How to make pickles
I set out a few years ago to make my own pickles and give it a go every season when our cucumbers are ready to be picked. My family enjoys pickles and I want to jar and create as much food for my family as I can. This year I canned over 100lbs of cucumbers! Yes! Eventually, I’d like to completely homestead with chickens and everything. Today, we’ll focus just on pickles. I bought books, read articles online and tried many recipes. While you can find all of this information for yourself, what you may not realize is that there are many things no one tells you about making pickles. Until now.
My initial mistakes
First, I followed the recipe straight from the ball canning book I bought at Target. It was my first pickling attempt and I thought ball canning was the right place to go. I mean, the jars I’m using say ball on them. It seemed simple enough. Water, vinegar, garlic, salt, dill…what could go wrong? Months later when we opened the pickles we discovered that they tasted so strongly like vinegar that they were inedible. All that time growing cucumbers, canning and waiting…to have really bad tasting cucumbers. In addition, not all of the jars sealed. I was heartbroken.
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1.There are two types of pickles
There are two types of pickles. Hot process, where they can sit on the shelf refrigerated for a long time. To hot-process pickles you use a canning pot and boil them for a certain amount of time. Typically 10-15m based on jar size.
Cold process pickles do not get cooked in the canning pot, and are good only refrigerated. These are substantially crunchier but require fridge space for storage.
For the purpose of this article, I’m talking about hot-process pickles because I don’t have a lot of fridge room and I store on shelves.
2. The Vinegar matters
What I didn’t know then, that I know now is that not all white vinegar is the same. When pickling, you want vinegar made specifically for pickling. This is typically 5% acidity and the error I made was I bought plain white vinegar. While I don’t remember the acidity, in fact I don’t even think it was listed, I now know to only buy vinegar with the 5% written clearly on the label.
3. Steralizing the jars and pre-heating is a must.
The instructions of every recipe say to use sterile jars and to use them when warm. So, for the first part I wash them in my dish washer, even if new, on the sterilize setting. Cleaning the jars and pre-heating are separate but both important tasks. Sterilizing makes sure you don’t have harmful germs in your food, pre-heating makes sure that your jars don’t crack or burst when you pour hot brine over the cucumbers.
Ever pour something scalding hot into cold glass? The temperature change can leave you with a puddle of boiling vinegar and broken glass…so pre-heating in the dish washer or oven helps avoid smashing jars.
4. Measure cucumbers next to the jar before cutting
In my experience, smaller cucumbers make the best picklers. Primary because the seeds are smaller. No one wants a mouthful of pickled seeds. In order to make the best pickles, you want to lay the jar on it’s side and measure the cucumber next to it. Cut the cucumber so it reaches the crest of the jar but sits below the rim. This way it will be fully submerged in brine. If you have pickler cucumbers, they may already be an ideal length.
After cutting the cucumber to the ideal length, I slice it into halves or quarters depending on the size. The blossom end, the side that had the flower on it always gets chopped. It thought to speed up the pickle softening process. I don’t know if this is true and I’m unwilling to not cut it off to find out!
Anything that gets cut off, except the blossom end, and may be too short can go into a separate jar of odds and ends pickle pieces. These pieces get pickled just like the full-size cucumber slices and taste just as delicious!
5. Cucumbers shrink when cooked
When I’m packing the cucumbers, I make sure to fill ever space possible. Cucumbers shrink when hot processed. While the longer pieces and whole picklers don’t seem to shrink as much, when I make bread and butter pickles from circular slices the shrinkage is very noticeable.
This year, other then being shocked at how much sugar goes into bread and butter pickles, I am in awe of just how much jar space is in the before vs after images of our bread and butter pickles. While I’m sure they rearranged a bit, I really packed in the slices and am sure the cucumbers shrunk. I used a bred and butter mix and would 100% use it again! It made making the pickles very easy and tasty. Plus, one packet made an entire 7 quarts!
6. Loading the jar is an art-form
When making dill/garlic pickles you put in several spices. While you can buy an actual pickling spice mix, if you’re lucky you have fresh dill heads. I have the best luck putting the dill head on the bottom, then the clove of garlic and sprinkles of spices. This year I used a few peppercorns and red pepper flakes. I place these in first and then turn the jar on it’s side. Since I measured the cucumbers next to the jar before cutting, they all fit in at a perfect length! I pack them in tightly because they will shrink a bit and stand the jar up to have a perfectly packed jar, ready for the hot brine and dip in boiling water.
7. Get the jar lifter thing
If you purchase no other accessory, get the jar lifter. When I first started pickling I didn’t have a canning pot. I used my spaghetti pot with a wash cloth on bottom, to prevent the jars from touching, and was so happy I bought the jar lifter. The alternative to having it would have been sticking my hand in boiling water, or trying to pour the water out with the jars inside the post. No, get the lifter. Even with the canning pot, that allows me to lift the jars out of the water to retrieve them, they are scalding hot for a very long time. The lifter is an important tool!
I recommend the secure lifter over the one with hard plastic ends. The hard plastic on my lifters continuously comes apart and sometimes while I’m lifting a hot jar!
8. Keep extra lids & bands on hand
Weather you’re using a brand new jar or reusing jars for the 10th time, the one thing that needs to be brand new is the 2-piece lid. So, this year I thought to myself…I’m buying all new jars to go from making pints to quarts of pickles. Who needs extra lids? Everyone. Everyone needs extra lids and rings. Just a drop of stray water or lid pieces left in steaming water too long leads to rust and rust = unusable lids. It doesn’t hurt to have a few on hand so you don’t find yourself without any lids and the burning desire to pickle.
Know weather you have wide mouth or regular mouth jars. I always go with wide, easier to load the jars!
9. Use a spout for the brine
While I’m cutting the cucumbers, I have placed the brine which is usually 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water plus salt on the stove. Most recipes I read say to “ladel” the brine over the packed cucumbers. While this is a nice thought, a ladle isn’t the best tool for pouring steaming brine into a canning jar. The best tool I’ve found? A measuring cup with a spout! The brine pours perfectly out of the spout and into the canning jar. I don’t even needs to wipe the rim down before I place the lid on!
10. Making pickles is a dance of timing
When pickling, everything needs to come to a boil at the right time. To start, I place the canning pot full of hot tap water on the stove and turn it on high. This takes the longest. Next, I make the brine and place it on medium heat. I want it to steam not have a rolling boil. Usually by now the jars are finished in the dish washer and hot from the drying. If you hand wash, you can keep them warm in the oven.
While I’m about half way cutting the cucumbers, I typically jar 7 quarts at one time because 7 quarts fits perfectly into the canning pot. I don’t know why it doesn’t say that on the label…but 7 is the lucky number. Anyway, when I’m about half way through slicing I place the lids and rims into their nearly boiling water to sterilize and soften the red ring for sealing on the jar.
I go back to cutting cucumbers and begin packing jars. By the time I’m done packing the jars the brine is typically ready. At this point I can hear the water in the canning pot starting to boil. I pour the brine into each jar and use tongs to get the hot lids and rims out of their hot bath. I seal each jar by hand and place in the canning pot.
Put the back jar in first, then the middle jar. Once the middle jar is in the rack, the other jars won’t tip it over and splash/burn your arm.
Once the water boils, I set the timer. 15 minutes for quarts.
When the timer goes off, I lift the rack from the canning pot and use the jar lifter to get the scalding hot jars out and placed onto a safe surface. I put the pot back on the stove and start the whole process over again!
(Pinterest image below, they like tall images)
I hope this gives you some insight and I always appreciate hearing feedback. If you’re just starting out pickling I highly recommend trying several recipes to find one that you like. If you’re a pro, please add to this and I welcome any experienced tips! Have a great week.