I have done some research both from the CH article on canning and other sources and am planning on trying to make and can my own pickles this weekend. I would love to hear some tips from people who have had success - or failures for that matter. Are there any of you who can a lot? I have been reluctant to try it as it seems complicated.
Oh, do try it! Canning is not nearly as complicated as it sounds. Just get some good reference materials, like Ball Blue Book, County Extension office publications, etc. Some county extension offices offer canning workshops. There are several other good canning books mentioned on this board. Preserving Summer's Bounty might be the title of another one I like (but the Blue Book gives most detailed basic info, with lots of pix).
Pickles are processed using a water-bath canner, very simple and virtually foolproof if you follow directions and practice good sanitation. Water bath canners are available at hardware stores, places like walmart, and sometimes you'll see them at thrift stores.
I learned how to can as a little girl, and have been doing it ever since...usually put up more than a hundred jars of assorted goods each summer, and while I've had some recipes I didn't like as well as others, I don't think I've ever had any spoilage or disasters.
Pressure canning is a little more difficult, but still very easy....I use this method for low acid foods like green beans, beef stock after we butcher, other low acid veggies, etc.
get a good reference book like the Ball book kmr recommends. That will tell you most all you need to know about acidity of the foods you're going to can. Most have charts or lists of foods appropriate to water bath versus those needing pressure canning. Really, just try it. What is most "complex" about canning to me is the hardware you have to deal with - the jars, lids, rings, pots to sterilize stuff in, a canner large enough to hold the jars and water, something to heat more water in, a rack to hold the jars, tongs, funnel, towels, etc. And then there's the hardware you'll use to prepare the foods you are going to can. The process can take over the entire kitchen!
You don't need a water bath canner (the pot setup) to do small batches - I have used a large pot with a level round cake rack in the bottom. You just need to make sure the jars have enough space between them that they can't touch. Jar lifters (tongs) make the process much easier. Water bath canning is pretty straightforward, as kmr says.
re: Caitlin McGrath
I use a large pot as well, but never bothered finding a round cake rack to fit it. I just fold up a kitchen towel, put it in the bottom of the pot, and put the jars on top of it. The towel does a fine job of keeping the jars from jiggling around in the boiling water. I do, however, find a jar lifter indispensable. And I wouldn't want to give up my canning funnel, either.
I think if you're canning anything cooked (jam, chutney, sauce, whatever), vs. pouring brine or water over pieces of something placed dry in jars, the wide-mouth funnel is the only way to do it neatly or easily. Jar lifters and canning funnels are inexpensive, too, so very worth the investment even if you only do it occasionally.
I tried the towel as a substitute for a canning rack, actually two - one at the bottom of the pan and one snaked around and between the jars to keep them away from each other. My pot may have been too short, for the towel just bubbled up to the top and made a big mess as the water bubbled up around the towel and over the edge. I also tried wiring several jar lids together to serve as an impromptu rack, but still felt I needed something to keep the jars from rattling against each other. Somewhat more successful, but still I prefer a purpose-made canning rack.
Should I not worry about the sides of the jars touching/rattling against each other? Am I perhaps boiling at too hard a boil?
I agree with your assessment of a jar lifter (which is what I meant by tongs). Only a jar lifter gives a good enough grip to lift them out of the water safely.
I only use a towel on the bottom of the pot. The weight of the jars holds it down and there's enough friction to keep the jars from moving around. I never felt the need to snake a second towel around the jars to keep them apart since I don't worry so much about the jars leaning into each other as long as they're not touching the sides of the pot.
When it comes to canning, I don't think there is such a thing as too hard a boil. Perhaps your pot is shorter than would be ideal. You should be able to cover the tops of the jars with at least two or three inches of water and still have at least another two or three inches of clearance for the water to boil.
If you are starting with pickles and like them crunchy, you really don't need to process them in a hot water bath. I boil the jars and lids first, then put sliced onion, fresh dill, and a garlic clove into a hot jar, pack in slices or spears of pickling cuke, then pour on a boiling water/vinegar/sugar/salt brine to cover and seal. These go in the fridge when cool but actually, I have also had them in a cabinet for up to a few months and they did fine, because of the high-acid brine. When doing traditional canning, I've followed the Blue Book.
With pickles I never vary the ration of water, salt, vinegar in the brine. I have reduced the amount of sugar. Feel free to switch they type of vinegar (many recipes call for distilled white and I usually use cider) but make sure the acidity is 5%, it usually says on the bottle. I vary the spices according to my personal taste (extra chilies :)).
If you have a big pot and a pair of tongs don't worry about buying special equipment. As long as a coupe of inches of water covers the jars it doesn't matter. I have just used a couple tea towels on the bottom, and wrapped around every other jar to keep everything from bumping into each other. Rubber bands around the tips of standard tongs help them grab the jar. If you like canning it is easier to do with the canning pot with a rack, jar tongs, and a wide mouthed funnel.
After the first time you will find the whole process less mysterious, and each time it goes a little faster.
Besides cucumbers pickled green beans and hot peppers are also easy and delicious. Whole tomatoes packed in there own juice are also easy, although it takes longer since you have to peel them. Nothing better in the middle of winter though. Have fun, I love to can!
You'll want your jars -- everything you use, actually -- scrupulously clean. The dishwasher on its "Sani" cycle is good for that.
Then you'll want to keep the jars hot to maintain that sterility and to avoid thermal shock by putting hot fruit or veggies and hot brine into anything other than hot jars. Believe me, this is something you don't want to learn hands on!
One way to keep the jars ready used to be running them again through the dishwasher on the "Dry" cycle while you prepare the food. If your dishwasher still has this feature, lucky you! Solid state machines now just have whole cycles. If you've got such a machine, a 250˚ oven also works. Just put your clean jars on a baking sheet and keep them in the oven until you're ready to fill them. Don't do this with gaskets (if you use gaskets) and lids tho. Gaskets and lids with the compound on the underside need to be kept in a pot of simmering water so they don't dry out and become unable to maintain a good seal.
Don't monkey with the proportions of sugar, salt or vinegar to produce. These are the things that inhibit bacteria in your sealed jars.
Remember to wipe the lid of each jar after you fill it and before you put the lid on. Also remember to release any air bubbles by running a clean knife down around the sides.
Check the seals after the jars are packed and cooled or water bathed. Anything that isn't sealed (can you pick the jar up by just the lid?) can go in the fridge for immediate consumption or can be repacked and sealed if you prefer.
As pretty as the jars will be, store them in a dark place to increase their life.
Just wondering: how did you go with your pickles? I've also started pickling and would love ot hear more about others' pickling experiences (I started a pickles thread too, asking about things like the 'slow pasteurization method' for preserving crunch and the different brines out there: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/644264 ).
I've been canning (lots of jam, some relishes etc.) and pickling is my new frontier. I can tell you about one failure so far: a recipe that had an all vinegar (plus salt and sugar, but no water) brine. The cukes were sliced, bread-and-butter style and turned out insanely sour. That was my first batch ever. In subsequent batches I've used water-vinegar brines.
Does anybody have a great foolproof pickles recipe (one for water bath-processed jars) that they seem to always return to?