11 Steps to Perfect Pickles
Text and canning photos by Lisa Truesdale
Poor Napoleon couldn’t find a suitable way to keep his massive armies properly fed while they were busy invading other countries. So in 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs (about $2,000 in U.S. dollars back then) to anyone who could invent a better food-preservation method than drying, smoking or any of the other popular practices of the time. A man named Nicolas Appert claimed the prize 15 years later; it took him a while, but he’d finally perfected his method of heating, boiling and sealing food in airtight glass containers, similar to how we still do it today.
Canning took off in the U.S. during the Great Depression, due to its economic benefits, and it’s experiencing a modern revival today. Besides being a money-saving measure—preserving abundant amounts of foods in season before they spoil—canning also results in healthier food (no additives or artificial preservatives). The food also tastes better (it’s fresher, and you know exactly what’s going in it); canning is “green” (you reuse the jars, and you’re not using heavily packaged foods) and according to Tracy Lolio, it’s somewhat of a sentimental thing that connects her to her ancestors. Plus, she says, “It’s fun!”
Lolio, a Longmont resident who’s been canning food as long as she can remember, learned from her mother and both her grandmothers. Some people are afraid of it, she says, because they think it’s difficult or they think they’re going to hurt themselves, but water-bath canning (as opposed to pressure canning) is safe, quick and easy.
Lolio recently hosted a pickle-making session in her home, and it took less than two hours from start to finish to yield 7 quarts of dill pickles. “It’s just a few hours of your time,” she says, “for delicious pickles that last for two years or more.” For our session, she used a recipe from her aunt, but, she adds, there are thousands of different recipes online. The ingredients she used to make her pickles are listed in the Dill Pickle Recipe below; see also “Canning Equipment Needed” for the tools you’ll need.
Then follow the 11 Steps to Perfect Pickles below.
Canning Equipment Needed
- 7 wide-mouth, quart-sized canning jars*
- 7 canning lids*
- 7 canning rings*
- Water-bath canner (about 20-quart capacity) with metal rack and lid; about $40-$50 new, or borrow one from a friend)
- Small saucepan
- Jar Lifter (large metal tongs with rubber grips)
- Lid Lifter (simple plastic stick with magnet on the end)
* If you’re reusing jars, run your finger around the rim of each; jars with even small chips or cracks won’t seal well. If you’re reusing lids, make sure they’re not bent and that the rubber seal/gasket attached to the underside is still intact. If you’re reusing metal rings, discard any that are bent or dented, or even have one small spot of rust.
Dill Pickle Recipe
Here’s a recipe for dill pickles from Longmont resident Tracy Lolio. The amounts of dill, garlic and chile peppers can be adjusted to suit your taste, but “always measure the water and vinegar according to the recipe,” cautions Lolio.
INGREDIENTS (makes 7 quarts)
- 11-12 pounds pickling cucumbers*
- 4 cups white vinegar
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 6 cups water
- 8 tablespoons canning/pickling salt (do not substitute table salt or kosher salt)
- 14 large grape leaves (2 per canning jar) (Lolio found hers in a neighbor’s yard, but they can also be purchased at specialty grocery stores)
- 14 cloves garlic, peeled (2 per jar, or more to taste)
- 14 dried red chile peppers (2 per jar, or more to taste)
- 21 heads of fresh dill (3 per jar; can substitute 1-2 tablespoons dill seed per jar or 2 tablespoons dill weed per jar)
- Pickle Crisp granules, optional (this is a formula that some people add to ensure crispness; available where canning supplies are sold)
* Pickling cucumbers are smaller, lighter in color and less seedy than the kind you find at the grocery store. Find pickling cukes at your local farmers’ market or produce stand, or grow your own.
11 Steps to Perfect Pickles
1Step 1: Clean and Inspect
Sterilize canning jars by boiling them upside-down (without lids) in the water-bath canner for at least 10 minutes. “Do this even if you purchased them new,” Tracy Lolio advises. Set aside until cool enough to handle, but keep the water in the canner boiling, adding more if necessary to maintain the proper water level. Boil the lids and metal rings in a pan of water until you’re ready for them.
2Step 2: Make Brine
Combine vinegars, water and salt in a large stockpot. Boil about 10 minutes, until salt is completely dissolved. “After experimenting with different recipes for years, I decided I prefer recipes with equal parts vinegar(s) and water,” Lolio says. “Once you find a recipe you like, though, hang onto it!”
3Step 3: Prepare Cucumbers
Thoroughly wash off mud or other debris. Don’t use any cucumbers with blemishes, as those could ruin the whole batch. To help preserve crispness, keep the cucumbers soaking in an ice bath until you’re ready for them.
4Step 4: Cut Cucumbers
First cut about ¼ inch off the blossom end (the end opposite the stem) of each; this helps maintain crispness. Pluck off (but don’t cut) stems, if there are any. Cut cucumbers as desired—spears, round slices, long slices for sandwiches, chunks or halves—or keep them whole. The less you cut, the crisper the pickles will be. Whole pickles will be crisper than small slices, but you won’t be able to fit as many in each jar. You can mix sizes in each jar; Lolio used spears but kept some smaller cucumbers whole for packing at the top.
5Step 5: Pack Jars
Place two grape leaves at the bottom of each jar. (According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, there’s a substance in grape leaves that inhibits the enzymes that can make the pickles soft; however, cutting off the blossom end of each cucumber serves the same purpose.) Fill the jar with cucumbers. If you’re using wholes, halves or spears, insert the fatter end of each piece first.
6Step 6: Add Flavors
When there’s still a few inches left at the top, put the dill, garlic cloves and chile peppers around the sides. (Lolio uses a clean chopstick to push the dill down into place.) Then pack smaller cucumbers in at the top. Pack as tightly as possible to avoid air pockets; unfilled jars could cause the cucumbers to rise to the top above the brine. If desired, add Pickle Crisp granules according to package directions.
7Step 7: Add Brine
Pour brine into each jar, leaving about ½ inch of space at the top. “Use a clean cloth to dry the rim of each jar,” Lolio says, “because they won’t seal well if there are any drops of moisture.”
8Step 8: Cover Jars
Use the Lid Lifter to remove the lids and rings from the boiling water. Put one lid on each jar, gasket-side down. Finish each with a metal ring and screw on tightly.
9Step 9: Boil Jars
Place filled jars on metal rack in the water-bath canner (Lolio’s held seven jars) and lower the rack into the water. Cover tightly with the canner lid. Boil for at least 15 minutes, or according to recipe directions.
10Step 10: Cool Jars
Raise the rack out of the water and use the Jar Lifter to get jars off the rack; set aside to cool. As they cool, the heat sucks the lid down to finish sealing it; you should hear a satisfying “click” from the button in the middle within the first hour or so of cooling time. When cool, mark the jars with the date and move them to a cool, dark, dry place.
11Step 11: Enjoy
Well, not quite yet; wait at least two full weeks for the flavors to infuse before you open a jar, longer if possible. Chill the jar in the refrigerator before opening, if desired, and keep refrigerated after opening. Before opening a jar for the first time, press down on the button in the center of the lid; if it makes a clicking noise, don’t eat the jar’s contents, because that means it didn’t seal properly. “If stored properly, your pickles should last unopened for at least two years,” Lolio says. “But if they look funny or taste funny, don’t eat them.”