunion.
Early Greek settlers in Charleston, S.C. brought the recipe for pickled watermelon rind with them, according to food historians. It’s no wonder rural southerners embraced these pickles, whose nectar is as toothsome as a glass of sweet iced tea.
Whenever I make the pickles, I work directly from my grandmother’s handwritten recipe.
It’s like I can hear her coaching me through the process and offering her kitchen wisdom through the phrases she underlined for emphasis.
The hardest part of making these pickles is preparing the rind. Grandma’s recipe warns about this, and I can attest that it is a time-consuming process. I haven’t happened upon an easy way to do it. You’ll need to watch your fingers and pick a melon with a thick rind.
Many watermelons today are cultivated to have thinner rinds — hence more melon — but if you’re planning to make pickles, you want to pick one with a thick rind.
The Department of Horticulture Science at N.C. State University has some recommendations for the best types of watermelons for making pickles.
If you make watermelon rind pickles now, you can give the preserved jars as gifts at the holidays. Imagine how festive the green jars would look tied with red Christmas ribbon.
The recipe below assumes you have a basic knowledge of canning or pickling making. If you need basic tips for canning pickles, please check out this tutorial.
- 4 quarts watermelon rind (from a medium-sized watermelon)
- 3 heaping Tablespoons Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime
- 8 cups sugar
- 1 quart vinegar
- 1 quart water
- 2 Tablespoons whole cloves
- 3 sticks cinnamon
- 2 pieces ginger root
- Prepare the rind by removing all the pink part of the melon and the skin, leaving just the pale green rind. Cut into cubes. Rind can be tough to cut, so be careful.
- Dissolve pickling lime in warm water. The mixture will be cloudy.
- Put rind in a canner or a large plastic bowl. (Never use an aluminum pan.) Pour lime water over rind, then add enough cold water to cover rind. Put plates on top the rind to keep it submerged. Soak covered overnight, occasionally stirring and mixing well.
- Drain lime water and rinse pickles in cold water several times. Soak in cold water for about 30 minutes, then wash again to remove all the lime.
- When you are ready to make your pickles, sterilize your jars. (I run mine through the dishwasher.) Sterilize lids in a pot of boiling water.
- Tie spices in a cheesecloth bag. (Instead of the spice mixture above, you can use 2 heaping Tablespoons of whole pickling spices, but be sure to remove some of the red pepper or the pickles will be too hot.)
- Combine spices with sugar, vinegar and water and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add watermelon rind, color with green food coloring, as desired, and boil until rind is clear.
- Remove spice bag.
- Pack boiling hot into sterilized jars, leaving ⅛ inch head space. If you need more liquid to fill jars, add boiling water. Adjust caps and place sealed jars in water bath and process 10 minutes at simmering temperature in canner with rack.
- Remove from canner and allow to cool. You will hear a popping sound as the jars seal.
If you’re looking for other ideas for food gifts or preserves recipes, check out my sweet and spicy homemade pepper jelly.