It used to be pickles for Joel, because he likes these pickles so much. My kids grew up eating home-canned pickles, jellies and jams, sauerkraut, green beans, all kinds of fruits, salmon, smoked fish, and venison. But there were years in their adolescence when I was going to school, commuting 300-450 miles a week, and I didn’t do much canning. My garden shrank to a couple of herb beds and 6 tomato plants each summer. After Joel was married, he asked me to show him how to make the kosher dills he grew up loving. “I’ll buy the pickling cucumbers, Mom, and I’ll help you,” he said. And that’s how I got started making pickles again, with Joel’s help.
In time, I expanded my garden space and began to grow pickling cucumbers again. Not a lot, because they take a lot of room, so I don’t make a lot of pickles. Maybe only a dozen jars or so over the season, just enough to always have a supply on hand for family feasts or to put in tuna salad. When my husband built my little greenhouse two years ago, I was able to start a big batch of pickling cucumbers for Joel, who by this time had his own garden. Last year, for Christmas, I gave Joel his own water bath canner so he wouldn’t have to borrow mine (well, mostly so that I wouldn’t have to go over to his house to get mine back after he’d borrowed it). He has made pickles and dilly beans, two of his favorite things, by himself, but this past week, I suggested a joint pickling session. We’d returned from a short family vacation to the coast and found we both had cucumbers ready to pickle. That’s how Joel came to be in my kitchen again, loading jars, and saying things like, “Oh, you pour boiling water on your lids? I didn’t remember that. I think I sterilized my jars, but I don’t think I gave it ten minutes. I was in a hurry.” So I guess it was time for another pickling lesson after all.
Pickling cucumbers are easy to grow. They need 4-6 feet of space in which to sprawl, though, so if your garden space is limited, it might be best to buy your cucumbers. You can buy pickling cucumbers at large grocery stores or farmer’s markets, so if you have a yen for a crunchy, homemade kosher dill, get a few cukes and give Joel’s favorite pickle recipe a try. It makes the easiest and tastiest pickle I’ve ever come across.
Scrub cucumbers and soak for 1-2 hrs. in ice water bath before processing. My mother always said this helps makes the pickle crisper, but I only do it when the pickles are warm from the garden. If I’ve picked them and stored them in the fridge for a day or so, I sometimes skip the ice water bath.
Always choose the smallest cukes you can find. They will make the crispest pickles. But if, like me, you grow your own and a few get outsized on you, just cut them into spears. They won’t be as crisp as the smaller ones, but you can just save the spears for chopping up in tuna and potato salad and the like. I have also put a few spears into the food processor for a whirl when I wanted dill relish, for hamburgers, for instance.
Start water heating in water bath canner. Wash jars and sterilize by boiling them for 10 min. Keep hot in water bath canner while you finish getting cucumbers ready.
Dry cukes after ice bath and cut off blossom ends. Pack hot, sterilized jars (either quarts or pints) with cukes.
Mix brine and bring to boil: 3 cups water, 1 cup vinegar, ¼ cup salt.
Pour boiling water over flats and keep warm on low heat.
To each quart jar, add 1 clove of peeled garlic, 1 head fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried dill seeds, and ½ teaspoon powdered alum (for pints, use ¼ teaspoon alum and ½ tablespoon dried dill seeds in each jar). (See note on alum below.) If you like spicy dills, you can add a serrano or jalapeno pepper to each jar as well. I have also added whole peppercorns, a teaspoon per jar, more if you like more spice.
As soon as brine comes to the boil, ladle it over filled jars. (Do not let brine continue to boil. It will boil the vinegar away, which will result in a weak brine, which can result in spoilage.) Top jars with heated flats and clean rings. Place loaded jars in canner and cover. Boil for 10 minutes, starting timer after water returns to full boil. (See note on processing time below.)
Remove jars to clean towel. Place jars at least two inches apart to cool and do not touch them or the lids until they are completely cooled, at least 12 hrs. If lids haven’t sealed (and you can tell if they have sealed if the dimple in the middle is indented, and if you can’t lift the flat by prying gently with a fingernail), you can refrigerate the jars. Let unsealed jars sit in fridge for at least 1 month before opening. Let sealed jars pickle for at least 3 months before opening. If you live in a very humid climate, it’s best to store your jars with the rings removed. Otherwise, they can rust onto the jar and be difficult to get off. Never stack your jars one on top of the other. The seals can be damaged by the weight of the top jar.
Alum is a crisping agent. It’s getting hard to find these days. I used to get it at Safeway, but the last time I looked, it wasn’t there. Not enough people are making homemade pickles these days! I finally found it at WinCo in Reno last year. In the meantime, I picked up some Pickle Crisp at our local WalMart store. This is a brand of calcium chloride, another crisping agent which you use just like alum, adding it to each jar individually. (Don’t use both alum and calcium chloride, use one or the other, and follow the directions on the jar for Pickle Crisp!) I made four jars this last pickling session with Pickle Crisp to test it. It should be a good test, because the cukes were pretty big, so if Pickle Crisp can help them, it will be a bonus. It’ll be three months, at least, before I open a jar to taste them. Other people add a grape leaf to each jar. Grape leaves contain tannis which act as a crisping agent. I don’t have access to grape leaves, so I haven’t tried this. But here’s the deal: If you get small pickling cucumbers, you will not need a crisping agent. You can forego the alum or calcium chloride or grape leaves altogether with this fresh pack, short process, “pickle in the jar” recipe.
Processing time: Processing time refers to the time the food item spends immersed in a boiling water bath (or fully charged pressure canner). That’s why you have to count the time from the moment the water returns to a boil after the jars go into the canner. The original Kosher Dills recipe, which I got from my mother, who got it from a friend when I was a teenager, and which has been used in my family for 40 years, called for no processing. That’s right. You just covered the cukes in the boiling brine, slapped those hot flats on, screwed down the rings really tight, and put the jars away once they’d cooled. The jars weren’t supposed to seal because the brine is supposedly acidic enough and salty enough to kill off any bad bacteria, and botulism needs an air-tight environment to germinate. I ate pickles and sauerkraut made this way for at least ten years. Then I had children, one of them with a sour tooth, and suddenly, this method didn’t seem so safe.
I have experimented with processing times, and I’ve read a lot of pickle recipes. The least amount of processing time I’ve ever seen for a fresh-pack pickle is 10 minutes. Last year, I made this recipe using processing times of 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes. 15 minutes results in a mushy pickle. The 5 minute pickles were crisp and delicious, but I worried about letting my grandkids eat them, even though I felt no ill effects when I tested them. The 10 minute pickles were also very good, with the spears a little mushier than those in the 5 minute jars, but the small pickles were just as good. So I am processing all my pickles at 10 minutes this year, and my mind is easy about letting my little ones eat them. The mind is a funny thing.
One last note about processing times: If you live at altitude, you are supposed to add minutes to your processing times, depending on far above sea level you are. Here’s a link that explains how much time you add based on what you are canning and your altitude: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/adjustments-for-highaltitude-canning.html. I don’t do this with the Kosher Dills or my jellies and jams, so I suppose my 10 minute processed pickles are actually more like 6 minute pickles, but again, the mind is a funny thing, and I’m okay with it. Go figure.