It’s officially summer, and one of my absolute favorite things to do this time of year is to roll out of bed just before first light, make myself a cup of coffee, and head down to our family’s garden.
That little sliver of twilight right before a summer sunrise has always felt a bit magical to me. With everyone else still asleep, I’m afforded a few perfectly quiet, still moments to drink my coffee and watch the sun come up over the creek and chase away the morning fog.
Crickets and tree frogs are still singing, and if I’m lucky, I may even catch a glimpse of those last few hard-partying fireflies turning in after a big night.
Adequately caffeinated, I’ll meander through the garden, tend to the plants, pick the day’s bounty of fresh fruits and veggies.
Right now, our garden is producing more tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, and blueberries than we can possibly eat or give away.
Not wanting so much garden goodness to go to waste, I invested in some decent canning supplies and gave myself a (thanks to Google and trial-by-error) crash course in canning and preserving.
In a nutshell, the canning process goes like this:
- Wash & sterilize jars, lids & bands
- Fill jars & attach lids
- Process in a water bath or pressure canner
- Remove, let cool & check seal
For this article, I’ve gathered tidbits that are most relevant to pickle making. However, if you have questions about food preservation, the National Center for Home Food Preservation is an excellent reference guide. They provide comprehensive, up-to-date guidelines on all things canning, drying, preserving, curing, fermenting, and pickling.
Some general safety guidelines:
- To ensure proper, anti-microbial preservation, jars should be either pre-sterilized in boiling water, or once filled and sealed, fully submerged and processed in a canning bath—a minimum of 10 minutes for either process.
- Jars can be re-used so long as they’re clean and free of cracks. While technically it isn’t recommended to re-use bands, it’s fine so long as they’re clean, and free of any dents, warping, or rust. Lids that have been previously sealed can’t be reused—they won’t re-seal properly.
To pre-sterilize jars*, lids, and bands:
- Submerge in a large pot of room temperature water.
- Bring water to a rolling boil & boil for a minimum of 10 minutes.
- Remove jars and lids/bands using a can lifter and magnetic lid lifter.
- Fill immediately, or dry completely and seal empty (for future use).
To fill and process jars:
- Fill jars to ½” from top. I find it easiest to use canning funnel—it keeps any potential mess away from the mouth of the jar, which can prevent a proper seal from forming.
- Attach lid. “Quasi-hand-tight” is a good measure. The band needs to be screwed down tightly enough to initially create a complete seal between lid and jar mouth… but not so tight that bubbles can’t escape (preventing a full seal.)
- Place filled, sealed jars in a large stock pot on a wire rack, keeping at least 2” from bottom to avoid scalding.
- Fill stock pot with boiling water to cover jars by at least 1-2”.
- Cover stock pot**, and process pint jars for 10 minutes, and quart jars for 15.
- Use jar lifter to remove from canning bath.
- Allow to cool at room temperature undisturbed for 12-24 hours, then check seal.
To ensure proper seal & preservation safety:
- The smallest bit of food, liquid, or seasoning on the mouth of a jar can prevent a proper seal. I find a canning funnel is the easiest to avoid this. If you don’t have one, then spend the extra time making sure jar mouths (lids too) are completely clean before you attach the lids.
- Be sure to process for the full recommended time.
- After jars sit undisturbed at room temperature for 12-24 hours, firmly press down on the lid to check that the seal has formed.
- If the lid pops down when pushed, a proper seal hasn’t formed. Put this jar in the fridge and eat within 3 months.
- If the jar has sealed, then it’s safe to store at room temperature for up to a year.
*Allowing glass jars to slowly come to temperature as water heats up will help to prevent jars cracking and glass breaking.
** Alternatively, place for same amount of time in a pressure canner, following manufacturer instructions.
Before getting started, you’ll need a handful of tools and supplies…
The necessary ones:
- 16 or 32 oz mason jars, with bands and lids.
- Large stock pot and lid, or pressure canner
- Wire canning rack
Not necessary, but very helpful:
- Lid grabber. It’s a fantastically helpful little magnetic gadget used for lifting lids out of a pot of boiling water… and it’s saved me from many, many burns.
- Jar lifters. Nice to have in a couple of different sizes. Lots of burns avoided. Lots of scalding hot jars un-dropped. Lots of pickles saved.
Brine, seasonings, and cucumbers are all the ingredients you need to make pickles… and while it’s quite simple, there’s still plenty of room for creativity.
Water, vinegar, salt, and sugar are all you need to make a pickling brine. The brine’s sweetness, saltiness, and tanginess can all be adjusted to suit preferences by changing the amounts of sugar, salt, and vinegar, respectively.
Personally, I prefer pickles that are tangy and moderately salty, with just a tiny hint of sweet to add balance and dimension to the first two flavors. And after several iterations of fine tuning, I landed on the ratio of ingredients below as a personal favorite.
The beauty of this process is that it’s pretty hard to mess up. If tangy saltiness isn’t your cup of tea, then I encourage you to play around with different ratios of ingredients… if you generally know where you’re going, the end result will still be quite good.
Same thing goes for seasonings. There’s no one “right” way to season homemade pickles. Naturally, dill is a critical ingredient in dill pickles… and I’ve found bay leaves, garlic, and peppercorns to be flavor profile dill pickle cornerstones.
The combination of spices and herbs I’ve listed below is simply my trial-and-error personal favorite. There are so many other fun flavor pairings, and some things to avoid:
- Fennel (seed, not bulb), cilantro (or coriander seeds), parsley, capers, chives, and tarragon all work well with these “cornerstone” flavors… but you may find you want to adjust mustard or celery seed proportions.
- Anything powdered or finely ground will stick to your pickles and give them an odd exterior texture… which (in my opinion) takes away from the experience of a perfectly flavored, perfectly crunchy pickle!
- In my personal experience, thyme and sage were both a bit overpowering, rosemary and oregano were slightly odd fits, and mint (despite pairing beautifully with dill in other dishes) is just not a fit here.
I really hope you’ll play around with different seasonings and combinations to find what works best for you!
Makes approximately 1 gallon
- 8 cups distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
- 8 cups filtered (or distilled) water
- 6 Tbsp white sugar
- 8 Tbsp salt
Per quart-sized (32 oz) jar
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 3-4 cloves garlic
- A few stalks of fresh dill (or 1 Tbsp dried dill)
- ½ Tbsp mustard seed
- ½ Tbsp celery seed
- 1-2 tsp. whole peppercorns, or coarsely ground black pepper
- (Optional) Fresh sliced jalapenos or a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes for heat
I know we’ve talked about a lot of these individual steps in detail above, but here’s a summary of the entire process, start to finish:
- Wash jars with warm soapy water and sterilize jars
- Make pickling brine
- Add seasonings to the bottom of jar.
- On top of seasonings, pack tightly with cucumbers, no higher than ½” to top of mouth of jar.
- Pour hot pickling brine over seasonings and cucumbers, filling to ½” from top of jar.
- If needed, clean jar mouths, and attach lids (making sure to not over-tighten).
- Place jars in large stock pot on wire rack. Fill with boiling water, covering jars by 1-2”.
- Place lid on stock pot & process:
- 15 minutes for quart jars
- 10 minutes for pint jars.
- Remove jars from canning bath and allow to sit, undisturbed for 12-24 hours.
- Check seal. Place jars that haven’t properly sealed in fridge.
Sterilizing, making brine, measuring, divvying up seasonings, and processing can be a rather arduous process if you’re tackling the whole shebang every day or two… I’ve found working in batches to be a huge time saver in the overall process.
I make a gallon of pickling brine at a time and store it in the fridge. I’m not sure exactly how long it will store like this, but vinegar and salt are both preservatives. And this time of year, we’re lucky if a batch lasts for a week.
I sterilize and dry all jars, bands, and lids at once, add pre-portioned dry seasonings, and seal. On pickle making day, all I have to do is grab some jars, toss in garlic, cucumbers (and fresh dill if using), heat/add pickling brine, and process.
With these two hacks, my current “garden to pickles” record is 16 minutes.
Canning and preserving isn’t rocket science, but there’s a decent bit of art behind the perfectly crispy pickle.
Growing your own cucumbers is key to an optimized pickle crunch:
- Smaller cucumbers can be packed more tightly, meaning less brine and crispier pickles.
- Be sure to use a pickling variety cucumber.
- The fresher the better. (I like to have jars and brine prepped before picking.)
How you chop (or don’t chop) your cucumbers makes a difference:
- Always trim the ends off—they contain a ripening enzyme, meaning cucumbers will continue to soften even after they’re pickled.
- Smaller cukes are generally better whole–they can be packed tightly and will pickle all the way through
- Larger ones typically need to be cut into spears, both to minimize brine, and to allow the pickling brine to permeate through.
Safely minimize processing time to avoid overprocessing:
- Pickling brine should be at or near boiling when added to jars.
- Pre-boil water for your canning bath before adding hot brine to jars.
- Remove from canning bath immediately once processed for the full recommended time.
Dill Pickle Nutrition Info
Per 4 oz serving
Total Carbs 2g
Sodium 66g 26%
Vitamin A 1%
Vitamin C 2%