Some of my earliest memories as a little kid are from the vegetable garden at my grandparents’ house. It seemed as large as a football field to me, and when our shadows started to get long in the grass, Gram would lead us cousins down the rows with an enormous colander. We would pluck beans, peas, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and tomato for dinner – filling our tummies more quickly than the dinner basket, which was a great strategy to keep us from complaining of hunger.
My relatives preserved their own food the whole time I was growing up. Fresh food that we grew ourselves was tastier (and cheaper) than store-bought, so the pressure canners got passed around and everyone had a large collection of long-used and well-loved mason jars that got passed from house to house. I remember my mom carrying jar after jar of corn scraped fresh from the cob with small, bright pieces of red pepper down the stairs to our cellar while I sat at the kitchen table, well out of her way.
When I moved to the city on my own, I took on the work of hot-water-bath canning high acid foods on my own – sourced from pick-your-own orchards and farms, or the generous overflow from my hobby-farming uncles. By this point I’ve put up hundreds if not thousands of pints of tomato sauce, salsa fresca, spiced applesauce, apple butter, fruit jams, and sour dill pickles. The pickles are my absolute favorite.
I couldn’t tell you whose recipe this was to start with, but it’s pretty simple:
- The night before canning begins, scrub your pickling cucumbers to remove dirt and the spiny growths from the nubbly outer skins. Toss the washed cukes into a colander in the fridge to dry.
- The morning of canning, prep your cukes:
- Slice off both ends
- Sort the vegetables by size, and practice stuffing an empty jar, so you know how many of each size will fit into your jars.
- Set up the hot water bath and sterilize jars, lids, and rings. While they are sterilizing,
- Make a brine and bring it to a boil, following these ratios:
- 1 cup of vinegar
- 1 cup of water
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1-1/2 tsp granulated sugar
- Prep your seasonings. For each jar:
- 1 head of fresh dill or 2 tsp of dried dill seeds
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
- Once the jars are sterilized, remove them from the canner. Into each jar, place the seasonings, then the cucumbers, then ladle in the hot brine (leaving 1/2 inch of headroom). Seal the jars and dump them back in the water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool, check the lids for a vacuum seal, label with the date, and place them into a cool dark cupboard to mellow for at least six weeks.
*If I’m 100% honest I’ll admit that most of the family prefer sweet bread-and-butter pickles to the dill ones. I despise those fake pickles, so am calling these the favorites.
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Do water bath canned pickles stay as crunchy as refrigerator pickles do? I know you’ve done both so how are they different? Do you know if you need to use that much salt, or if it’s more of a preference? George and I both love pickles but I can’t have the store bought kind anymore so I’ve been making lower salt refrigerator pickles and I like the lighter flavor and crunchiness. But they would last a lot longer if I could can them.
Hi Holly, these are awesome questions! Here’s my take, but the true rule with pickles is that taste rules all; YMMV.
For me, canned pickles that I make from picked-within-24-hours-of-picking cucumbers from the farm are as crunchy as refrigerator pickles made from summer-supermarket-fresh cucumbers, when judged at the same amount of time stored in their brine.
Now, true pickles need a minimum of three weeks in their vinegar brine to actually do the chemical pickle thing; any less and they are yummy, flavored cucumbers. I prefer the taste and texture of not-truly-pickled refrigerator pickles to not-truly-pickled canned pickles, so if you’re looking for immediate gratification, quick pickles are winners. A month into fermentation, though, the water bath brined pickles are so much more dilly and garlicky than anything I can manage in the fridge. And refrigerator pickles aren’t safe to eat after 8 weeks, so that’s where canned pickles are king: my summer canned pickles are amazing in January compared to any quick pickle I can make from supermarket cukes in December.
I suggest giving it a try with a small batch – 2 or 3 jars worth – to see if you like the canned variety. You can manage a first attempt at hot water bath canning with a large stock pot, a few mason jars and lids, and a jar lifter (available for a couple of bucks online). All the other tools are useful but not necessary for a first try.
Now for your other question: salt. In pickles, salt serves two purposes. First, it combines with the vinegar-water brine to achieve the right pH to give water bath canned pickles their stable shelf life (12 to 18 months). Second, the proper salinity of the brine is what helps to draw water out of the cucumbers so acid can make its way in – this impacts both the crunch factor and the flavor. Cucumbers require approximately 35% salinity for pickling to work, so you can play with math to determine the minimal amount of salt necessary – I’m not an expert on that.
If you want to read more, Christina Ward has a great article at Serious Eats (https://www.seriouseats.com/2017/08/preserving-pickle-cucumber-science-acidity.html), and my favorite recipe-and-method book is Small Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard.