Homemade Dill Pickles

dill pickles in jar side view

One of my food faring heroes is my late Aunt Jo who was ahead of her time in the kitchen. Dinner at her house was always interesting to say the least!

In the 1950s when most of us were learning how to make a tantalizing tuna casserole or an interesting Chicken a’ la King, Jo was setting out platters of tacos served with frosty margaritas and serving homemade éclairs with cinnamon flavored coffee. She was the only person I’ve ever known who actually fried a rabbit and served it for dinner (that’s correct – rabbit not rarebit). She gave me only 3 recipes, all of which I treasure because she had a reputation for zealously guarding her formulas especially her secret recipe for dill pickles.

It was nearly 50 summers ago, when I first tested my dill pickle making skill using Aunt Jo’s recipe. I was a bit edgy about how the pickles would turn out after receiving warnings from my family that if I used Jo’s dill pickle recipe I’d end up with quart jars full of “green, gooey, gunk”.

I asked myself what I had to lose, but a few cucumbers, a bit of salt and an even tinier dab of alum. I proceeded to handpick just-the-right-size cukes at a local vegetable farm where they guaranteed to be fresh from the field that morning. Gruesome images of ruined dill pickles reverberated through my mind as I set forth counting, sorting, washing and sterilizing Mason jars. Determined, I tied on my apron and entered my small farmhouse kitchen prepared for the pickle making challenge.

I began by putting a couple sprigs of fresh dill in the bottom of each jar, followed with 2 flavorful garlic cloves, and 1 dried hot pepper. I started packing the jars with cucumbers and then I filled each jar with boiling brine, gently pressed a warm lid into place and topped each jar with a ring.

Once I screwed the jar ring on as tightly as possible, I placed each sparkling quart jar on a dishtowel under an open window to cool. I anticipated hearing the “pop” that is music to the ears of canning enthusiast because it indicated they were officially preserved for the winter ahead.

Making pickles that first year seemed like a mysterious process to me. Did I inherit the magic touch for successful pickle making that my family said was essential?

“Would my pickles be pungent like Aunt Jo’s, and snap in half with the slightest touch? Would the once crystal clear brine turn to that unmistakable lime green color which would penetrate through to the center of each pickle?” I asked myself many questions while the pickles tempered on the shelf in the fruit cellar for 4 to 6 weeks.

I don’t think inheriting the magic touch has much to do with making delicious pickles. However, I do believe for firm, tangy pickles, one must follow directions to the “T” and use a tested pickle recipe. Vital to the process is using cucumbers that are packed the same day they’re picked, using non-iodized salt to make fresh brine, and heeding the alum measurement.

I found my very first pickle project rewarding. It was exciting when the crunchy, flood-your-mouth-with-saliva dill pickle snapped between my teeth and squirted juice across the room. I’m pleased in knowing that Aunt Jo trusted me to keep her dill pickle recipe circulating after she was gone. Her pickle recipe has a unique, mellow flavor of fresh dill weed seasoned together with the tartness of vinegar and salt that dances a festive jig on my taste buds. Below are the rules my Aunt Jo swore me to on the day she trusted me with her treasured dill pickle recipe.

Aunt Jo’s Pickle-Making Rules:

  1. To ensure fresh cucumbers; pick them yourself at a farm unless you know a farmer whom you can fully trust to sell them to you freshly picked. Do not buy them at a grocery store, as they’re too old, tough and often dipped in wax.
  2. Use plain salt; never used iodized salt or specialty salts of any kind.
  3. Buy fresh alum.
  4. Buy white vinegar that’s a trusted name brand such as Heinz.

dill pickles in jar top view

Jo’s Dill Pickle Recipe

12 pounds small to medium size fresh-from-the-field pickling cucumbers
1-gallon tap water
1-quart white vinegar
1-cup plain salt (do not use iodized)
1 scant teaspoon alum
16 whole cloves garlic, peeled
8 dried red peppers
16 heads fresh dill
8 wide-mouth canning jars with lids and rings, sterilized

Wash and scrub cucumbers; quarter lengthwise and set aside. Put 2 heads dill, 1 red pepper and 2 garlic cloves in the bottom of each jar. Pack cucumbers in jar.

In a large kettle, bring water, vinegar, salt and alum to a rolling boil and pour over cucumbers. Immediately place a lid on jar and tightly screw on a ring (do not tighten rings after jars cool). Pickles can be eaten any time, however they’re more flavorful if seasoned for 4-6 weeks before serving. Yield: 8 quarts

Note: The lid to each jar will make a popping sound and become concave indicating that it’s sealed. If lid is convex or bubbled up and clicks when pushed on with a finger, the jar has not sealed, therefore it needs to be stored in the refrigerator and then eaten within 4 weeks. Serve with homemade Pumpernickel Bread as a delightful snack or appetizer.

Recipe comes from the kitchen of the late Jo Grey, Seattle, Washington.

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