Making Pickles Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Dill — and It’s Easy on Your Wallet
I’m just going to say it: I love pickles.
As a kid, my mom had to stop me from drinking pickle juice straight from the jar. Cut to me doing picklebacks (a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle brine) at the bar in my thirties.
You get the picture.
So it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to take a beginner’s pickling class at Urban Canning Company, a local food preservation company spearheaded by Illene Sofranko.
Between mouthfuls of her pickled beets, tomato jam and homemade peach soda, Sofranko quickly dispelled the country-folk stereotype often associated with canning and pickling. The samples, inventiveness and ease of the class illustrated just how sustainable, practical and delicious an art form food preservation truly is.
She helped me make my first hot water bath dill pickle recipe – and in turn, I’ll help you.
Food Preservation Basics
A quick online search of how to can or pickle will make you think there are millions of steps and supplies involved, and scare the bejeezus out of you WebMD-style about botulism.
“That’s not true at all,” Sofranko said. “I bust a lot of canning myths.”
Follow the steps properly, and you’ll be just fine.
Pickling and canning follow the same essential process. You use what’s called a “hot water bath” to pickle almost anything and can high-acid foods like fruit, salsa and relish.
Canning most other vegetables and foods calls for a pressure canner, which is a whole ’nother level we’re not getting into here.
Sofranko uses a base brine ratio to calculate how much brine she needs for any batch of pickled goods. It’s a 1-1-1 ratio using 1 cup of vinegar to 1 cup of water to 1 tablespoon of pickling salt. If you divide the number of jars you’re using by two, you’ll get your required measurement — when using 16-ounce mason jars.
For example: You have eight jars. Eight divided by 2 is 4. So, you need 4 cups of vinegar, 4 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of pickling salt.
“You can make one jar of pickles, or you can make 600 – it’s up to you,” she said.
Essential Pickling Supplies
A one-time investment will have you set for life. You probably own most of the items you need to get started, with the exception of a few inexpensive supplies.
To make your first batch of pickles you will need:
- Boiling water canner with rack (sometimes called a hot or boiling water bath): $24.99
- Canning tongs aka jar lifter: $6.32
- Canning funnel: $2.59
- Mason jars with lids and rims: $8.69 for 12 jars
- Dish towel
- Pot holders
- Ladle or plastic pitcher
- A nonreactive pot (stainless steel or copper)
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Food ingredients (white or apple cider vinegar, pickling salt, spices and cucumbers)
You can buy supplies individually or all together in a canning kit. There are many options online and at your local hardware store or Walmart. Either way, the initial cost for equipment should be around $40; just be mindful of added shipping fees if you order online.
How to Make Pickles (Basically)
The process is rather simple: You prep cucumbers, spice up the jars, boil a brine, combine and seal it all and process it in the canner.
Don’t be alarmed by the number of steps. These are detailed instructions to help you through your first go at making pickles.
Urban Canning Company provided this recipe. However, you can tweak it to your taste. I’ve made several batches at home since the class and experimented with different vegetables, spices and flavors. Pickling is actually fun. You’ll see.
Ingredients for 8 16-ounce jars of pickles:
- Approximately 1 gallon of pickling cucumbers
- 4 cups apple cider vinegar
- 4 cups of filtered water
- 4 tablespoons of pickling salt
- 8 teaspoons dill seed
- 8-16 garlic cloves
- 4 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons chili flakes
- Soak the whole cucumbers in a vinegar bath for about 10 minutes.This helps free the cucumber of any bacteria. Use one part white vinegar to three parts water. Unless the water is getting dirty, you can reuse it for the whole batch.
- Trim the edges and cut the cucumbers into your desired spear size. You can measure them against the jar you’re using to make sure they fit. Consider saving the tips and ends in a bag to make relish with later.
- Fill the boiling water canner about halfway and heat the water on a back burner, but don’t boil it yet.
- Wash lids, jars and rings with hot, soapy water.
- Separate spices into each jar. Put 1 teaspoon of dill seed, 1-2 garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon black peppercorns and ¼ teaspoon chili flakes into each jar. You can modify this according to your tastes.
- Fill the jars with cucumber spears tetris-style, but don’t damage their svelte frame by jamming them in there. They can be snug, but don’t squash them trying to make room.
- Make the brine in a nonreactive pot by combining the apple cider vinegar, filtered water and pickling salt. Bring to a boil.
- In the meantime, bring the water in the canner to a boil.
- When the brine is ready, either ladle it into each jar through the funnel, or pour it into a pitcher and use the pitcher to pour through the funnel. Fill the jars to the top, leaving one-inch of space at the top — that’s the second line from the jar rim, or where the jar neck ends.
- Wipe the rim of each jar with a damp cloth to ensure a good, clean seal.
- Put the lids and rings on each jar. Close the rings only finger tight — don’t go further than the force your finger can turn it.
- Once the canner water boils and the canner rack is in position, place each sealed jar into the rack using the canner tongs. After the rack is filled, lower it into the boiling water, ensuring at least one to two inches of water covers the jars once they’re submerged. Add more water if needed, and wait for it to boil before starting the timer. If you do not have a rack, do not set the jars directly into the pot. The direct heat will cause them to crack and possibly explode.
- After the water comes to a boil again, cover the pot and set timer for 10 minutes.
- Once time is up, remove the lid and pull the jars out one by one with the canner tongs. Place them on a dry dish towel and allow them to cool, untouched, for 24 hours. You should hear the lids pop as they cool down. This is a good sign. It indicates the jar is sealed.
- After 24 hours, make sure the lids are all sealed and date each jar. Press on the jar lids; any that pop need to go in the fridge, since they’re not shelf stable.
If your jar comes out of the bath with less brine in it, that’s okay – it seeped out during processing either from tipping over or temperature change. It’s called siphoning. It may not look pretty, but it’s totally edible for at least 10 to 20 years, according to Sofranko.
If everything goes well, your pickles are forever preserved.
“It’s like a time capsule. Nothing can happen inside of there,” said Sofranko.
Any leftover brine can be stored, reheated and reused later.
How Pickling Can Save You Money
While preserving food might start as a hobby, it will save you money in the long run. After the initial investment, the cost of pickling boils down to vinegar, spices and your produce of choice.
Picking your produce locally, buying from a CSA or shopping farmers’ markets reduces the footprint food has to travel, eliminates packaging waste and helps farms off-load overabundance or misshapen veggies.
Buying in bulk will get you the most bang for your buck when pickling. Local farms offer bulk buys by the crate or per pound of what you pick (generally $10 or less). It helps the farmers, you and the local economy. Sofranko feels the savings go beyond that, too.
“When you invest [in] local bulk items, you’re going to save money on your health care cost[s] in the long run,” Sofranko said.
A jar of pickles runs anywhere from $2 to $4. Sofranko estimates making your own — not including labor and overhead — costs $1 to $1.25 per jar. She gets 56 to 60 jars of pickles from one crate of cucumbers. That’s enough to last any normal person years.
The grocery savings add up even more if you grow and pickle from a home garden.
It’s common to throw away scraps of produce. But you can save those pieces and give them a second chance at life in a pickle jar.
From broccoli stems to the beautiful purple centers of swiss chard, they’re all edible and fair pickling game.
Serving them as a side or adding them to a party platter can dress up any dinner without your having to buy extras.
Since taking Sofranko’s class, and starting my own home-pickling journey, I’ve been inspired to see what else I can make from my leftovers.
She has an “Urban Tips” blog with recipes to repurpose leftover scraps – like using citrus rinds for home cleaners, making soda from ginger bugs or finding extra uses for pickle brine.
Once you start experimenting, and seeing the ways to stretch food, it’ll start a chain reaction of buying and wasting less overall.
Spoiler alert for any friends and family reading: You’re getting pickles, canned goods or jam for Christmas.
It’s time-consuming at first, but after the initial learning curve, you’ll breeze through it and have so many pickled things stacking up.
Use those extras as gifts for family and friends, especially if they have a penchant for pickles. Consider putting a pickled spin on their favorite foods like peppers, brussel sprouts or asparagus.
Whatever form it comes in, it’ll be a thoughtful, homemade gift they’ll love while saving you tons of cash from avoiding store-bought presents. Plus, you can give to more people for what you might spend on one.
We all know that the fastest way to the heart is through the stomach.
You can pickle again and again with those same jars as long as they’re not damaged. The lids are the only piece you can’t reuse in the hot water bath. You’ll have to replace those every time.
However, they can be reused to store dry goods like beans, rice and sugar or used as vessels for Instagram-worthy salads and smoothies.
Or turn your home into a Pinterest dream by using old jars decoratively as candle holders, lights or vases.
Benefits of Pickling
There’s something to be said about knowing exactly where your food has been. Whether you grew it, picked it or bought it locally, canning and pickling avoids all the preservatives and additives you’d otherwise ingest from store-bought food.
What you make is exactly what you get. Personally, I’m not a fan of spicy food, so I rarely add hot or piquant flavors to my pickling (or cooking). But if you love spicy, sour, sweet and so forth, you can season your jars to your preferences. Hello, hot asparagus!
Sofranko finds inspiration in fusion cocktails. She brings those flavors into her jams and pickles, which she said can get pretty creative.
Traditionally, canning and pickling happened during the main harvest seasons. It kept communities connected to their food, provided a way of life and sustained their food supply through winter.
Nowadays, we have access to many more food sources – even in tough seasonal climates.
But whenever a bad storm approaches – whether it be a hurricane or snow – a mad dash for supplies ensues. You can skip that part knowing you have plenty of ready-to-eat nonperishable food right at home.
Sofranko’s family has four years’ worth of canned and pickled food supplies at any time, so there is never any worry of running out of food.
Cutting up gallons of cucumbers might seem like a boring task, but it’s not to Sofranko. She finds her Zen in it.
“It clears your mind, and you feel better afterwards. You can see what you accomplished, and you get to eat the reward of your labor. It tastes better,” she said.
Cooking as a meditative and mindful practice is a thing. Pickling can help us find a slice of peace in our busy lives.
When you think about canning and pickling historically, you might imagine women gathered around a table, chopping vegetables and chatting.
“That was a community experience for those women. They loved getting together and doing this. It was part of their tradition,“ Sofranko said.
Keep the tradition alive by inviting friends over, rolling out the veggies, pouring some wine and having a pickle party.
Group effort takes less time and makes the process fun and purposeful. It can be a wholesome activity with the kids, or a social event without spending money at the bar.
What once was the way of the past could now be the way of the future – one pickle at a time.
Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She has never picked a peck of pickled peppers.