Steve Gordon shows us how to put summer in a jar with this step-by-step recipe of his award-winning pickles.
Editor’s note: This recipe won Steve Gordon first place out of 22 other entries at the North Carolina State Fair in 2013. He also won first place for his mother’s sweet pickles recipe.
Local cucumbers should still be available through mid-November in North Carolina. That means you can take advantage of a late harvest and prepare some delicious Bread and Butter Pickles to enjoy for months to come.
Perhaps one of the quickest and easiest pickles to make at home, Bread and Butter Pickles are a great way to begin, or continue, some great home canning adventures. While many recipes call for an extensive process to make great pickles, you can actually make these in less than a day from start to finish. Then, they’ll need a week or two to reach their best flavor.
I must admit, Mama never made these as I was growing up. Her special pickle recipe called for soaking pickles for three weeks, then going through various other steps for days. It took months for them to reach their best flavor. Though I have to say that they were totally awesome.
You’ll find lots of variations for making Bread and Butter Pickles. This is my way, based on a recipe from the United States Department of Agriculture in their Complete Guide To Home Preserving, Bulletin 539, dated 2009.
I watched mama canning as I was growing up, but didn’t start until about 5 years ago. It was a bit frustrating at first. But now, I look forward to putting up some of my favorites each year as various local fruits and vegetables become available. I might even say it’s become addictive; so be fair warned.
I hope you’ll enjoy the recipe and I’ll look forward to hearing your comments and memories in the comment section at the bottom of this page. Ready to do some canning? Alright then. Let’s get cooking!
What you’ll need.
- 6 pounds of pickling cucumbers
- 3 pounds onions, thinly sliced
- 1⁄2 cup canning or pickling salt
- 4 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
- 4 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons mustard seed
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoons celery seed
- 1 tablespoon pickling spice
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
Disclaimer: The following instructions should not be taken as a complete guide for making and canning pickles. The photos and descriptions present an idea of how to perform the basic process. There are several variables in home food preservation, and a basic knowledge of the process is recommended. Please, always consult reputable sources and tested recipes before canning and preserving anything at home. We highly suggest that you consult your local North Carolina Extension Service for classes and more information.
You’ll need these ingredients.
Place the cucumbers in a sink filled with cold water. Gently rub each cucumber by hand to remove any dirt or other particles. Do not use a vegetable brush to scrub the cucumbers. Drain off the dirty water when finished.
Gently rinse the cucumbers again, under cool running water. Place in a colander and let drain.
Cut about 1/4 inch off of each end of the cucumbers. Discard the end pieces.
Slice each cucumber into 1/4 inch thick slices.
Next, slice up the onions. Just looking at this picture makes my eyes water. How about you?
Place the sliced cucumbers in a large pot. I use my enameled canning pot for this part. Just don’t use aluminum. Stainless steel or teflon coated will work well.
Add the sliced onions on top of the cucumbers.
Gently stir the cucumber and onion slices together with your hand.
Sprinkle the top with the Canning and Pickling Salt. You can find it in most of the larger big box stores or in many grocery stores. You just don’t want to use regular table salt to make your pickles.
Cover the top with about two inches of crushed ice or cubed ice. If possible, place this pot in your refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours or even overnight. If you don’t have room in the refrigerator for it, just keep adding more ice as it melts. It’s very important to keep the cucumbers and onions cold.
While the cucumbers and onions are doing there thing under the ice, wash your jars and bands, and start setting everything up to do the actual canning process. You’ll need to wash the jars in hot soapy water and rinse them well.
Be sure to check the jars for any nicks, especially around the top edge. Discard any that are chipped or broken. Chipped edges on the jars could affect the proper seal of the jar. Jar lids must be new and do not need to be washed.
Once the jars have been washed and rinsed, you need to sterilize them. Many of the newer dishwashers have a sanitize cycle that will work for this. I always place mine in my canning pot to do it. Fill the pot almost full and place the jars inside. Many directions recommend that you place a clean kitchen towel in the bottom so the jars aren’t resting on the very bottom of the pot during this process. Bring the pot with the jars up to a rolling boil and let the jars remain at this temperature for 10-15 minutes.
With the jars starting to boil, take the cucumbers and onions mixture out of the refrigerator and drain off the salt water.
I place mine in a colander and then gently rinse them under cool running water. The cucumbers will have absorbed a good amount of the salt and will taste salty when finished if you don’t rinse them well. Salty tasting Bread and Butter Pickles aren’t good. Trust me on this one. Rinse them gently, and then let them sit and drain while we prepare the spice mixture next.
In a large sauce pot, add the vinegar.
Add the sugar.
Add the mustard seed.
Add the celery seed.
Add the pickling spice. Many recipes don’t call for adding pickling spice, but I personally like the flavor and think it adds a little something extra to the finished pickles. You’ll find lots of different recipes for making these pickles if you really start looking.
Add the turmeric. You’ll also find recipes that call for various amounts of turmeric. It is a great spice with lots of health benefits for you. It also has a very strong color that can stain anything it comes in contact with; so be careful with it. I find using a smaller amount is best for me. It doesn’t change the color of the completed pickle as much as adding more of it will. Here, I’ve added just a bit of water to my Turmeric to be sure it will dissolve well enough.
Stir the sugar and spices well. Place over Medium-High heat on your stove top and bring this mixture to a light rolling boil. You should stir it as it starts warming to make certain the sugar has fully dissolved. Don’t let the sugar sit in the bottom of the pot during this process. Keep it moving so it doesn’t scorch or burn.
Once it begins to boil, let it continue for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, carefully add the cucumber and onions.
Stir the pot often and let the mixture come back up to just the point of reaching a slight rolling boil. Once it begins to boil, time it, and let it boil for one minute. When the minute is up, remove the sauce pot from the heat and get ready to jar it up.
This is my stove top setup for canning. One of the biggest things that discourages folks from doing more canning and preserving is lack of organization. Everything starts happening all at one time and you need to be ready for each step of the process. A little advance planning, along with a little added experience, will make the process a whole lot easier.
I use four pots. The pot on the front left is usually the food item. The big pot on the front right is my canning pot. I keep a small pot on the back left burner that holds my lids and bands. The larger pot on the back right burner is just more water that I keep heated during the process.
The jars are in the big canning pot at this point being sterilized. I’ll take them out once I remove the pot of heated cucumbers from the stove.
Jar lids and bands are placed on the back left burner. This pot is kept on the lowest heat setting on my stove top. The lids need to be warm up enough to soften the red rubber part of the lid so it will seal better. You do not want this pot to boil at any point. When I start bringing the empty jars up to boil, I place the lids and bands on the stove on this lowest heat setting. They’re usually just right by the time I need them.
After the jars have boiled for 10 to 15 minutes, a lot of water has evaporated from the pot. By keeping the pot of water on the burner behind it, I have hot water ready to add back into the pot once the filled jars are ready to go back into the canning pot. That way, I don’t have to wait another 20 minutes for the canning pot to get back up to boiling.
On my counter, I place the utensils to actually fill the jars. I lay out a cloth at the back to place the sterilized jars on once I pull them from the boiling water. I have a hot pad for the pot when it comes off the stove. I also use a plate to place my jars in while I fill them. It just makes cleanup easier for me.
All the blue items come in a kit you can purchase. It has the funnel for adding food items to the jars. The long blue tool is notched on the end to measure for proper head space in each jar; the other end can be used to remove air bubbles. I prefer to use a wooden skewer to remove air bubbles from my jars. The tool on the right is a jar lifter, used for placing hot jars back in the canning pot and removing them once they have gone through the water bath process. The kit also contained a long plastic wand with a magnet on the end. This is not pictured but it’s used to lift the lids and bands from the pot of warm water when needed.
Everything is starting to happen at one time now. I pull the cucumbers from the stove top and set the pot on the pad. I use the jar lifter and pull the sterilized jars out of the canning pot. One jar is placed on the plate right next to the pot of cucumbers and I insert the funnel into the jar opening.
I use a slotted spoon to fill the jars first, filling it all the way to the top of the jar with the heated cucumbers and onions. Then, I use a ladle to fill the jar with liquid from the pot. Everything is good and hot so be careful. Kids should be allowed to watch from a safe distance.
Once the jars are filled, take the wooden skewer, or a butter knife, and run it around the inside edges of the jar. This will allow any air bubbles in the bottom of the jar to slide up the skewer to the top where they will burst and release. You probably will not get them all but you need to get out as many as possible.
This jar is not filled to the proper head space for making pickles. I was busy taking pictures, but did realize before adding the lid that I needed to add some more liquid to the jar. Headspace is the amount of space from the top of the food product or liquid, up to the top of the jar itself. Various recipes will call for varying amounts of headspace depending on what you’re making. Always check the recipe and fill the jars accordingly. Bread and Butter Pickles need 1/4 inch of headspace for a proper filled jar.
When the jar is filled correctly, gently wipe the very top and all around the thread portions of the jar with a clean, damp cloth. You don’t want any liquid or food particles on the top surface as it may prevent the seal on the lid from sealing properly. Any food particles, or syrup, around the outside threads could cause the band to stick and be difficult to remove later. Just wipe it carefully and clean it well.
Remove one lid from the warm water and center it over the top of the filled jar. It was at about this point that I realized I hadn’t checked the proper head space. I carefully added a little more liquid and filled it to the proper point before finally placing the lid on the jar. If you ever plan to enter any of your canning projects into competitions, headspace is one of the first things checked when the judges open the jars.
Next, place one of the jar bands over the lid. Make sure the band is seated properly before you begin to tighten it. All canning recipes will call for the jar band to be tightened “finger tight.” That means you just snug it down without trying to force a bunch of pressure into tightening up the band. If it’s too tight, it will keep the air inside from escaping and could cause an improper seal.
When the jars are filled and closed with the lids and bands, it’s time to place them in the canning pot. I use the regular enameled canning pot. Other large pots will work though and you should seek out more information before attempting to use something different. The enameled canning pots come with a wire metal rack for holding the jars (or for at least trying to). They can be aggravating at all the wrong times. Trust me on that one as well. Use the jar lifter to place the jars in their sections in the wire rack.
The handle of the wire rack has a bend in it. This bend is placed on the outer rim of the canning pot and keeps the jars up high in the water until all the jars have been loaded in the rack. This particular rack will hold up to seven pint size jars. If you don’t have enough jars to fill the rack, try to spread them out and balance out the load. When the rack is loaded, carefully lift up on the handles and lower the rack into the hot water below. The jars may try to slip and move around as you do this. Quickly straighten them back up before folding the handles down on top of the jars.
Once the jars are lowered into the canning pot, they should be covered with an inch or two of water. Again, consult the recipe you are using for the proper amount. I use the same water that was in the pot from sterilizing the jars. They’re filled and closed so it will not matter. I’ve also used that extra pot of water on the back burner to make sure I have enough water over the tops of the jars.
Let the jars come back up to a rolling boil and then start timing them. You want to let the Bread and Butter Pickles stay in this rolling boil water bath for 10 minutes. Time doesn’t start until the water is boiling over the submerged jars. When it starts to boil, cover the pot and start timing the process.
After 10 minutes, remove the lid from the canning pot. I use two tongs to grasp the handles and lift the rack back up to that first notch on the handles. Be sure to watch for steam when you go to remove the lid, as it can burn you. Raise the jars back up and place the handle notch back on the rim of the canning pot. The jars need to sit here and rest for about five minutes before removing them from the canning pot.
You may start to hear that lovely sounding “ping” as the jars start to seal. I think that’s the most fun part of the whole process. I get a kick out of counting how many I hear. Sometimes they will seal much faster than others. And at other times, you will not even hear that familiar sound; though that doesn’t mean the jar hasn’t sealed. You have to wait 24 hours to be sure it did though.
After five minutes, use the jar lifter again, and carefully remove the jars from the canning pot. The hot jars should be placed on a folded towel in a draft free location for 24 hours. You must resist the urge to press on the top center of the jar to see if it sealed for this amount of time. You may be able to look closely at the jars and see if the center portion is up or down but do not press on it.
After the jars have sat for 24 hours, check the tops to make sure each one has sealed. Any jar that hasn’t sealed is still good and should just be placed in the refrigerator and consumed first. If by chance you had a large number of jars that didn’t seal, you can reprocess the jars again but you’ll need new lids. Bands can be used over and over but new lids are needed each time you can anything.
The completed pickles really need about 4 to 5 weeks to develop their best flavor. I know it’s hard to resist them for such a long time, but you’ll be rewarded with the best taste if you can wait.
It’s best to remove the bands from the jars before storing them. That way, if a jar loses it’s seal after a period of time, you’ll notice it more quickly. Properly sealed jars will continue to hold the seal without the band.
Bread and Butter Pickles should be stored in a cool, dark, dry location in a single layer. Do not stack jars or anything else on top of them. Properly processed and sealed pickles will easily keep stored for a year or longer.
Have you ever made pickles at home? I’d love to hear your comments in the section below. What canning and preserving memories do you have on your own, from your parents or grandparents? Too much trouble, or too much fun?
Steve Gordon is a writer, recipe tester, and lover of all things Southern. You can read more of his writing and step-by-step recipes at tasteofsouthern.com.