I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I thought you should know before you got your hopes up that I would divulge the details of the best pickle I’ve ever had. I will give you guidance, I will give you hints, but I promised to honor the secrets of the pickle process. (That’s what she said.)
A few weeks ago, I drove an hour from my house into a small town in Southern Washington to visit my friend and co-worker at her husband’s annual pickling party. When she had casually mentioned the pickling earlier in the week, I practically jumped across the table in excitement. Making pickles has always eluded me. I wanted them dilly, I wanted them crunchy and, by God, I wanted them briny. Was that too much to ask? Every time I made refrigerator pickles, they were too salty or vinegary or ,ugh…too sweet, and they were definitely not crunchy enough. I may have followed recipes, but I really had no idea the finesse that came into play when pickling…and that is why I practically forced myself into Carrie’s husband’s work shed/pickling center.
This guy was serious about pickling. I sheepishly brought a dozen quart jars to fill, thinking that I was asking too much. Um….no. My jars looked like tablespoons next to the gallon jars that lined the tables in the workroom. To be honest, I was taking Carrie’s word for it that these were the best pickles out there. I was willing to gamble and at the very least, I would learn something. What I learned was: THAT THESE WERE THE BEST PICKLES OUT THERE.
At first, I was thinking to myself…Hey! These would make nice gifts. When I opened up my first jar and took my first bite, I went into a blind panic. I would definitely NOT be giving these away and -oh crap- I only have 11 unopened jars left. How will they possibly last one whole year until next pickling season? (By the way, it is about 3 weeks later and I am on my fourth jar. Yes, I shared some, but that only caused a frenzy of people wanting more. I was even offered money for a jar. I told them to get lost.)
I know I am all about sharing family recipes here, but I’ve got to respect the tried and true tradition of the secret family recipe. You may not get the full secret here, but I will not leave you hanging and I will give you some hints on how to pickle like a pro.
The pickling cucumbers were in giant tubs in a walk-in refrigerator. Let me clarify…they were in giant BATH tubs. (I was definitely NOT taking away from them with my little quart jars.) They were bright and crisp and happy in those tubs. I thought for sure that they would be giving these away or selling them, just because of the sheer volume, but I was terribly wrong. Darrin and his pals mentioned casually that they would probably all be consumed within 6 months…consumed by just them. I nodded my head and thought ‘suuuuuuuuuuuure’. (did I mention that I only have 8 jars left?!!!!!)
Some helpful hints: Cut off both ends of the cucumber after cleaning. There is an enzyme at the tail end of the cucumber that can cause softness in the pickle when sitting in the pickling jar. Preserve the crunch and trim the ends. If you want a dill pickle… DON’T ADD SUGAR to the brine. As a matter of fact, don’t add anything that lends to a sweetness or has a sugar tone to it. Think about your spices and how you want your pickles to taste. Don’t be afraid to create your own pickling spice, though you can buy it dirt cheap in bulk. Add things to the jar other than cucumbers. Like onions..but use the right ones. Add garlic, ’cause garlic makes everything better. If you like spicy, add peppercorns or hot peppers or red chili flakes or whatever hot thing you like. And don’t forget the dill. I’m not talking about the dried stuff you find in the spice aisle, I’m talking about the tall bunches of dill you can buy all over the farmer’s markets during this time of year. Support your local farmer and get all your ingredients at the market. Plus, fresh tastes better, people!
Here are my 12 tiny jars of pickle perfection, before they were filled with the pickling brine. Aren’t they beautiful?! I thought I did such a good job packing them in there, but after they were filled with liquid, I saw big gaping holes where the cucumbers had shifted around. I found that it was best to use regular-mouthed jars, instead of the wide-mouth. The regular size has a smaller opening, but the curve at the mouth helps keep the cucumbers tucked in, thus keeping them snug as a bug in a rug. I also should have done one layer of cucumbers that lay flat at the bottom of the jar, before I started sticking them in vertically. To live and learn, I suppose, but I can’t help but think about how I could have shoved a couple more cucumbers in per jar. Just think of what I am missing out on!
Here is a pallet of jars all ready for the hot brine. Yes, that is a Starbucks cup. Pickling is hard work.
Hold your horses! Most importantly: YOU MUST STERILIZE YOUR JARS AND LIDS. I ran my jars through the dishwasher and saved the lids to simmer in a giant pot at the pickling shed. Whether you decide to make refrigerator pickles or are canning the pickles for shelf storage, you must sterilize your jars. I’ve read that if you want to make canned pickles, you need to make sure you do a boiling bath for at least 5 minutes to seal and sterilize, but note that it could pull some crunch out of your cukes. Because the brine we used in our pickles had been boiling for a while and we poured it directly into the sterilized jars, I banked on the high acidity content with the vinegar, the pre-sterilized jars, the boiling brine, and I rolled without the boiling bath afterwards. We cleaned the rims, placed the lids and waited while they popped! and sealed. Because Darrin has a huge walk-in fridge, he waited 48 hours while they cooled and then placed them in his cooler. I waited 2 days, while my 12 little jars hung out in a cool place in my apartment and then did a seal check. I removed the rings and lifted the jars an inch off of the ground by the edge of the lids. If they had popped off, that would mean a bad seal and they wouldn’t be ok for the cupboard. None of them came undone. Thank goodness. Darrin’s pal said that if I ever opened up a jar and it got all white and foamy….then it went bad. I’m pretty certain that if I ever opened any jar and it got all white and foamy, I would yell ‘RABIES’ and run away, but I’m glad he warned me anyways.
By the rate I’m consuming these cukes, I think I will outrun any possible bacteria overgrowth. I’m not worried. If you don’t want to run fast and loose like me, fill the jars, place the lids and do a boiling bath for 5-10 minutes. You may have a slightly less crunchy cuke, but you certainly will avoid the rabies.
I have borrowed a dill pickle recipe from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan. The recipe was similar to my sworn secrecy recipe.
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 3 tsp pickling salt
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes, divided
- 4 tsp dill seed, divided (or fresh dill stems)
- 2 tsp black peppercorns, divided
- Small pickling cucumbers left whole or sliced into spears
- Sterilize jars in boiling water bath, putting lids in small saucepan, cover them with water, and simmer over very low heat.
- Combine the vinegar, 2 cups water, and pickling salt in a pot and bring the brine to a boil.
- Add 2 garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp dill seed (or fresh dill), and 1/2 tsp black peppercorns to each sterilized jar.
- Trim off the blossom end of the cucumbers and pack them firmly into the jars. You don’t want to damage the cukes, but you do want them packed tightly.
- Slowly pour the hot brine over the cucumbers in each jar, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.
- Gently tap the jars on a towel-lined countertop to help loosen any bubbles before using ta wooden chopstick to dislodge any remaining bubbles. Check the headspace and add more brine if necessary.
- Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes.
- Let these pickles cure for at least 1 week before eating. (If you can wait that long.)