How to make pickles

There are thousands of different varieties of pickles.
But for me, there is only one that really matters: The Spicy Dill.

There are also probably a thousand different ways to make pickles.  Here is mine.

You will need the following equipment:
Mason jars, lids, and bands (I prefer pint jars with a wide mouth)*
A large pot and rack for hot water bath canning
A jar lifter
A lid lifter
A dishwasher, for sterilizing your jars

This is a good kit with everything you need to get started.

*Note – jars and bands are reusable, lids are not.  You can also buy just the lids and bands once you start up a collection of used jars.

Quantities are tough to estimate because there are a lot of variables (size of veggies and jars, how tightly you pack jars etc).  I’ll do my best here to approximate the volume of ingredients you’ll need for 12 pint jars.  My advice is to take notes on what you bought and used so you can refine quantities for future canning adventures.

1 medium bushel pickles (about the size of a basketball)
5-6 jalapeno peppers
2 heads garlic
fresh dill
mustard seed
2 gallons distilled water
2 gallons high quality vinegar, 5% acidity
Pickling salt
a few carrots, red peppers, and green beans (optional)

A note about pickle quality:
By far the most important variable in creating a delicious final product is the quality of the pickling cucumbers you select.  Choose small, firm pickles that were picked within 24 hours.  The pickling cucumbers should be uniform, bright green in color, and free of major defects.  The best way to get good quality pickling cucumbers is to get up VERY EARLY and go to the farmer’s market.  Like, 7am!  Set an alarm!

One thing to watch out for is the “comma pickle.”  Pickling cucumbers (or any cucumber) that have been inconsistently watered will have a small end, making the cuke look like a comma.  Here is a picture of 5 perfect pickling cucumbers and one bad one.  Can you spot it?

Avoid cukes like the one on the bottom right.

Every bushel will have a few of these, but try to find one where the majority of pickles look like those at the top.

My preference is for pickles that are smaller, I find that they are firmer and easier to pack into jars.

As soon as you get your pickles home, start soaking them in ice water.  You can do this in a big food-safe bucket or your sink.  This will help keep them firm and fresh while you begin your prep.


OK, are you ready to start pickling??!?!

Sterilize your jars by running them through your dishwasher at the hottest setting available (some dishwashers have a “sterilize” setting).  If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can sterilize jars by boiling the entire jar for 10 minutes.  That is seriously hard work – if you don’t have a dishwasher, I suggest finding a neighbor who does and bribing them with a bottle of wine to let you use it!

Now, fill your hot water canner about halfway with hot water and get it boiling.  If you have a “power boiler” setting on your stove this will come in handy now.

In small batches, remove the pickling cukes from their ice water bath and, using a vegetable peeler, peel a tiny bit from the blossom end of the cuke.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is the blossom end (hint: it’s not the stem end) and I usually just shave off both ends.  There is an enzyme in the blossom end of the cuke that will cause your cukes to get soft and our goal here is for super-crunchy delicious pickles!

For all your other veggies, peel (if necessary) and cut into spear shapes, short enough to fit in your jars.  These taste delicious too and add some beautiful color to your jar.  You can cut your pickling cukes into spears as well but I have found that they are much more crunchy and delicious if you leave them whole.

Cut your jalapenos into 1/4 inch slices (wear gloves if you have sensitive skin and don’t touch your eyes afterwards!), and peel your garlic.

This is a good time to start making your brine.  In a large pot (not your canner) mix the following ingredients:
8 cups distilled water
8 cups vinegar
.5 – .75 cups pickling salt (I split the difference here – about 2/3 cup?  This is not an exact science, but use more or less depending on how salty you like your pickles.  Again, take notes on what you used so you can tweak your recipe to your liking in subsequent batches)

Heat your brine until the salt is dissolved and it’s at a light boil, then keep simmering.


The dill, garlic, and jalapenos will give the pickles their flavor

First, wash your hands.  Did I mention that already?  Just constantly be washing your hands, ok?  Keep in mind that everything in the jar must be sterile, so any time you’re touching the inside of the jar or something that is going to go inside the jar WASH YOUR HANDS.  In each pint jar, put one clove garlic, two slices jalapenos, a sprig of dill (either the blossom or the ferny part), and a couple of mustard seeds (about 10 per jar).  If you’re making quarts, double this.  If you can’t handle a lot of spice use only one slice of jalapeno (these two little slices will pack a surprising amount of heat!).

In a small saucepan, put your lids in simmering hot water and keep them there until you’re ready to seal up your jars.

Be sure none of your veggies extend above the top of the jar lip (like the bottom right)

Now, you want to fill your jars up with vegetables as tightly as you can.  Fill each jar up to about an inch to a 1/2 inch below the top with cucumbers.  You don’t want to smash them, but pack them as tightly as you can.  You can fill spaces between cukes with carrots, peppers and beans.  Get creative here if you’d like: most vegetables can be pickled.  Try pearl onions, pattypan squash, cauliflower, and peppers.  Or, if you’re a purist, you can stick to just cukes.  How tightly you pack your jars won’t affect taste, but if they are not packed tightly you will need a lot more brine to fill the jar, plus your veggies will float to the top of the jar and not be as beautiful to look at.

Now, pour enough brine over your vegetables to cover them, leaving about a 1/4 inch of headspace in each jar.  Use your lid lifter to remove lids from the simmering water, place them carefully on top of the jar, and then screw on a band, finger-tight.  If you need more brine, make another batch per the instructions above.

Now you’re ready for the final step, vacuum-sealing your jars.

The water in your hot water bath should be boiling by now.  Using your jar rack and jar lifter, place your sealed jars in the rack.  When you lower the rack, at least an inch of water should cover the tops of your jars.  If you don’t have enough water, add more hot water and bring to a boil before submerging your jars.  What we’re going for is to process your jars for long enough to seal them but not so long that you “cook” the veggies inside.

Once you’ve submerged your jars your water may take a few minutes to begin boiling again.  As soon as the water in your canner is boiling, set a timer: 10 minutes for pints, 15 minutes for quarts.  You may hear some of your lids “pop” in the canner, although sometimes this doesn’t happen until after you’ve removed your jars.

After 10 (or 15) minutes, remove your jars carefully using your jar lifter, place on a heat-safe surface.  They will stay hot for quite a while.  Repeat the process for all your jars!

If, after an hour or so, any of your jars have not “popped” (created a vacuum-seal on the lid), process one more time.

Once the jars are cool enough to touch, write the date on the top of the lid.

3 weeks!  Can you stand it??!?!  Trust that during this time your pickles will be soaking in all the spicy, dilly goodness from your jars and getting more delicious by the day.  Your pickles will be good for a few years, although I find that they’re best when eaten in the first year or so.

Pickle-y Goodness!

Any questions?  Leave them in the comments.  And please report back to us with your pickling adventures!