Fresh-Pickled Watermelon

pickled watermelon 2I love discovering in my garage “pantry” a forgotten jar of something unusual—a one-time experiment, most often, that I’ve neglected to taste. Sometimes the contents are unremarkable, and I search my paper and computer files for the recipe just to note that information. But once in a while the contents are fabulous, and I think, I should make this every year!

Such is the case with the watermelon pickle that I recently happened upon. Jarred up in 2011, it isn’t a rind pickle but is made entirely of red watermelon flesh. Unlike a typical rind pickle, this one isn’t syrupy; it’s only mildly sweet, and mildly sour, too. The melon pieces lack the crispness of fresh watermelon, of course, but they have a bite, almost a chewiness, and a pleasant, soft spiciness. They seem to demand a partnership with cured meat or fish of some kind—perhaps look-alike cold-smoked salmon.

I’ve written before on this blog about fermenting whole watermelons, as I learned to do through the help of Gwen Schock Cowherd, a proud descendant of Germans from Russia. I thank Gwen, too, for telling me that Midwesterners whose grandparents brined their watermelons in barrels now often pickle their melon in pieces, with vinegar.

In 2011 Gwen was planning to send me her vinegar-pickled watermelon recipe—an award-winner at the Minnesota State Fair—but she forgot, and in the meantime I found a similar-sounding recipe in a little Germans-from-Russia community cookbook, called Küche Kochen and published in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1973. From Esther Hoff’s sketchy instructions in Küche Kochen I developed the recipe that follows.

Red Watermelon Pickles in Sweetened Vinegar

A small, 3½-pound watermelon yielded the 2¼ pounds prepared pieces that I used to make 2½ pints of pickles. I’ve slightly adjusted the measurements here to fill three pint jars, for which you’ll need a melon of about 4¼ pounds. If your watermelon is bigger than that, you can either use just part of it or double or triple the recipe.

As you cut up your watermelon, be sure to reserve the excess juice. Chill the juice until you need it.

3 pounds watermelon pieces, about 2 inches square by ¾ inch thick and free of seeds and rind, including the white part (reserve the juice from the leftover seedy parts)
2 teaspoons pickling salt
¾ cup cider vinegar
¾ cup sugar
1 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken
1 small Mediterranean bay leaf
Pinch of fennel seeds
Pinch of coriander seeds
2 allspice berries
3 black peppercorns

Combine the watermelon pieces and salt in a bowl. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for 2 hours.

Drain the salty liquid from the melon, and measure the liquid. Add enough of the reserved juice to make 1½ cups.

Put the salty watermelon juice, the vinegar, the sugar, and the spices in a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the watermelon pieces, bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce the heat. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes.

 Ladle the watermelon pieces and their liquid into pint or half-pint jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

After several family members happily devoured my watermelon pickles, I wrote Gwen to ask about her recipe. Was it like this one?

Not exactly, Gwen said. In fact, she wondered if I’d mixed up a recipe for rind pickles with one for red watermelon pickles. Her watermelon pickles, Gwen explained, have proportionally more salt and much less sugar and vinegar than mine. She discards all the watermelon juice and replaces it with water, because she likes a clearer brine. She flavors her watermelon pickles as most people do fermented cucumber pickles, with dill heads, garlic, and a little hot pepper as well as mixed pickling spices. She tries to leave some white rind on each watermelon piece, to help keep it intact (mine held together well–perhaps the higher sugar content helped). And she likes the pieces small, no bigger than an inch by half an inch, so they are easy to eat without cutting.

I will certainly try Gwen’s recipe next summer, and if she lets me I’ll share it with you. As for my recipe, I can’t call it Esther’s, because Esther didn’t specify how much salt or exactly what mix of spices to use, and perhaps she meant to call for water and forgot. But I love the way my watermelon pickles turned out. I’ll definitely make them again—though perhaps I’ll leave on a little of the white rind. And maybe I’ll reduce their size a bit, too.

15 thoughts on “Fresh-Pickled Watermelon”

  1. Hi Linda –
    I’ve resolved to make the time to catch up on my favorite blogs, and it’s your turn. You can see how far behind I’ve gotten. ;<

    These sound great and something I will try. Thanks for the recipe.

    This is something new and fun that would be interesting at the Food Preservation Fair next month. It would be great on a teaching table where we could examine the recipe and figure out if it could be considered safe, even though Extension hasn't had the funds or suggestion to officially test it. I think we need a table like that. I was sorry to hear you aren't able to participate in the Fair this year.

    1. I think it would be a great learning experience for the Master Food Preserver volunteers. ‘Why can’t I use this recipe?’ is the question I answer most. ‘Because Extension hasn’t had a chance to test it,’ isn’t the best answer. I’d rather make sure I know how to judge a recipe for safety, and then I could leave it to the questioner to make their own decision. That would make me feel like I was doing a better job in educating the public.

      Getting 5 pages of revisions for a book that was thoroughly tested and deemed safe in all respects was rather unnerving. Do you realize our office doesn’t even have a ph meter? Good ones are expensive and we have so many approved recipes, we don’t need to worry about any others.

      I’ve never seen a recipe for watermelon pickles before – watermelon rind recipes abound, but that wasn’t what I wanted – now I see there is another one ahead in my ‘catch-up’. I know how you test recipes and would like to know more about the process myself.

    1. So Easy to Preserve, 5th edition – the 6th edition is now out. I got the revisions at re-certification class. Caitlin (filling in for Leonor) will mail them if you ask.

  2. I actually just made pickled watermelons today and the rinds are in the brine to make tomorrow! I decided to make both Dill/jalapeno and sweet/jalapeno (I just used my regular pickle recipes) the left over is good so I’m super excited to try them once they’ve sat for a bit. (I found your site searching for of all things pickled watermelon labels!)

  3. Does anyone remember the German /Russian name of this? I think it sounded like sowa-nadda-boosa. (phonetic spelling from my memory) I know that the boosa part refers to melon but don’t know the exact pronunciation or spelling, or the translation.

  4. I read through the recipe on this site (as well as the one in your book) and I have one (albeit stupid) question: what do you do with the 1 1/2 cup reserved watermelon juice? Do you add it to the vinegar/sugar/spices in the saucepan?
    I love both of your books and made numerous recipes over the years and always got rave reviews.

    1. Whoops! That is not a stupid question at all. The 1 1/2 cups watermelon juice should go into the saucepan with the vinegar, etc. I will make the correction on the website (sorry I can’t make it in the printed book, but please make it yourself in your copy). Thank you, thank you, Goober!

      1. Thank you for clarifying, Linda.
        I’ll be making a batch today, and I was wondering what are your thoughts regarding adding a bit of Pickle Crisp to each pint jar. I’m hoping to retain some of the crispness of the watermelon, but I’m not sure if it will make any difference.

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