Introduction: Trial and Error Dill Pickles
Ever since I was a kid watching my mom make jelly I've been fascinated by canning. When I got older and started canning on my own, my mom handed down an ancient family recipe for bread and butter pickles. The first batch I made was perfect. Everyone loved them. But I wanted to try dill pickles. Unfortunately I didn't have the ideal recipe handed down through the generations for dills. So I picked a random recipe I found in a book and tried it. Terrible! Since them I've experimented with different amounts and types of vinegar and dill and tweaked the other components, mostly in small batches of refrigerator pickles, just a quart or two at a time.
It was a process of trial and error, and trial and error, and trial and error. But finally I've gotten to the point where I have a recipe I like. The dream is to one day be able to make pickles purely from the output of the garden. I'm not there yet, but getting a little closer. Apple cider vinegar is a long ways off.
Anyway, here's the process in simple steps.
Step 1: Ingredients
Here's what you'll need.
Cucumbers - the amount of cucumbers you have will determine the amount of the other ingredients you need.
For each pound of cukes, you'll need approximately:
1 quart canning jar or 2 pint jars
1.5 c water
0.5 c apple cider vinegar
1/8 c Kosher salt
1/8 c sugar - yes, sugar, really
1 tsp dried dill weed or preferably 2 sprigs fresh dill
1/4 tsp dill seed
1/4 tsp mustard seed
2 cloves garlic
a pearl onion or two (very optional)
half a jalapeno pepper (optional if you don't like heat)
Step 2: The Cucumbers
The primary ingredient is the cucumbers. You can can any amount as long as you can fill one canning jar, but for the amount of effort you'll be putting in, it's better to do more at once. If you only have a few cukes, it might be better to do refrigerator pickles. For those you'll store them in the fridge and you don't need to boil the vinegar or sterilize the jars. They won't last as long as canned pickles, but they should be good for a while in the fridge. If they're good they probably won't last long anyway.
Pickling cucumbers are best as they stay crisper. But you can use any cucumbers you can get your hands on, or even a mix of different types.
Wash the cucumbers in cold water, you don't want any pickled dirt. There are different ways to cut the cukes - spears, halves, whole, thick or thin slices. Whole cukes will require larger jars to get many in. With spears I usually cut all but the largest cukes into six spears. I recent bought a knife that does crinkle cuts, so I'm going with those. We have had some problems with cucumbers that are unpleasantly bitter, so I like to taste test each one. The end pieces seem to be most affected. Bitter cucumbers seem to make for bitter pickles (yes, I tested that, too).
Step 3: Sterilizing Your Jars
You need to sterilize your canning jars. You'll need a big pot for that. That'll take a while to get boiling, so set that up first. Make sure the water covers the jars. I used to sterilize the lids in the same pot, but it made it really hard to fish out the lids when I needed them. So now I use a smaller pot for just the lids. Let the jars and lids each boil for ten minutes to make sure they're sterile.
Step 4: Packing the Jars
Mix together your vinegar, water, sugar, salt, mustard seed, and dill seed and let it come to a boil. Turn it down to medium heat once it's boiling. It's recommended to use a non-metal pot to cook the vinegar mix, I haven't broken that rule yet. Not sure if it impacts the taste.
Remove one of your sterile jars from the boiling water - dump the jar out into the same pot so you don't lower the water level and so the rest of the jars are still covered with boiling water. Tongs or special canning jar grabbers are useful here. Stuff the jars with cucumber slices/spears/whatever. Also add in the garlic, jalapeno and dill at this point. Next fill the jars with boiling vinegar mixture. A funnel is helpful - you don't want to get the vinegar mixture on the top of the jar. You don't want the jars to cool down too much or they may break on contact with the hot vinegar mixture. Fill to almost the top, maybe a half inch of air space at the top. Cover and seal immediately. A dry towel is helpful to avoid burning yourself. Replace the filled jar in the boiling water. You may need to remove some water from your pot to avoid overflow. Once you have all the jars filled and in the boiling water bath, boil for 10 minutes (15 minutes if you're above 1000' elevation). If it's not boiling well put a lid on the pot.
Once the jars are done boiling remove them from the pot (carefully, OUCH hot!) and set them aside where they won't be disturbed.
Step 5: The Most Difficult Part
Clean up your mess before the wife gets cranky (I often fail at this part).
Then the hardest part - waiting two weeks (I always fail this one). I like to put the jars in a cool dark dry place once they've cooled off - I usually leave them overnight before moving them. Before you put them in storage, check that they've sealed properly. There's a little bump on the top of the lid that should be depressed. If it's not and the lid makes a clicky sound if pressed, then the jar is not properly sealed. You can put that jar in the fridge and eat it first.
After you've waited the two weeks pop open that first jar. If there's anything even remotely off, such a bad smell or mold, discard it. Don't take any chances. Read these guidelines for canning - http://www.canningbasics.com/guidelines-for-food-safety.html