Dillin’ like a Belarusian


Canning the harvest should be a joyous and rewarding experience, but if you’re in over your head, it can be overwhelming or even dangerous.

Novice canners shouldn’t wait for the so-called harvest season to get started. The middle of summer is a great time to ease into the groove, work on your skills, figure out your game plan and stock up on whatever gear and supplies you don’t have. If you just make a jar or two here and there, you can keep skin in the game without breaking a sweat.

Montana’s Missoula Valley is home to several families of Belarusian immigrants, all of whom come from a town called Olshany. Known as the cucumber basket of Belarus, Olshany cucumbers are in demand as far as Moscow. They’re grown in shopping-mall-sized greenhouses, some of which are heated by as many as ten wood stoves to extend the season at both ends. The Belarusians brought their know-how to Montana, and their cucumbers have become popular for both pickling and eating fresh.

Some of the Belarusians sell pickles, too. I bought some with high hopes, but they were disappointing. My friend Valentina Andrusevich was born in Olshany and has a stand at the market. I told her about those surprisingly underwhelming pickles, and she explained that the Belarusian pickles for sale at the market won’t taste like the pickles they eat at home because food safety standards require more salt, vinegar and heat than they care to subject their cucumbers to.

“That’s why I don’t sell pickles,” Andrusevich said.

I asked her what she does at home.

“I pack the cucumbers into clean jars and add all the spices,” she said. “I put these jars in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes to sanitize them. While I do that, my brine is boiling. I pour the brine into each jar and seal it. Then I turn the jar over.”

She inverts the pickles twice a day for the next two days, so they spend about half the time upside down. It’s a way of compensating for not boiling her pickles. It also distributes the spices and the tannins from the horseradish leaves.

Boiling the pickles kills any lingering microbes that the salt and vinegar somehow miss. Bacteria or spores can sometimes hide in air pockets inside dill flowers or elsewhere. Inverting the jars helps the brine make it everywhere it needs to go.

Andrusevich’s brine recipe — 24 cups water, 1 cup salt, 1 cup sugar and 4 cups white vinegar — fills eight jars, as instructed. She says the horseradish adds flavor and crispness to the pickles.

I brought a jar of four-day-old pickles to market. Andrusevich opened the jar, stabbed a pickle with her knife and chewed slowly, frowning.

“You know, it’s not bad,” she said in her Eastern European deadpan.

If you’ve been pickling your whole life like Andrusevich, perhaps you know the rules well enough to get away with breaking them. But new canners should take a more cautious approach and learn proper safety protocols.

Ball Corp., the company that produces almost all of the canning jars in circulation today, has a book called “Ball Canning Back to Basics.” It begins with a section on the basic gear, ingredients and procedures involved in canning. If you don’t know the importance of adjusting acidity, accounting for altitude or measuring headspace, you should find a reputable source of information like this book or one of the many other educational resources in print or online.

Not surprisingly, Ball’s recipe for dill pickles includes proprietary products like Ball Salt for Pickling & Preserving and Ball Pickle Crisp Granules. Of course, you can use any kind of pickling salt. You can also skip the granules or replace them with horseradish, grape, cherry or oak leaves.

Curiously, the Ball recipe calls for “dill sprigs” but doesn’t specify leaves or flowers. According to my sources, dill leaves alone won’t cut it. There have to be flowers. It also calls for the cucumbers to be cut, which you don’t have to do if you pick them small, Belarusian style.

Most family recipes start with a proven recipe. Little by little, you make it your own. Add more pepper flakes, perhaps, or skip the dill and use pickling spices.

Ultimately, there are many correct ways to can a pickle, but there’s one rule to rule them all, a rule by which every canner who hasn’t yet died of food poisoning abides without hesitation: If the seal is broken, throw it away. Don’t even taste it.

Ball-style dills

  • 4 pounds pickling cucumbers
  • 1 1/4 gallons water
  • 10 tablespoons Ball Salt for
  • Pickling & Preserving
  • 3 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice
  • 12 dill sprigs
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • Ball Pickle Crisp Granules
  • (optional)

Rinse the cucumbers under running water and trim any that are longer than 5 inches so they’ll fit comfortably in the jar. Cut each cucumber lengthwise into quarters. Place the spears in a large, clean container.

Combine 1 gallon of water and 6 tablespoons of salt in a large pitcher, stirring until the salt dissolves. Pour the mixture over the cucumbers, then cover them and let them stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Drain the liquid, then rinse the cucumbers under running water.

Combine the remaining 1 quart of water, 1/4 cup of salt, vinegar, sugar and pickling spice in a stainless-steel or enameled saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the salt and sugar dissolve.

Place two dill sprigs and 1 teaspoon of mustard seeds into a hot, freshly sterilized jar, then pack it tightly with the cucumber spears. Ladle the hot pickling liquid over the spears, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Add 1⁄8 teaspoon of Ball Pickle Crisp Granules to the jar if desired. Remove any air bubbles. Wipe the rim. Center the lid on the jar. Apply the band. Place the jar in a pot of boiling water. Repeat until all the jars are filled.

Process the jars for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Turn off the heat, remove the pot’s lid and let the jars stand for five minutes. Remove the jars and let them cool.


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