It’s the pickle-making time of year here in Michigan! I love sour pickles, and my family does too, so I always make a point of boiling-water-canning a big batch, to keep us in pickles year-round. I found a simple recipe with no sugar in it and have been using it for years.
Hot brine recipe/ratio: 3 cups white vinegar, 3 cups water, 1/3 cup canning salt. You combine this and bring it to a boil. The amount of brine you need depends a lot on how tightly your jars are packed with produce – you need enough brine to cover the produce in the jars and go up to within 1/4 inch of the top of the jar. I usually multiply this ratio by three or more times.
Before I dive in here to all the nuts and bolts, let me say if you have not canned before, you MUST go read the Ball’s canning guide, called Ball’s Blue Book. The book is super-cheap, not very long, and has ALL the info you need. Most any place that sells canning jars and lids, sells this guide. It has all the safety and how-to info, as well as tons of recipes.
Fill your pots first!
Put the lids on for a faster boil.
The very first thing I do when I walk in to the kitchen to start canning, is put the pots on to boil – bringing large pots of liquid to a boil always takes a lot longer than you think it will! The depth you need to fill your canner depends on if you are doing pints or quarts – the water needs to cover your jars by at least an inch if not more. If I’m canning quarts and so need to get the water right near the top of my canner, I put an additional pot of water on to boil, so I can top off the boiling water in the canner after I add my jars. (If you fill your canner too full of water to start, when you add your jars it will overflow. Been there, done that.) In this case, I was only canning pints so I did not need to fill my canner all the way or have the extra pot of water.
The blue pot is the brine solution, which I like to do in a ceramic-coated pot.
Sterilizing the jars, lids, and equipment
What gear do you need? You need a very large pot of course, potentially another for extra boiling water, and a smaller pot for the brine. And, you may need two additional pots, if you don’t have access to a professional-kitchen Hobart like I do – one small pot to simmer lids in, and another to boil the jars in. Other pieces of gear, as shown in the photo: the rack for the bottom of the canner, and the rack to put the jars in, a funnel to use to pour the hot brine into the jars, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, a ladle for the brine, a non-sharp knife (or other thin flat object) to remove air bubbles from the jar, and a damp cloth to wipe the glass tops of the jars with after you’ve filled them.
As I mentioned, I have it easy re sterilizing the jars and lids since I have access to a kitchen with a 3-minute-cycle professional Hobart… If you don’t have this, you need to simmer the lids (don’t boil them or the rubber bits may melt) and keep the jars immersed in boiling water too. (See the Ball’s Blue Book for more specifics on sterilizing.)
Pickling salt and white vinegar for the brine
Ingredients for packing into the jars
So, once I have all my various water pots and pot of brine on to boil, then it’s time to prep the ingredients. I scrub the cucumbers and cut off about 1/16″ off the blossom end. (I read that it helps keep the cucumbers crisper, who knows…) I peel garlic, enough for 1 clove per jar. (Garlic can turn blue however, in your jar – fair warning, if your pickles are gifts you might want to skip the garlic. Harmless apparently, but the blue color is a bit off-putting!) I pick and rinse fresh young grape leaves from the arbor outside the kitchen door, one per jar. Another thing that I’ve read can help keep pickles crisper, but again, who knows. If my dill heads in my garden have seeds on them by now, I pick one dill head for each jar, and buy enough dill seed for one additional tablespoon per jar. If not, I buy enough dill seed for 2 tablespoons per jar. I also buy mustard seeds, and peppercorns.
Packing the jars
Pour in the boiling brine
Once the ingredients are prepped, I check to make sure my brine and my pots of water are boiling. Then I start packing my jars, usually two at a time. I put in a grape leaf, a clove of garlic, a dill head and 1 additional tablespoon of dill seed (or 2 tablespoons dill seed if I don’t have any dill heads), 1 teaspoon of mustard seed, and six peppercorns. Then I pack in my cucumbers. Lately I’ve been leaving the cucumbers whole, I find they are crisper that way, but, it means I need a lot more brine, since there’s a lot more air space in the jar. I’ve also made spears, and horizontal slices for burgers – all work fine. There needs to be air space at the top. Once your produce is in, then carefully pour in hot brine using your funnel and ladle, until there’s about 1/4 inch of space from the brine to the top of the jar. Then use your butter knife to slide around the edges of the jar, to get out air bubbles. Then wipe the top edge of the glass jar with a damp cloth to get off any residual brine or any seeds (so the lid will adhere well). Use your magnetic wand to lift a lid and put it down on the top of the jar (or just lift by the edges with your fingers if you don’t have a magnetic wand), and then screw on the metal band. Turn the metal band until it is only just fully on – do NOT tighten it tightly. Then put the jar in your canning rack on the counter, and continue with more jars until your canning rack is full or you are out of cucumbers.
The rack of jars lowered in to the canner
Steam of a rolling boil
Carefully lift up your full canning rack, and lower it in to your canner, which should be at a full rolling boil. If the boiling water does not cover your jars by more than an inch, add more boiling water from your extra pot. Put the lid back on, and watch carefully until the canner comes back to a full rolling boil (this can take up to 15 minutes I’ve found, depending on how full the canner is). The steam coming out from under the lid will be a good clue as to when it’s come back to boil, but of course lift the lid to make sure. Once you’ve reached boil with the jars in, you can start timing your canning. My recipe book says, 15 minutes after rolling boil (if you are above sea level any significant amount you’ll need to look up your local information about how much time you need to add). I know some canners (like myself) only do 10 minutes more, some only 15 minutes total from the moment the jars get lowered in – this is all personal choice. If you read the canning guide, which is written for maximum safety, they will say 15 minutes after boil.
Lifting the hot jars
The jars cooling
Once the canning time is done, I use a wooden spoon to lift up the two handles of the rack in the boiling water, so I can grab them with hot pads. Then lift the rack straight up out of the canner and place it on the counter. I spread out a towel on the counter, and use the jar lifter to carefully place each jar on the towel. Leave a few inches space between the jars to help them cool. You’ll hear the lids start to pop, this is good! Leave them there without touching them for at least 12 hours or more.
When they are fully cool, you can unscrew the bands, and test to make sure each lid has sealed – if you can lift the jar up by the lid, without the band on, you know it’s sealed. Store them on a shelf out of the sun or heat for 6 weeks, to give them time to get more flavorful. Then enjoy! And they keep for years, if for some reason they last that long. If a jar or two does not seal (which happens, and is often hard to know why), just put it in the fridge, and eat them first. Every once in a while a jar will come apart in the canner – the glass bottom breaks off, which is the weakest point in the jar. Again it’s hard to say why it happens, maybe the jar had been bumped too hard or was weak for some reason, or maybe was filled too near the top, but the rest of the jars will be fine. You just have a bit of a mess to clean up when the batch is done cooking. Happy canning!