Yesterday was my first day of the year full of the manic joy that is canning season. My garden unexpectedly delivered a colander full of pickling cucumbers. Some of the cucumbers had been doing a good job of hiding and were pretty huge. My job was clear. Pickle them while they’re fresh! The large ones were sliced thin for hamburger dill slices in order to make them fit into jars. I was rewarded for my work with two quarts and four pints of Green Garlic Dill Pickles.
Two pints Hamburger Dill Slices and one quart Green Garlic Dill Pickles.
I know a lot of folks out there are intimidated by canning. I understand it… The food police have scared us with their constant semi-subliminal message that the only food safe to eat comes hermetically sealed in jars and boxes barely touched by human hands. Look at all the things that can go wrong, botchulism, salmonella, mold, etc… The truth is, though, that canning is an incredibly safe and economical way to provide outstanding food for your table.
I’ve put together a little primer on making garlic dill pickles; by far the easiest thing outside of jam to can.
Dill Pickle Recipe Primer
There are really only three things you need to do to ensure successful pickles.
- Keep everything clean.
- Use the freshest produce available.
- Keep your hands impeccably clean. As in Howard Hughes clean.
For starters, you’ll need intact glass canning jars that come with new two part lids. The ones with hinge lids are pretty, but they don’t seal as consistently… For now, leave those for short term storage. How many will you need? That depends on how many pickling cucumbers you have. One peck of pickling cucumbers yields approximately 12 quart jars of pickles. I’ll give the recipe in a “per quart” format. That will make it easy for you to scale up to however many cukes you have available.
…And forgive me if this sounds obvious, but to make sure you’ll get nice, crunchy pickles you need to buy pickling cucumbers. Salad or slicing cucumbers, while delicious, don’t hold up to the canning process as well and yield softer pickles. They’re not bad, they’re just not as good as they could be. How do you know you’re in possesion of pickling cucumbers? If you slice one open you should not see many seeds; if there are seeds they should be small. The skin of a pickling cucumber is more delicate than a slicing or salad cucumber. When perfectly fresh, the pickling cucumber’s skin should yield easily to a knife or your teeth. (Well, you have to test the quality of your product, don’t you?)
Garlic Dill Pickles
For each quart of pickles you will need:
For the spices:
- 3-4 heads fresh dill (or 1 Tablespoon dried whole dill seed- not weed.)
- 2-3 large cloves garlic, peeled
- 12 whole black peppercorns
- 1/2 a small bay leaf
- 1/4 teaspoon whole mustard seed
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or 3 dried habaneros (optional)
For the brine:
- 1 cup cider or white wine vinegar (Cider gives you a more classic pickle flavor, white wine gives you a more delicate pickle.)
- 2 cups water
- 1 Tablespoon pickling salt (That’s basically any non-iodized salt. Kosher salt works well here.)
Clean and sterilize your jars, lids and rings and a ladle or heat-proof measuring cup with a handle, and a chopstick or butterknife. You can do this one of two ways. Either wash in your dishwasher and use the heat dry cycle or immerse jars and rings, ladle and butterknife in boiling water for five minutes and hold in the hot water while preparing the cucumbers. To sterilize the lids with boiling water, place them in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. I opt for the dishwasher. Getting a dishwasher changed my canning life!
To make the pickles, scrub the cucumbers and take a small slice off the blossom end of the cucumber. Taking off about 1/16″ from the end of the cucumber is a little more crunchy pickle insurance. If left intact, the blossom end can release a compound that causes soft pickles.
If needed, trim cucumbers down to a size that will fit in your jars.
Now for the fun part (and I mean that!)
Eyeball your cucumbers and make a rough estimate of how many jars you’ll be filling. Line your jars up on the counter and into each of them put the spices and garlic listed above in the quantities given. Pack the cucumbers in on top of the spices and garlic. Don’t squish the cucumbers when packing them in, but you don’t have to be shy about trying to make the most of the space available in the jar, either. Leave 1/2″ of space between the top cucumber and the rim of the jar. This is called headspace and it is important in creating the seal that stands between your delicious food and nasty bacteria and mold.
Scale the brine recipe to the appropriate level (Are you making 4 quarts? Use 4 cups cider vinegar, 8 cups water, 4 Tablespoons pickling salt, etc…) Add all brine ingredients to a large stockpot and bring to a boil. While still boiling, pour (I use a ladle for the job) into cucumber filled jars. Again, respect the 1/2″ headspace.
You may find that you need to pour a little more brine in after it settles into the spaces. This is fine. When you’ve brined all your jars, gently insert your sterile chopstick or butterknife down the sides of the jar to release air bubbles. If you need to add more brine at this point to reach the 1/2″ mark, do so.
*If you have leftover brine, don’t sweat it. You can save it in the fridge for your next batch of pickles or use it to cook beet greens, or any number of other things. It’s better to make more than you think you need so that you don’t have to scramble to prepare more brine before processing your pickles!
Using a clean paper towel, gently wipe the rims of the jars, place a clean lid on the jar and thread a ring onto the jar to keep the lid in place. Don’t crank on the ring with brute force. It’s not the ring that is protecting your food. The ring merely holds the lid in place until a good seal forms. Just turn it until it provides resistance. This will hold the lid on tight enough to prevent water from entering the jar, but loose enough that air can be forced out of it during processing.
When all your jars are filled, turn your attention to processing. You’ll need a pot with a tight fitting lid deep enough to allow boiling water one inch higher that your tallest jar when full of jars. To test this, place filled jars (with tightened lids and rings) in the pot. Fill with water to one inch higher than the tallest jar. Leaving the water in the pot, carefully remove jars. Place pot over burner, cover, and bring to a full boil. When water reaches a rolling boil, carefully place jars in the pot. (It is helpful, but not strictly necessary, to have a spiffy rack for raising and lower jars in the pot. You can also make due with a long silicone oven mitt or a jar lifter- another nifty canning gadget.)
Put the lid on your pot and bring water back to a rolling boil. Once it reaches a rolling boil, start timing! For quart jars you process them for 20 minutes. For pints, process for 15 minutes. Do not underprocess these jars. The processing time is your safety mechanism. It kills nasties that might be on or in the jars and it kick-starts the melding of the flavors. Contrary to what seems might happen, underprocessing can result in mushy, soft pickles. Ewwwww.
When processing time is up, carefully remove jars to a sturdy cooling rack over a dish towel. As the jars cool, you’ll occasionally hear a “pop” sound. Don’t freak out. This is a good thing. This is the sound of the jars sealing. Allow the jars to cool overnight. In the morning, use a damp paper towel to wipe down the jars and check the seals. If you press gently in the center of the lid it should not give at all and should not pop back up. If you have some seals that failed, don’t worry. Just store those in your fridge! They’re still good to eat, they’re just not shelf-stable. Label your jars with their contents and the date they were made. They will be ready to eat in 6 weeks.
To store the pickles, put them in a single layer on a shelf in a cool, dry place. A closed cupboard or basement shelf is perfect. Homemade pickles are at their delicious best when served super cold.
Don’t panic about that bent ring! I’ll explain why…
Now I’m going to tell you another thing that seems contrary to common sense. Remove the rings from the jars when you set them on your shelves to store them. Remember I told you the rings are there just to hold the lid in place? Left on the jar they can actually prevent you from knowing a problem exists both before and after storage. After processing, the ring has performed the duty it was meant to do. It held the lid in place long enough to form a seal. Removing the ring allows you to inspect the seal before storage (and refrigerate any jars with questionable seals.) It can give you an obvious sign that things inside the jar have gone awry.
In ten years of canning, I’ve only had one item go bad. It was a jar of blueberry jam. I had laughed at my Grandma’s advice to leave the ring off, but had listened to her and done it anyway. I went down to my basement to retrieve a jar of something-or-other and saw that the lid had blown off of a jar of blueberry jam. That is an indicator of a bad thing. Now, there was hairy mold and it was slightly off-smelling, too, but I might not have checked it over so carefully had that lid not blown off. Save yourself some trouble and do what my Grandma said!
Which brings me to what most people fear about canning; contamination. Pickles are pretty fool-proof with their super high levels of vinegar and salt, but ever so occasionally, things can go wrong. I’ve never had a problem with pickles, but I am not fool enough to think I’m impervious. Thankfully, it’s pretty obvious when home-canned goods go bad. If you see any of the following signs, or you even suspect a problem, throw it out. Don’t be a martyr!
Signs your canned goods have gone bad:
- The lid has popped up and/or makes a clicky sound when pressed down in the center.
- The lid is off the jar entirely.
- When removed, the lid offers no resistance and/or makes no sound.
- There is hairy growth on top of the food in the jar.
- The contents of the jar smell off or foul.