Who doesn’t love a pleasant rush of sanctimony when biting into a crunchy homemade pickle or admiring a row of colorful jars on a pantry shelf, especially when growing and making your own is much cheaper than buying? It makes a lot of sense for our farm household, especially since my kids adore them and I like using them in two of my all-time favorite Russian recipes, the Olivier salad and rassolnyk, or pickle soup.
In the ideal world, you would grow the cukes in your garden – this is how you assure that you pick them when they are just the right size. But if you have to buy them, look for poky, perky ones, and don’t be shy to ask when they were picked since pickles are the crispiest when processed the same day.
This summer we may have planted about ten plants, which we started in our window in March. Here in Wisconsin you can also saw your cucumber seeds directly into the ground, but your crop will come in later this way. We’ve done it before, but we really prefer to go with the transplants, which we put out there in late May or early June, once the danger of the frost has passed.
If you are not familiar with growing them, cucumbers grow on a vine that looks a lot like the watermelon vine. These yellow flowers are what eventually turns into pickles.
And here are the cukes – see how poky they are? If you are going to plant cukes for pickling, be sure to select the seeds of a pickling variety (Kirby and so forth). While the normal slicer cukes can also be pickled successfully, these here are the ones that will give you the classic, pleasantly-plump pickle shape.
When it comes to choosing the right size, I tend to stick to the smaller ones because they make crunchier pickles and fit better into quart jars. If you are growing them yourself, keep in mind that once they start coming in, they’ll be coming in fast and get big even faster, so be sure to check your vine every couple of days. The cucumber above is my favorite size for pickling.
This one is a little bigger but still OK.
And I certainly wouldn’t go any bigger than this.
Now you can cut bigger cukes into spears if you can’t stand wasting them, but I find that spears don’t come out quite as crunchy.
The following ingredients are what makes dill pickles such:
Grape leaves – they contain the enzymes that promote crispness. I use about two per jar. Again, be sure to wash your leaves thoroughly and remove any blemish that you see.
Peeled garlic cloves – I use about 5-6 per quart jar. These must also be washed.
Dill - I like to use the entire stalks, heads and all. I kink them up like so to fit in the jars.
Black Peppercorns or Peppercorn Blend – I use approximately 2 T per jar. Some people will also add a hot pepper or two, such as fresh or dried whole cayenne peppers.
Preparing Cucumbers for Pickling:
- Scrub your cukes thoroughly using a vegetable brush, as any dirt left on may lead to spoilage. Soaking the pickles in cool water for about ten minutes prior makes this easier. Take special care to clean between the little bumps.
- Trim off both ends – trimmed cukes can be better penetrated by the brine, and, more importantly, the blossom end contains the enzymes that promote softening.
- Canner: If you are planning to process your pickles for long-term storage, they need to be sealed and processed in a boiling-water canner (not pressure canner). Be sure that your canner comes with a rack that prevents the jars from touching the bottom.
- Jars: You will need special canning jars, which will always say either Ball, Kerr, Mason, or Atlas on them. Be sure to examine your jars for cracks and chips before using, especially along the rim – any small crack can lead to a jar shattering once it hits the boiling water, and any chip along the rim will prevent it from sealing properly. Either wide-mouth or regular jars can be used, but the former allow more room for your hand to get in when packing.
- Lids: To assure the best chance of sealing, it is recommended that you purchase new canning lids every time you can. Cannig rings, on the other hand, can be reused, and need not be replaced until they get rusty.
- Jar lifter to get your jars in and out of the boiling water.
- Canning funnel to facilitate the pouring of hot brine into jars. I recommend that you stay away from plastic and go with stainless steel instead. It is also handy for a variety of other tasks, such as pouring homemade yogurt into jars for storage.
- Tongs: A must for dipping lids in hot water to sterilize them.
Sterilizing Equipment (skip if making refrigerator pickles):
- Wash your jars, lids, and rings in hot, soapy water and rinse out well.
- Dry the rings and set aside. They need not be sterilized as they won’t come in contact with the contents of the jars.
- Using your jar lifter, dip your jars into the boiling water – I use my canner for this. Be sure to submerge them fully to get the hot water on the inside.
- Remove the jars from the canner and set them on a kitchen towel spread out on the counter.
I start by placing a grape leaf or two on the bottom of each jar, followed by a few garlic cloves.
Dill is next – squash it all down. Follow by a tablespoon of peppercorns.
Next, stuff the cucumbers in jars really tight so they don’t float to the top when you add the brine – we want them to remain fully submerged to avoid spoilage. My five-year-old daugther got pretty serious about make sure this happens. Child labor is a real important part, by the way! Also, their smaller hands are perfect for those regular-mouth jars.
Husband labor is real important too! Their hands are not small enough for regular jars, but this is made up for by the length of their fingers. Plus, it’s hot.
Don’t fill your jars all the way to the top, leaving some space for more dill, garlic, peppercorns, and grape leaves, as well as head space above the brine for expansion during processing. You can tell we stuck one or two cukes too many in this one.
Top the cukes with more dill, garlic, peppercorns, and a grape leaf.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with different brine recipes, and so can you, as long as your brine is acidic enough to prevent the growth of the botulinum toxin (a 1:1 water-to-vinegar ratio is said to be required). I use the following ingredients in my dill pickle brine:
- Water - I live in the country and our water comes from a well, which means that it has no additives that city or town water might have. The chlorine often added to city water can interfere with the pickling process, so if you have a filter installed on your tap or buy drinking water from a store that is the best. Note also that while our well water tends to be hard (contains minerals), this factor has had no perceptible effect on the quality of my pickles, except for occasionally making them darker in color.
- Vinegar - you must use vinegar with 5% acidity to assure consistent and safe results, which means that THOU SHALT NOT USE HOMEMADE VINEGAR WHEN MAKING PICKLES for the simple reason that its precise acidity level may vary. I use white vinegar for pickling as it has no particular flavor of its own.
- Salt – use Pickling salt only, as it has no additives that could interfere with the pickling process.
- Sugar – while optional, I find that it does round out the other flavors nicely, adding an extra dimension. I use simple white sugar for the same reason that I use white vinegar.
The following recipe is enough for approximately 7-8 quart jars:
- 2 quarts (8 C) of water
- 2 quarts store-bought white vinegar with 5% acidity
- 6-8 T (tablespoons) pickling salt
- 2-4 T white sugar (optional but highly recommended)
Place everything in a pot and bring to a boil, cooking just until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Taste your brine prior to canning, adding more salt or sugar as needed (do not alter water-to-vinegar ratio). If you make your brine ahead of time, be sure it is boiling temperature before adding it to jars.
Using your canning funnel, pour the boiling brine over the cucumbers, leaving approximately 3/4″ head space (use the throat of the jar as guide – don’t fill past the beginning of the throat). Be sure that the entire contents of the jar are covered by the brine – push down anything that isn’t with a clean spoon.
Screw on the lid, let the jars cool to room temperature, and stick them in the fridge. They will be ready to eat in about three days. Do not make a large batch of these as they will not keep past a few weeks. This method is especially useful if you didn’t grow a vast field of cukes and are just looking for a way to make the most of occasional loot.
Use a clean, wet cloth to wipe the rim of each jar and trace the rim with your finger to assure that there is nothing on it to prevent the jar from sealing.
Using a pair of tongs, dip your lids into boiling water immediately prior to sealing.
Place lids onto jars and screw on rings.
Hot-water processing is there to destroy acid-stable spoilage organisms, namely yeasts and molds. I generally process mine for 3 minutes. Note that the USDA guidelines for processing pickles actually specify 15 minutes per quart and even longer for higher altitudes. However, cooking them this long generally softens the cukes more than I like, so I made a decision to process mine for a shorter period and keep my eyes open for spoilage instead (see “signs of spoilage” below). You have to decide for yourself what you are most comfortable with.
- Have your water boiling in the canner, making sure that there is enough to keep all jars covered by about 1″. Standard canners usually come with a marker that shows you how far to fill them to keep all the jars submerged at the canner’s full capacity.
- Use jar lifter to carefully lower your jars into the canner. Be sure that your jar rack is in place so the jars don’t touch the bottom (note that I don’t use the rack to lift the jars in and out of the canner, which strikes me as dangerous business). If, once all of your jars are in, you discover that some of them are not submerged, just add enough hot water to cover everything by 1″.
- Wait for the water to return to a boil and process for the amount of time above.
- Unfortunately, one (rarely more) jar might crack and break when it hits the boiling water because of the temperature difference, especially if there was some teeny-tiny invisible crack in the jar itself. Personally, I think of it as a sacrifice to canning gods. Be sure to discard the contents of the broken jar once the processing is over.
- Once 3 minutes are up, remove the jars from the canner and place them on a counter lined with a doubled-up kitchen towel.
- Leave the jars on the counter overnight to cool completely – it is during this cooling time that the actual sealing occurs.
- Check your cooled jars by pushing slightly into the center of each lid with your finger. If you are able to flex the lid up and down, it means that the jar has failed to seal and is not storage-safe. Stick such jars in the fridge and treat them as refrigerator pickles.
- Remove rings from the jars that have sealed properly. This will allow the lid to pop if the contents go bad and gas builds up inside, or if for some reason the seal comes undone. Plus, you get to reuse the rings this way.
- Sealed jars will keep for a year, but I wouldn’t keep them any longer. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, as moisture may lead to the lids rusting and sunshine may lead to discoloration.
- Signs of spoilage: if, upon opening, your pickles are slimy, moldy, or anything looks or smells off, discard the contents (burning or burying is the best bet – however you do it, be sure that no animal can find them and eat them). Mold on the outside of the jars or a build-up of gas inside (expressed in bubbles appearing on the surface or gas escaping upon opening) are also bad news.
If you have any additional questions, be sure to leave a comment – I normally check back multiple times throughout the day.