Sometimes it’s best to learn from our mistakes.
Perfect is the enemy of more than just the good: Perfect is the enemy of trying new things. Perfect is also the enemy of fun. If Fleming had washed his dishes as he should have, we wouldn’t have penicillin, and we wouldn’t have Worcestershire sauce if Lea & Perrins hadn’t stashed an inedible condiment in the cellar and forgotten about it for a few years. Human error is inescapable, so we might as well get good things out of it.
Endless books and videos provide detailed how-to steps for canning. They give the impression that canning is painless, as well as an excellent way to stretch your budget. I’ve been canning with moderate success for about 15 years, and I believe that as much can be learned from error as from excellence. And believe me, there have been errors.
The majority of canning falls into two camps: the kind where you worry about brine (a theoretically simple mixture of vinegar and salt), and the kind where you worry about pectin (a carbohydrate packed with water-soluble fiber; in the right circumstances, it makes jelly into a gel). Both brine and pectin work their magic through combining salt or sugar with an acid.
That acidity is also responsible for keeping canned food from killing people via botulism. Which, cheerful side note: Botulism barely rates as a food-borne illness, with less than two dozen people getting sick each year in the U.S. Compare that to 20 million people sick from norovirus. The best way to avoid botulism is to not eat home-cured meats in Alaska. The next best way is to avoid home-canned vegetables, like potatoes. Nobody wants to give the gift of botulism — and it’s incredibly rare in jam or pickles, so they’re a comforting place to get started.
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I married into a family that makes Seattle’s greatest pickles. Technically, that is an opinion, but it really ought to be considered fact.
My father-in-law, John, grew up making pickles; his mom visited Puyallup’s Duris Cucumber Farm for supplies. Early on, she was given a little community recipe booklet that the Duris family put together. Among the recipes is a garlicky dill pickle credited to an unnamed 1880s cookbook. It has onion, dill, chili and spices, plus a mysterious whole grape leaf. I was the most persistent person in the family to ask what was up with the grape leaf, or at least the first to have internet access. Apparently, grape leaves release tannins that help pickles stay crisp. More recent recipes use alum, but Duris keeps grape leaves around for traditionalists.
Making these pickles is no more complicated than combining ingredients in a slow cooker, but things can still go awry. In an attempt to sound like a centurion, I tell the story of the Great Pickle Disaster of Ought-Six. Brine has two ingredients, and we left one out: salt. Salt helps keep bad bacteria in check — the kind of bacteria that makes food spoil and stink.
I first noticed our jars were cloudy to a weird degree; a little clouding isn’t unusual, but these were disturbingly murky. A jar was opened. A stink bomb went off. One person (me) ran squawking out of the kitchen. One intrepid soul (my husband) calmly took 36 quart jars of rotting cucumbers and grape leaves outside and composted the contents so the jars could be reused. We were mopey and pickle-less for the rest of the year, and have double-checked brine measurements ever since.
My parents were more occasional canners. In my hometown — Kennett Square, Pa., one of several “Mushroom Capitals of the World” — mom pickled mushrooms a few times, and each time I would eat my way through a quart in a week. When we moved out here, dad decided to put the native plants to use and made a batch of salal jelly. Dad was an engineer, more famous for his inventions than his cooking skills, and our strongly fishy backyard salal berries didn’t do him any favors.
With the salal jelly, the family also got an introduction to the mysteries of pectin. Some fruits — like lemons — have lots of pectin and lots of acid, making them a handy one-stop shop in the realm of jam-making. Others, like salal berries, have minimal pectin and acid. Combined with a packet of Sure-Jell instant pectin, a few quarts of salal berries resulted in far too many bottles of decidedly troutlike syrup. There may not have been enough pectin on Earth to get it to set up correctly.
Pectin has rules, and the first one is if you experiment with wild berries, you’re on your own.
And as for canning’s rules? Be precise. Avoid experiments. And if you think you want to can salal berries, taste a fresh one first.
Garlic Dill Pickles
Makes 10 quart jars
You can place the packed jars in the refrigerator, where they will be ready to eat in six weeks, or follow your canner’s instructions for water bath canning. There are many different variations of pickling spice; all are good, but the go-to choice for my family is the house brand at Duris Cucumber Farm.
For each quart jar of pickles:
1 teaspoon pickling spice
1 clove garlic
1 onion slice, approximately ¼-inch thick
1 sprig of dill
1 3-inch piece of dill stalk
½ to 1 dried hot pepper
1 grape leaf
9-12 small pickling cucumbers (leave at least 1 inch of space at the top of the jar.)
For the brine:
4 quarts water
1 quart cider vinegar
1 cup pickling salt
1. Sterilize 10 wide-mouth quart jars. To each jar, add the eight pickle ingredients in the order given.
2. To make the brine, combine water, vinegar and salt in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so brine maintains a steady simmer.
3. While brine warms up, heat a quart of water in a small saucepan until it’s at a low boil.
4. Once brine is at a steady simmer, fill a jar with hot brine to within an inch of the top, making sure to cover the cucumbers. Once brine has been added to a jar, it should be sealed immediately before you fill the remaining jars with the brine.
5. For sealing: Using tongs, dip a new wide-mouth jar lid in the hot water. Without touching the bottom of the lid with your fingers, place the lid securely onto a filled jar. Twist the ring loosely around the top of the jar to finish sealing them. Repeat brining and sealing process for each of the 10 jars. (If you are going to water bath can, do so now.)
6. As the jars cool down, you will hear a popping sound as a tight seal is formed between the jar and the lid. Any jars that don’t seal properly should be placed in the refrigerator and left to cure for at least 6 weeks. Once jars have fully sealed and have cooled down so you can comfortably hold them, finish twisting the ring so it’s on securely.
7. Pickles are ready for eating three months after canning. Before opening, store pickle jars in a dark, cool spot. After opening, keep them in the fridge.