It started as an experiment to squeeze a little more out of the summer and try to extend fresh produce into the rainy winter months. It has transformed into a many-year long hobby of perfecting technique, that’s still on-going, as well as a collection bordering on art. Pickling is a part of the routine of our lives and a space requirement for every nook and cranny of my pantry with shelves groaning from the weight of pint and quart jars.
When you bring out a jar of pickles, the inevitable impression that people have is that somehow making pickles is somehow difficult, bordering on dangerous if done incorrectly, and something outside their reach. I felt the same way when I started, but armed with a supply of glass jars and nothing else, I dove in.
Pickling is essential preserving produce by using the process of fermentation to stop the growth of bacteria that causes spoilage. You use acidic ingredients, mostly vinegar, to accomplish this, creating an environment that’s unfriendly for bacteria and adds delicious flavor enhancing the existing taste profile of your produce. The basic technique is pretty much the same, it’s the raw ingredients and flavorings that vary and where the art and fun come in. I’ve recently started experimenting each season with new flavor combinations and the aesthetic appearance of pickles (more on this later).
The basic process for making pickles is:
- Prepare your produce – pick the freshest ingredients you can find, wash them, cut them to size, and sort out any blemished veggies.
- Meanwhile sterilize your jars – I use a large pot of boiling water but you can also use your dishwasher. The key is to get them at a hot temperature for several minutes to kill off any bacteria on their surface. You also need to sterilize the jar tops. I place them in a heat proof bowl and pour some of the boiling water on top; this sterilizes them but also softens the seal so that you’ll get a good air tight seal.
- Make the pickling liquid that will surround your vegetables – this is usually some combination of vinegar with salt and sugar. Bring to a boil so that all ingredients are dissolved.
- Working quickly, place the flavoring items (garlic, hot pepper, dill, onion slices, etc.) at the base of the jars, pack in the vegetables, and then pour the pickling mix into the jars over the vegetables and flavoring, leaving some head space at the top of the jars. I usually fill to just below the rim of the jar.
- Make sure there are no air bubbles that could trap bacteria – you do this by running a chopstick around the edge of the ingredients so that bubbles rise to the top and burst.
- Now take the jar tops and screw them on tight and process the jars. This just means cover them fully with boiling water and boil for a certain amount of time. The processing time will vary based on the acidity of the ingredients you used.
See, it’s really not that hard or dangerous if you follow these basic steps. From start to finish, I’d say it takes under an hour to make pickles and it only takes me that long because I use a standard pot that will only fit about 3 pint jars so it takes me several rounds of processing to finish all the jars. I would also recommend having a jar lifter and a funnel and lots of clean kitchen towels on hand.
If you’re worried at all about the safety of pickles I suggest that you 1) check to make sure the ingredients are fully immersed in the pickling liquid 2) when you open them make sure you hear a popping or hissing sound that indicates that you had created an airtight seal and 3) check for any visible mold. If your pickles don’t meet any of these 3 tests, just throw them out. In all my years of making pickles I think I’ve maybe had 2 or 3 jars that didn’t seal properly. If you notice that pickles aren’t fully covered, you can always throw those jars in the fridge right away and enjoy them for a few weeks safely.
These pickles are the perfect snack to tide you over while you wait for the grill to warm up when you inevitably waited too late to get dinner going because you wanted to eek as much as you could out of a warm summer day. They are vinegary and have a spicy bite to them. They’re also great to put out before a winter meal to remind you of summery farmers markets and afternoons swimming in the lake.
Quantity: 5 pint jars
Time to Prepare: 1 hour
3 ½ cups cider vinegar
3 ½ cups water
3 tablespoons kosher salt
5 sprigs fresh dill
5 cloves garlic, peeled
5 dried chili peppers (I like to use arbol peppers)
2 ½ teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 pounds green beans
Sterilize the jars either by boiling fully submerged in water for several minutes or by running through the dishwasher. Keep hot.
Meanwhile prep the beans. Wash, sort through and remove any blemished beans. Snap off the end. I like to leave one end to keep the shape and character of the bean. They need to be cut to just shy of 4 ½ inches in order to fit in half pint jars.
Make the vinegar mix. In a large saucepan combine the vinegar and water with the salt and bring just to a boil to dissolve the salt.
Sterilize the jar tops by ladling boiling water into a heat proof bowl to cover the lids. Alternatively you can use tongs and throw them in the boiling water for a minute or so to soften the seal.
Lift jars out of the boiling water and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain. Pour most of the jars’ water back into the pot, but given the increased volume when you add back in the full jars for processing, pour out the water from about 2 jars. Lift out the jar tops and place them upright on the towel.
Working quickly so your ingredients all stay as sanitary as possible, prep each jar. Place in each jar 1 sprig of dill, 1 garlic clove, 1 dried chili, and ½ a teaspoon of chili flakes. Pack the beans in standing upright. It helps to bundle a big group together and insert all at once rather than trying to slot in individual beans. Now using a ladle, pour in the hot vinegar mixture into each jar, leaving about ½ an inch head space. I fill to just below where the rings start on the jar screw top. Run a chopstick around the edge to remove any air bubbles. Then screw the tops on tightly.
Return the jars to the pot, making sure the jars are covered, and return to boil. Once the water is boiling, process jars for 10 minutes. Remove the jars to a clean towel and let sit overnight and listen for the initiation to canning with the “ping” of the lids sealing tightly as the pressure builds and the lid is sucked down. Check the seal on all jars by pressing the top, if you can push down on the center of the lid, you haven’t properly sealed the jar and it needs to be kept in the fridge. I like to let these sit for a few weeks to properly pickle.
- Have lots of kitchen towels on hand: 1 to put jars on once you pull them out of the boiling water; 1 to put the pot with the pickling liquid; 1 to put under jars as you transfer them in and out of processing bath.
- You can adjust the spicyness of these pickles to your liking, increase the number of hot peppers or the amount of red pepper for more of a kick.
- I like packing the jars all at once but then pouring the vinegar mix and screwing the lid onto each jar one by one so they get sealed as soon as they’re filled with the liquid.