Heirloom Pickles

Growing up, there was always a pickle jar in the fridge.  And quite frequently it was my grandmother’s amazing cherry dill pickle recipe filling that jar (while they lasted!).  Since moving away form home (oh, gosh, a decade ago, already?!) my supply of cherry dill pickles has been rather scant.  Mournfully scant, if I do say so myself.  So this year (since I’ve been pickling/canning like a crazy person) I decided to make my own batch.  And it has been an adventure from the start.

A couple weeks ago, I started gathering equipment/ingredients.  First on the list were cherry leaves.  Now, living in an apartment surrounded by ginkos and oaks and the odd spruce, and not having the hottest botany skillz around, I am not really sure I’d recognize a cherry tree even if it bit me.  But I happened to be on the phone with my mom, who was headed over to my uncle’s place to pick cherries for freezing.  “Picking cherries, you say?!” I said, “Well perhaps you could pick some leaves and overnight them to me, too?”…and she agreed!  So early next week, I had cherry leaves in my hot little hands!  The proper cherry leaves even! (since I’m sure the cherry leaves of MT taste much better than MN cherry leaves…yup…for sure!)

Of course, as luck would have it, I was out of cucumbers for the first time in a month.  I know, right?  How can I, who complained so vociferously about being inundated by cukes for months, be out of cucumbers?  Hard to believe, but true…I gave a bunch away to coworkers thinking I wouldn’t have time to pickle them, just before discovering I could order cherry leaves air-mail from home.  Drat.  So I froze the cherry leaves (much like I do with lime leaves for Asian-style soups) so they wouldn’t get all funky before I could get my act together.

The next step in this process was to acquire a pickling venue.  You see, this particular recipe makes enough pickles for an army (OK, as armies go, they would probably only feed a small, pickle-hating army…but for just two folks, it’s a lot of pickles!).  My mother and aunts and grandma use 5 gallon pickling crocks, which I did not have, so my brilliant plan B was a plastic bucket from my friendly local hardware store.  I also decided to scale back the recipe so I would only end up with 3 gallons of pickles, since they were out of 5-gallon buckets.  I make executive decisions like that.

Next I solved the problem of cucumbers, via my friendly veggie vendor at the local farmer’s market.  So one bucket of cukes later, I was ready to pickle.  Which at this stage involved washing the cucumbers, layering them in the bucket with the cherry leaves and a bunch of dill seed, and pouring room-temp brine over them.  And waiting two weeks to move on to the next step.  So this is what’s been sitting on my counter for the past two weeks:

I panicked a bit when I saw some mold forming on the top, but I consulted my mom and aunt conventional wisdom, and was reassured that the pickles would probably be fine if left alone, and it was probably because I froze the leaves first and they were breaking down faster than expected.  So I covered it with foil to keep it from killing us (mold is dangerous, no?!) and made a concentrated effort to not worry about it.  This is what it looked like when we opened it.  Gross, I know.

My hubby was prepared though…

…and gasmask in hand, he gallantly de-brined the cukes for me while I oversaw the proceedings from a location staunchly upwind…

Don’t try this in your home, kids…take it outside–it reeked!

First step once the cukes had been de-brined was to wash them…thoroughly.  See  above if questions.  So I washed the cukes, scrubbing them pretty well with my trusty veggie brush.  Once they were very well washed, I tested them.  After brining, if all was OK, we should have fairly crisp cukes (though they wouldn’t taste like proper pickles yet since the syrup is added later).  So we sliced into one to check it out:

The verdict: crisp and crunchety for the win!  I was so on the fence about these pickles.  Right up until that bite, I was about 60% convinced we should just scrap the whole lot as there’s no way anything that lurked under that scummy surface should be remotely edible…and yet…I held onto this beacon of hope that all would be well, because, well, I wanted cherry dill pickles, dammit!

Once we knew we were home free, the real work began.  I started slicing cukes into 3/4″ to 1″ slices, while John poured vinegar and sugar together and got it boiling for the syrup.  We also lit a fire under the canning kettle (it takes forever to boil, so we start it first most of the time).

Once the water in the canning kettle came up to a boil, we sanitized the jars, added 1/2 tsp. pickling spice to them, and then started packing the slices in.

John has mad pickle packing skillz.  Seriously, I hate packing stuff into jars because I know if I just take my time, more will fit in, but I’m lazy and want to be done already, so I usually end up with one more jar than I planned to make.  But not John!  He packed 10 pints of pickles neatly in to 10 pint jars!  Excellent!

Once the pickles were packed, we poured the syrup over them.

The syrup in the recipe is just a 2:1 ratio of sugar:vinegar, so we started with 2 cups sugar and a cup of vinegar and realized that would fill about 3 jars, max…so we made a couple more batches as we ran out a few times.  Then we tapped the air bubbles out of the jars, wiped the rims clean, screwed down the lids, and into the water bath they went! Exciting!

When all was said and done, our kitchen table was a sticky sticky mess and we had 10 jars of processed pickles!  We had a few odds and ends left that didn’t quite fill a jar, so we poured the last of the syrup over those and tossed it in the fridge to have this week.  A test jar, so to speak!

So it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be (at any and all stages!), but it was definitely more work and anxiety than I bargained for, too!  For any hearty souls that want to try this recipe, here it is (at least you’ll know approximately what you’re in for!):

Cherry Dill Pickles

Equipment:

  • 1 3-gallon plastic bucket or other pickling venue/crock
  • 10-11 pint jars
  • canning kettle/rack/jar lifter
  • large saucepan (for making brine & syrup)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 bushel of smallish whole cukes (4-6″ in length, no more than 1-1/2″ in diameter)
  • 1 large bunch cherry leaves, washed (I’d say about 2 cups total)
  • 1/3 cup dill seed
  • 1 cup canning salt
  • 5 quarts water
  • 6 cups sugar (approx.)
  • 3 cups cider vinegar (approx.)

Scrub the cucumbers well and drain. Layer cucumbers and cherry leaves in your bucket/pickling crock, sprinkling each layer with a tablespoon or two of dill seeds.  Use the entire 1/3 cup over the course of all the layers.

Bring water and salt to a boil and stir till dissolved.  Pour (GENTLY!) over cucumbers/seeds/leaves.  Try not to displace the seasonings too much!

Set bucket in cool location (room temp or just below) out of direct sunlight.  Pick a place that the bucket can sit unmolested for two weeks–you don’t want to be moving it if you can help it.  Cover the top loosely with foil to keep dust/bugs out.

Let sit for two weeks.  Check every couple of days.  If mold forms, skim it off.  If a skin forms, that’s normal, just leave it be.

When cukes have brined for two weeks, remove from brine.  Wash thoroughly and slice into 3/4″ to 1″ wide pieces.  Discard brine.

Pack slices into sterilized jars. Make syrup by boiling sugar and cider vinegar till well dissolved.  Make more syrup using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to vinegar if needed.  Pour syrup into jars, leaving about 1/2″ headspace.  Tap air bubbles out.  Seal jars and process in water bath for 12 minutes.

Let processed jars cool overnight (don’t mess with them!).  Store sealed jars for up to 1 year, any jars that don’t seal, put in the fridge and eat within 3 months.

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