I had no intention of canning dill pickles last week. I was looking for raspberries at the Amish farm stand. I was at least a week too late. But they had several bags of small cucumbers and a couple bags of itty-bitty cukes perfect for baby dills. I couldn’t resist!
Homemade dill pickles are a thing around here. A jar of of my mother-in-law’s (MIL’s) pickles was a highly prized possession. Nothing was more often stolen in the Santa gift exchange game or more fiercely guarded in the pantry!
Once upon a time, I knew how to make them. Now it was almost like starting from scratch. Fortunately, a sister-in-law (SIL) was readily available. Betty’s girls haven’t missed a beat on dill pickle patrol. Beloved Betty is gone but her dill pickle legacy lives on.
First, to collect supplies. I dug up the recipe and made a trip to the grocery for cider vinegar, sugar, salt and alum. Hmm. I had a niggling feeling there was something about the salt? My fuzzy memory failed me.
I did recall fresh, fully seeded dill as an essential ingredient.* Dill in flower is nearly useless. Over lunch, the Hubs drove me into the boondocks on a hunt for dill. A young Amish woman picked 24 huge heads fresh from her massive garden, a bargain at 10 cents each. I bought several more bags of small cukes there as well. As long as I was getting into this mess, I might as well dive deep.
We stopped at a remote country hardware store on our way back, the sort of place that carries a little bit of everything. I knew they had an expansive canning section in service to the rural community. We purchased 24 wide-mouth jars, a heavy duty thing-a-ma-jig to lift piping hot jars out of boiling water, and a canning jar funnel. I needed a water bath canner but hesitated when I saw the price tag. What if this is a passing whim? Surely I can borrow one.
Back home again, I began final preparations by peppering my SILs with questions. What about alum? Oddly, it wasn’t listed on my most recent copy of my MIL’s recipe. I distinctly recalled her instructions to place a tiny amount on the tip of a paring knife and drop in each jar. She said it would keep them crisp.
“No, we don’t use that any more,” SIL confirmed. “Wasn’t safe for canning. Imagine that after all those years!” SIL messaged me a handwritten version of MIL’s recipe with alum carefully crossed out. Proof positive.
Then what will keep them crispy? “Don’t worry about it,” SIL responded. “They’ll be crispy!” Should I chill the cukes before I use them or leave at room temperature? “Chill if they’ll sit overnight,” SIL said. Do I put dill in on top or bottom? “I do both for quarts and on bottom for pints,” SIL advised. What’s the deal with pickling salt? (If she doesn’t think I’m an idiot by now…)
Argh. Another trip to the grocery revealed salt clearly labeled for canning and pickling hiding in the “seasonal” isle. I purchased more wide-mouthed canning jars while I was there, just in case. Plus several heads of garlic. Good golly! How had I forgotten garlic?
I returned home to peel garlic and rinse dill. Most heads were so large I could use only half in a jar. Then I cleaned and prepped cukes, trimming and sorting by length and girth as MIL had taught me. This improves efficiency in stuffing jars. I’d read online the importance of trimming the tiny flower off the end of each. It releases an enzyme which softens the pickle. I guess my MIL knew about that, too.
Finally I was ready to pack in sterilized jars and cover with brine. I was happy to rediscover tiny crooked cukes as great gap-fillers on top of slender spears. I wedged and wiggled to fill every inch of 36 jars. Only two little crooked cukes were homeless.
Dill pickling took me two days, midst the big cow misadventure. My back ached for two more days to follow. I’d forgotten how much work was involved but knew I’d accomplished something when I was done. You might say I’m dill pickle proud.