Food Preparation: How To Make Your Own Pickles

Learn the basic skills needed to make Kosher dill pickles, bread and butter sweet pickles, and pickled beets. Modern fresh pack methods are simple and effective.

When summer is going strong, chances are the cucumbers are coming on strong in the garden, also. What better time to explore the possibilities of homemade pickles?

Pickles can be either sweet, like bread and butter pickles, or sour like dill pickles. They can be either fermented in a crock, or packed fresh into canning jars. Crock pickles run more risk of spoilage, but fresh packed sweet and dill pickles are both easy for the average cook to master.

Pickles and relishes can also be made of other vegetables that are abundant in the garden. Beet pickles are particularly nice, although carrots, green beans, peppers, and even green tomatoes take well to pickling.

The easiest basic dill pickle method is the fresh-packed method. Ingredients needed are fresh dill (very easy to grow), un-iodized canning salt, apple cider vinegar of at least 5% acidity, pure water, and the freshest young cucumbers you can get. It is best to pick them, wash them quickly in cold water, chill them several hours in the refrigerator crisper drawer, and begin your pickle recipe on the same day.

Powdered alum, available in the spice section of the supermarket, and fresh grape leaves are often added to enhance crispness. Whole garlic cloves, mustard powder, hot peppers, and sliced onion are sometimes added for flavor.

You will need jars, rings and lids, as well as a water bath canner with a rack insert. Wide mouth jars are particularly nice for filling with pickles - and for getting them out later! A jar lifter - special tongs designed to lift canning jars from the hot water - is also a necessary tool.

To make fresh-packed Kosher dills, first combine 2 quarts of water, 1 quart of vinegar, ¾ cup salt, and a pinch of alum in a large cooking pot, preferably made of stainless steel. A large teapot is ideal. Other materials, such as aluminum or cast iron can react chemically with the vinegar and yield less than satisfactory results.

Bring this liquid, called brine, to a boil. In the meantime, prepare your jars. Use jars manufactured specifically for canning. Visually inspect them carefully for cracks or chips, and then wash them in the hottest sudsy water. (Don't use any with chips or cracks.) Rinse them and leave them in the hottest rinse water until you are ready to begin filling them.

Wash your lids and rings also in this hot water and leave them in the hot rinse water as well. Some like to boil the lids in a small pan on the stove. A magnetic wand is a great tool for lifting the lids out of the simmering water.

Get your cucumbers out of the refrigerator now. If they need a more thorough washing, you can use your crisper drawer as a container for cold water. Rinse and wipe them with your fingers before placing in the hot jars.

Set the hot jars on several layers of dishtowels, or on a wooden cutting board for filling. On other surfaces, the combination of the hot liquid with the cold cucumbers can cause the jars to break.

Into each jar, fold up an entire stalk of fresh (or recently dried) dill. Add a peeled garlic clove, a piece of a hot pepper, and a fresh grape leaf, if you have it. Begin to pack the cucumbers upright into the jars. They can first be cut into spears, if desired. Add more dill in the top of the jar if you have enough.

Pour the boiling brine over the cucumbers in the jars, leaving only ¼ inch head space at the top. If you don't have a teapot or similar vessel to use for pouring, the brine can be ladled into the jars with a soup ladle. Remove any air bubbles that may remain in the jar by slipping in a long stainless steel knife blade and dislodging the bubbles.

(If you have brine left over, it can be refrigerated and reheated for the next batch of pickles. If you are doing a huge crop, you may need to make more brine.)

Wipe the tops and threads of each jar with a clean damp cloth. This is important, because something as small as a tiny seed can prevent the jar from sealing properly. Place the hot lids on the jars, and screw on the rings firmly. It is not necessary to have a tool to tighten them down.

Half fill your canner with hot water, and place it on a stove burner. Add a little vinegar to the water. This keeps calcium from forming on the outsides of the jars. Place each jar into the canner. Ideally, the water should cover the jars by an inch or so. Add hot water until it does. Warning - the jars will float if they are not held in with a rack. The canning process will still work however.

If you don't have a water bath canner and wish to use a large stockpot or similar item, it is very important that the jars are on some sort of a rack. Even a folded dishtowel will do. They must not be allowed to sit on the bottom of the pot.

Heat the canner full of jars until it comes to a full boil. Lower heat to a steady boil; then time the bath for 15 minutes. When the time is up, remove the jars and place them on dishtowels to cool. Make sure they are not in a draft, and leave space between them.

You will hear a characteristic "ping" as each jar seals. After they've cooled well, check for sealing by tapping lightly with a spoon on the lid. A properly sealed lid will make a little "clink." A jar that hasn't sealed will make a lower pitched, metallic sounding "thunk!" You can also tell by feeling if the indentation on the lid is down.

If a jar hasn't sealed, you can store it in the refrigerator. In any event, the jars will need to sit for about a month to get good and pickled. Wipe them with a damp cloth and set away in a dark, dry, cool cabinet. You can store them with the rings on, or you can remove the rings for another batch of canning. If you store the rings on, make sure to dry them well, or they will be likely to rust.

For those who prefer sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles can be made simply, also. The following recipe should make about 6 pints. Start with about 6 lb. of medium sized cucumbers. Slice them thinly (1/4 inch thick.) Slice a pound of peeled onions thinly. Layer the cucumbers and onions with salt and ice in a large stainless steel or glass bowl. Use about 2/3 cup of salt in all. Let these set for at least 1-½ hours, or as long as overnight. Drain and rinse.

Prepare your jars, lids, and canner as described above. Combine 4 cups of cider vinegar, 3-1/3 cups of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of mixed pickling spices. Bring this mixture to a boil. Add the rinsed vegetables and turn off the heat. Ladle this mixture into the jars. Put on the lids and rings as described above, and process in the boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

If you prefer to mix your own spices for bread and butter pickles, use 2 teaspoons celery seed, 4 teaspoons ground mustard, 2 teaspoons ginger, ½ teaspoon turmeric, ¼ teaspoon of mace, and a dash of red pepper or a teaspoon of black peppercorns. (Turmeric and mace are optional.)

Bread and butter pickles used to be made according to the above recipe, except substituting green tomatoes for the cucumbers. This was a way to use up the green tomatoes that were still on the vine when the first frost was threatening.

Here's an old recipe for 6 pints of pickled beets. Scrub 6-1/2 lb. of beets and cut off the greens, leaving about an inch of stem. Boil these for about 20 minutes, just until tender. Cool enough to handle and slip the skins off. Set aside the hot skinned beets.

Combine 3 cups cider vinegar and 4 or 5 cups sugar in a saucepan. Heat to simmering.

If desired, slice the beets, or cut into wedges. Or you can leave them whole. Add the beets to the hot syrup. Pack into prepared jars and process in the boiling water bath for 30 minutes.

An alternate recipe for the syrup for pickled beets is 2 cups sugar, 3 ½ cups vinegar, 1 ½ cups water, 1 tablespoon of whole allspice, and a couple of cinnamon sticks. This recipe will yield a milder pickle.

The old-timers skipped the water bath, but for safety's sake it should be done. Cucumbers, beets, and other similar vegetables are low acid foods before the vinegar is added and can easily develop botulism.

All in all, making pickles is a fun and tasty way to use up those extra vegetables in the garden. Homemade pickles probably won't taste like the ones you buy from the supermarket, but you may find you like them much better. If they don't turn out as well as you had hoped, don't despair. Simply try again. Recipes are widely available for all types of sweet and sour pickles and relishes.

© High Speed Ventures 2011