Last summer my mother taught me our family recipe for dill pickles (great-grandma's recipe is pictured). Here's a step-by-step guide to pickling. This recipe is for dill pickles, but once you have this down (and trust me, it's easier than you think), you can adapt the general process to jelly-making and more.
What You Need
5% acid white vinegar
Dried red peppers/chiles de arbol
Garlic (1 large clove per jar)
Fresh or dried dill weed (seeds are fine)
Canning lids and bands (note: the lids must be new, but bands can be reused)
Quart- and pint-sized jars (wide mouth works best)
Stock pot large enough to hold jars covered with water*
Large pot for making brine
Small saucepan for readying lids
First, be prepared. Read all these instructions before beginning, and have all your equipment ready to go. If you're organized, this will work even better. That said, this takes a good chunk of time. We did 20 jars in about 5 hours, but that was with the help of a pickling pro. Even if your first try at pickling doesn't seem easy, trust us: after you've done it twice, you'll have it down.
1. Sterilize the jars. Even after a run in the dishwasher, it's wise to sterilize them the old-fashioned way to make sure you're clear of bacteria.
Fill the stock pot with water and set it on the stove. Place canning rack at the bottom of the pot (this prevents the glass jars from being in direct contact with the heat source). Put the empty jars in the pot, making sure each one fills with water. Turn the heat on to high and bring to a rolling boil for 20 minutes.
2. Carefully remove the sterilized jars from the pot with a jar lifter, pouring the hot water back in (you can use this for your water bath later on in step 9). Set the jars on a towel right side up and let them air-dry while you prepare the cucumbers.
3. Prepare your cucumbers and garlic. Wash the cucumbers very well using a scrub brush. Peel the of garlic, leaving the cloves intact. (Here's how.)
4. Decide what shape pickles you want. If your cucumbers are small enough to squeeze many into one jar, don't worry about cutting them. If you'd like dill pickle slices, slice the cucumbers into 1/8 or 1/4-inch slices. If you prefer spears, cut them that way. Note: if you cut the cucumbers, your pickles will be less crispy.
5. Start filling your jars. In each jar (for this recipe), place one dried chile, one clove of garlic, and one head of dried dill weed (or about 1 teaspoon dry seed). Like it spicy? Add another chile. Love garlic? Add more. It's easily adaptable.
6. Prepare the brine. In a large stock pot, combine 2 quarts water, 1 quart 5% acid white vinegar, and 1 cup non-iodized salt. Stir the mixture and bring it to a gentle, rolling boil. Be prepared to make more of this as you go.
7. Fill the jars with cucumbers. You'll want to pack the cucumbers very tightly; think of this as pickle Tetris. If your hand isn't doing the trick, you can use the handle of a wooden spoon to help pack in the cukes very tightly.
8. Prepare the lids. In the small saucepan, cover the lids (not the bands) with about 1 inch water. Simmer on the stove for 5 minutes. This loosens the seal on the lids and prepares them to seal with the jar in the canning stage. Here's where it's helpful to have the lid magnet: you'll be able to reach into simmering water with the magnet to retrieve the lids as needed. A fork or kitchen tongs can do the trick, though.
9. Bring the water in the stock pot back to a boil for the water bath.
10. Pour in the brine. Using a heat-safe measuring cup (a Pyrex with a handle and spout works best), begin pouring brine over the jarred cucumbers. Leave about 1/2 inch of headspace at the top of each jar. Keep an eye on your brine; if you're running low and have more jars to go, make more as needed (a half-recipe would likely do the trick).
11. Place a lid on each jar. Put a band on top and screw it down only until you meet a little resistance (you don't want them so tight that no air can get in or out).
11. Time for the water bath. This is the process that preserves the pickles. You want to make sure your jars are still warm (remember that hot brine?) when you're placing them into the boiling water. Using a jar lifter, slowly lower each jar into the pot. Go as slow as you can so that the glass has time to adapt to the temperature change.
12. Boil the jars in the water bath for 20 minutes. Slowly remove jars and set on counter. Listen carefully: you'll know the jars are properly sealed when you hear an all-too-satisfying POP! (The exact sound a brand-new jar of pickles makes when it's opened.)
13. Let the pickles cure for two weeks. As tempting as they may be, don't open any of the jars until then. If some jars don't pop, store them in the fridge and use after two weeks. The properly-sealed pickles will last indefinitely in a pantry.
Additional Notes: The jar lifter, lid magnet, and canning rack are all very nice tools to have if you're pickling. They're inexpensive and can be bought at most well-stocked grocery stores or hardware stores, or online. Or you can ask your friends, neighbors, or relatives to borrow them. If you're short on space, borrow a large stock pot so you don't have to store it. For more home-grown canning recipes, go here.
(Images: Amber Byfield for Re-Nest.)