Canning the harvest should be a joyous and rewarding experience, but if you’re in over your head, it can be stressful and overwhelming, even dangerous.
Aspiring or novice canners shouldn’t wait for the so-called Harvest Season to get started. Midsummer is a great time to ease into the groove, work on your skills, figure out your game plan, and stock up on whatever gear and supplies you don’t have, without the pressure of a mountain of produce.
If you just do a jar or two here and there, you can keep skin in the game without breaking a sweat.
From a Belarusian Home Kitchen
Where I live, there are several families of Belarusian immigrants from a town called Olshany, which is known for its cucumbers. They are grown in shopping mall-sized greenhouses, some of which are heated by as many as 10 wood stoves. They know about growing cucumbers, and have begun selling a small pickling variety that is sweet and juicy enough to eat like popcorn.
Some of the Belarusians sell pickles, too, and I bought some with high hopes, but they were disappointing. My friend Val, who was born in Olshany, explained that the pickles for sale at the market aren’t really like the pickles they eat at home, because food safety standards require more salt, vinegar, and heat than they care to subject their cucumbers to.
“That is why I don’t sell pickles here,” she said.
I had to ask Val what she does at home.
“I put the cucumbers in jars and I put all the spices. I always do horseradish, dill, parsley, garlic, and all kinds of peppers. Put these jars in the oven at 350 F for 25 minutes to sanitize them. While I do that, my brine is boiling. I pour the brine into each jar and seal it. Then I turn the jar over.”
She inverts the pickles twice a day for the next two days, so they spend about half the time upside down. It’s a way of compensating for the fact that she doesn’t boil her pickles, a tactic that makes the pickles more crispy but more dangerous.
Boiling the pickles takes care of any microbes that the salt and vinegar somehow miss. Bacteria or spores can sometimes hide out in air pockets inside dill flowers or elsewhere. Inverting the jars like this ensures the brine makes it everywhere it needs to go.
Her brine recipe—24 cups water, one cup salt, one cup sugar, and four cups white vinegar—filled eight jars of cucumber pickles augmented with dill, garlic, crushed red pepper, and horseradish leaves, as instructed. Val says the horseradish adds flavor and crispness to the pickles.
I brought a jar of four-day-old pickles to market. Val opened the jar, stabbed a pickle with her knife, and chewed slowly, frowning. “You know, it’s not bad,” she said in a flat Eastern European deadpan.
If you’ve been pickling your whole life like Val, you know the rules well enough to get away with breaking them. But new canners should take a more cautious approach and learn proper safety protocols.
Ball Corporation has a book out called “Ball Canning Back to Basics.” Given that the company produces virtually all of the canning jars in circulation today, it’s worth reading what it has to say about how to use its product.
The Ball book begins with a section on the basic gear, ingredients, and procedures involved in canning. If you don’t know the importance of adjusting acidity, accounting for altitude, or measuring headspace, you should find a reputable source of information like this book or one of the many other educational resources in print and online.
Not surprisingly, the Ball book’s recipe for dill pickles includes proprietary products like Ball Salt and Ball Pickle Crisp Granules. You can, of course, use any kind of pickling salt. And you can skip those granules, or replace them with horseradish leaves—grape, cherry, and oak leaves are also widely used for this purpose.
Meanwhile, the Ball recipe calls for “dill sprigs,” but doesn’t specify leaves or flowers. According to my sources, dill leaves alone won’t cut it; there have to be flowers.
It also calls for cutting the cucumbers, which you don’t have to do if you pick them small, Belarusian-style. Most family recipes start like this, with a proven recipe. Little by little, you make it your own.
Ultimately, there’s more than one correct way to can a pickle. And one cardinal rule to which every canner abides: If the seal is broken, don’t eat it.
Ball-Style Dill Pickles
- 4 pounds (3- to 5-inch) pickling cucumbers
- 1 gallon plus 1 quart water
- 10 tablespoons Ball Salt for Pickling and Preserving
- 3 cups white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon pickling spice
- 12 dill sprigs
- 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
- Ball Pickle Crisp Granules (optional)
Rinse the cucumbers under cold running water, and trim any that are longer than 5 inches so that they’ll fit comfortably in the jar. Cut each cucumber lengthwise into quarters. Place the spears in a large, clean container (such as a 12- to 18-quart food-safe plastic pail or basin).
Combine 1 gallon of the water and 6 tablespoons of the salt in a large pitcher, stirring until the salt dissolves. Pour over the cucumbers; cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Drain; rinse under cold running water, and drain.
Combine remaining 1 quart water, vinegar, sugar, pickling spice, and remaining 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) salt in a stainless-steel or enameled saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the salt and sugar dissolve.
Place 2 of the dill sprigs and 1 teaspoon of the mustard seeds into a hot, freshly sterilized jar, and pack tightly with the cucumber spears. Ladle the hot pickling liquid over the spears, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Add 1/8 teaspoon Ball Pickle Crisp Granules to jar, if desired. Remove air bubbles. Wipe the jar rim. Center the lid on the jar. Apply the band, and adjust to fingertip-tight. Place the jar in a boiling water canner. Repeat until all the jars are filled.
Process the jars 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Turn off heat; remove the pot’s lid, and let the jars stand 5 minutes. Remove the jars and cool.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.