A little over a year ago I did not know the first thing about canning or what a “bread and butter pickle” was.
My mom had done some canning growing up so I knew it was doable but that was it. During one of her visits I was in the mood for a project, cucumbers were in season and I had heard that pickling was an easy place to start. I turned again to my brother-in-law who had done some pickles the year before, he hooked me up with his mom’s famous recipe.
Canning may seem overwhelming and sound time consuming, but once you get comfortable with the process it begins to feel simple and it is oh so functional. It does take time, but on most occasions you can do the whole project from start to finish in less than two hours (that is active hours, this one takes 3 hours of brining, which means just soaking pickles in salt water), faster if you have a dishwasher or if you are starting from already cleaned and prepared foods. And really most of the time is just waiting for things to boil, not like doing math problems or anything.
I know there are a million “intro to canning,” tutorials out there and I figured I would throw mine in the mix. Please excuse my pictures, if one of you reading is a food photographer and wants to re-create them for me I can offer you nothing more than photo credit and gratitude, but I would love it.
Okay so let’s get started with the basics of canning.
So the idea is that you sterilize the jars by either boiling them or running them through a hot dishwasher. Then add food that has also been sterilized by boiling. Then boil them once they are sealed to really fully sterilize them (my mom and Yiayia both skip this step but I don’t recommend doing that). The rest is just details.
So for any canning project you will need:
Jars– reusuable so stock up now and then as you use them you can start caning something else.
Lids-not reusuable for canning. You can still use them to keep food stored in the pantry or fridge but the seals themselves are only good for one use.
Bands– this is the round part that you use to tighten the lid to the jar. This part is reusuable.
A large pot of boiling water. Used to sanitize jars.
A smaller pot to simmer lids and bands. Don’t boil just simmer, making this one too hot can damage the seal.
Tongs– For a my first try we made do without any special equipment. Once I started doing this more often I bought the special canning tongs which fit nicely over the top of a jar (you can usually buy a starter canning kit for about 7 dollars that contains these and the next three items).
Wide Mouth Funnel– You can make do without this too, it is just a bit messier. I find that I use mine all the time now that I have one.
Lid Lifter– This is a little magnet on the end of a wooden or plastic rod. It is convenient to get the lids out of hot water though not necessary.
Plastic rod- To run along the edge of the jar to stir out any air bubbles. A butter knife works fine, though I’ve read that there is a risk of chipping or scratching the glass with metal.
Several pot holders and clean dry towels.
A pot of boiling food. In this case pickles. (Note: you can use this method for anything acidic, pickles, tomatoes and jams etc. When it comes to canning beans and soups and other vegetables you need a pressure canner which cooks the cans at a hotter temperature)
Rack– I’ve never had this but you can use a rack or just put a trivet or towel in the bottom of your pan where you are boiling jars to prevent them from banging around too much.
Let’s Get Set Up
I set up my jars boiling on the front left burner (usually the most time consuming part is just waiting for this big pot of water to come to a boil), and my pickles or jelly or whatever on the front right burner. My lids are on the back right burner and my work space is on the counter to the right covered in a clean dish towel.
In addition to sterilizing my jars by boiling them in water I dip anything that is going to contact my food, (like the wide mouth funnel) and make sure it is sterilized too.
If you are using a dishwasher you may run your jars through the “sterilize cycle” and keep them hot in there rather than boiling them for this first step.
So here are the basic steps of canning.
1. Boil clean jars. Put jars in a pot of water and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for at least 10 minutes. You can add a splash of vinegar to the water to help prevent mineral deposits on the side of the jars ( I never do this but I should).
2. Place your jar lids and bands in a smaller pan of water. Heat until just before boiling, you want to soften the rubber seals with hot water but you don’t want to heat them so much that the rubber edge becomes damaged or misshapen.
3. Once your pickles are ready remove one jar (it will be hot so use a good potholder). Set it on a dry dish towel. If you have one, place a wide mouth funnel on the jar.
4. Scoop or pickles into the jar until you are about a half inch from filling it up.
5. Take a plastic rod and run it along the inside of the jar to stir out any air bubbles.
6. Wipe the rim of the jar clean to ensure a good seal.
7. Take a lid and place it on the jar. Then take a band and screw it on, tighten the lid but don’t make it too tight, just enough to get some resistance.
8. Once you have made up all of your jars put them back into your pot of boiling water. (or if you used a dishwasher for the first part you need to start a pot of boiling water and put them in there) Boil for about 10 minutes, time will vary by recipe and altitude.
9. Remove and set on a dry towel and let cool at room temperature.
You should hear the lids popping as they seal. Check each lid, the top should be sucked down so you can’t press it down any further.
When you go to use your jars check again, make sure the lid is still depressed, the seal is good and tight, and there are no bubbles inside of the jar before you open it.
Now we are ready for the pickles.
You will need:
6 quarts of sliced cucumbers. Small and fresh make for the crunchiest.
1 quart of thinly sliced onions
1 cup salt
9 cups of water
2-3 trays of ice cubes
6 cups of vinegar
6 cups of sugar
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp celery salt
1. Slice cucumbers and onions. Place in a pot.
2. Pour water and salt over top.
3. Cover with ice (I have heard this helps to keep the crunch).
4. Brine for 3 hours then drain. I always wonder if I should stir the water and try to get the salt to all dissolve and then I wonder if I should try to rinse all the salt away when I’m done. What I typically do is follow the recipe exactly. I don’t stir. And I don’t worry about some salt that remains undissolved on the cucumbers. You really can’t go wrong here.
5. Mix syrup ingredients and pour over cucumbers.
6. Gently stir and heat until at a rolling boil (a boil that you can’t stir away).
7. Pack hot cucumbers into jars and follow directions above on how to finish canning process.
Really it is easy. Once you get the process down it will feel like a piece of cake to do some quick canning on a Saturday.