Homemade Pickles: Preserving the Harvest

PicklesI love dill pickles. My husband loves dill pickles. My son loves dill pickles. Naturally I was quite excited by the prospect of making my own. Since I had never planted a large garden before I had never before grown my own cucumbers. As I was preparing for the garden of 2010, drawing out my plans, all I really had to go by was the number of seeds per package and the space I had allotted for each vegetable. I decided to start with ten pickling cucumber vines and maybe twenty slicing cucumber plants. I thought that should be adequate for one family.

Yes, you can laugh at me.

I started them in pots and I was thrilled when the first little seedlings popped up! I treated them like pets. I was worried about them being out in bad weather or getting too cold in the garage. On windy days I put the flat in the back of my truck so that the little seedlings wouldn’t snap off. I finally transplanted them into the garden and watched in amazement as they took off! I was absolutely beside myself with delight when I picked the first little pickling cucumber off the vine.

Initially my son and I ate them fresh, sometimes sliced with a little salt. Thankfully we both liked cucumbers as well. It only took a few days to acquire a decent stockpile that I thought would do nicely for my first batch of homemade pickles.

I believe I’ve mentioned that I had very little canning experience. I was enthusiastic but also a bit nervous about how they would turn out. I laid out everything that I would need, read the recipe several times before I started, and I worried because I wasn’t sure at that point if I needed the dill weed or the dill seed (this particular recipe didn’t specify). Fortunately we were also growing our own dill so I put two whole heads in each jar- weed, seed, and all. I’m sure that first batch took me an entire afternoon, but I did it. All the jars sealed and they looked beautiful. I was sad that it would take four to six weeks before we could try them, but during that time I would often open the pantry door and just admire my very first pickles.

Within a week of that first batch, I was barely able to keep up with the yield, and I hadn’t even begun to harvest the slicing cucumbers yet! In a matter of weeks I was cranking out six quarts of pickles in less than an hour. I had to start storing the jars in the basement cupboards. I now understood why those cupboards were there.

One of my favorite memories from that summer is when I was in the middle of yet another batch of pickles and I looked down to see my son “canning” right along with me. He had taken a jar off the pantry shelf and was filling it with legos before screwing on the lid, unscrewing, dumping, and repeating the whole process. At that moment I took a deep, contented breath and was so thankful for what we were doing.

By the time that the slicing cucumbers began to ripen I already had about five gallons of pickles stored away, and the pickling variety didn’t show any signs of slowing. I was beginning to get an inkling that perhaps I did not need to plant quite so many cucumber vines.

By mid-July I was making cucumber salads, cucumber relish, we were eating sliced cucumbers for our snacks, I was selling as many as I could, I was giving them away to friends and neighbors, and I was still making pickles. When I reached ten gallons of dill pickles I started feeding cucumbers to the chickens, who would only eat them if they were sliced, and I tried to feed them to the pigs. I was astonished by the discovery that our pigs would not eat them! Not whole, not sliced, not even soaked in milk unless they slurped one up by accident! I truly couldn’t believe this, since they ate everything else. I mean, seriously, cucumbers or manure-soaked corn, doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me. So I kept trying, to no avail.

I have to admit I was actually a bit relieved when the cucumber vines started to yellow. I kind of lost count of how many pickles I made after twelve gallons. They made wonderful stocking-stuffers and great thanks-for-your-help gifts to the neighbors. I think we tried the first batch sometime in July. I remember this because the first taste was a bit salty, so I adjusted the recipe for future batches. But other than that they were delicious, crisp, flavorful. We’re still eating home-made pickles eleven months later. I think we are finally down to the last six quarts, which should last us right up to a new season’s harvest!

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