Desperately seeking deli dills

I haven’t posted about food in quite some time–so I’m thinking it’s about time the goddess starts earning her title again.

These have been the salad days of summer.


Starting in June and picking up speed in July, we’ve been inundated with delicious fresh eating. Six kinds of tomatoes: Mule Team, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Striped Roman, Roma VF, and Black Vernissage. Only one variety of cucumbers–Ashley (which I call “Ashley River” as a sort of Charlestonian in-joke)–but lordy! has that variety been prolific!

This variety, "Ashley," is truly well-named--we're floating in an "Ashley River" of cucumbers.

This variety, “Ashley,” is truly well-named–we’re floating in an “Ashley River” of cucumbers.

Canes sprawling to 10 feet–overwhelming their bamboo cage. They’re starting to look poorly now–the leaves yellowing and spotted with brown–but those six plants are still pumping out fruit in quantities that have long since outpaced our ability or desire to consume them in salads every day.

Ashley created its own habitat. Even the tree frogs came to stay.

Ashley created its own habitat. Even the tree frogs came to stay.

The upshot is that, for some time now, Marc has been wondering aloud when I would deal with it. By late last week, the remarks had become pointed, laced with dire warnings that “You better watch it–or we’re going to lose them.” Finally, I named a date: since the blown head gasket on the van had left us stranded for the weekend anyway, Sunday, I declared, would be the day. And instead of bread & butter pickles, which I’d done the first time the quantities of cukes cooling on the counter had grown alarming, I’d make dills.

There was just one problem. I had no idea how.

Now I have the most vivid childhood memories of eating dill pickles… memories that take me back to Immaculate Conception, the all-black Catholic school I’d attended in the sixties, back in the days when I didn’t even realize my town was rigidly segregated. Nestled in the heart of an urban community, surrounded by businesses, homes, and “corner stores,” and apparently with no restrictions on leaving the school grounds (lots of kids lived close enough to walk home for lunch), I remember streams of uniformed brown boys and girls walking, at every break, either half a block north to Cannon Street or half a block south to Morris. Armed with dimes and quarters, we’d purchase 10-cent comics, handfuls of Squirrel Nuts and Mary Janes, small brown bags of penny jawbreakers and gum, or, my absolute favorite, sour pickles.

Now a pickle in those days was a purchase you had to save up for–it cost an entire twenty cents. I think now the men who owned those stores must’ve been making a killing off of the pickle trade. I recall waiting in long lines, watching as they dipped tongs into giant jars with the Mt. Olive brand label. They’d place them in small brown bags, to keep the juice from staining our clothing, and hand them across the high counter. I remember wanting those pickles to last as long as possible, so I’d bite off the stem end and squeeze out the wonderful juice, then slowly, one bite at a time, attack the sour green flesh, savoring every bite…

A bit later, I recall discovering that in country stores in places like Ninety Six, where my grandparents lived, such pickles were dipped out of giant barrels. You could look in and see the spices floating. These pickles looked a bit different, more brightly colored, and the flavors were different, too. Much, much later I’d learn to recognize that taste as garlic.

But here’s the reason all those different kinds of pickles were such a delight to me as a child. No one in my family made them.

Yes, my grandmothers pickled all sorts of things: okra, watermelon rind, green beans, peaches, apple rings, and, of course, cukes. But every one of those treats was sweet. So what’s a serious Southern home cook to do when there’s no family memory to call on?

Well, the first step is to go back to the bible: the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, with “400 delicious and creative recipes for today.” To my dismay, I learned there was a dizzying array of techniques and methods. Refrigerator dills could be prepared in an afternoon–but who wants 10 quart jars of dill pickles taking up space in the fridge? Countertop “half sours” sounded promising, but ultimately I rejected that method, too.

Slowly, reluctantly, I concluded that only brining and fermentation would produce the “deli dill pickle” texture and flavor that I craved. No “instant gratification” here–one must let the cucumbers ferment three whole weeks before putting them up in jars and canning them. But eventually, I concluded that if there’s anything we have plenty of in the country, it’s time.

So here’s what I did.

The proportions for the brine are straight out of the Bell canning book. But the spice mix in the book sounded uninspiring to me, so I read a bunch of recipes on the internet (my favorite one is here) and made up my own.

32 cups of water
2 cups white vinegar
1 1/2 cups pickling or canning salt

(Note: Never use table salt–it’s full of additives and anti-caking agents and will ruin your final product.)

Spice mix:
Handful of fresh dill blossoms
Handful of fresh fennel blossoms (caraway is recommended, but anise is considered a fine substitute)
3/4 cups of pickling spice
1 Tbsp dill seed
1/2 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp mustard (yellow is recommended but I only had brown)
6 dried chili pods
6 garlic cloves
6 bay leaves
2 pinches of celery seed


I started with 10 pounds cucumbers, washed well, with ends trimmed (this is important because contamination usually enters at the blossom end). None of these cukes were the classic canning size of 4 to 5 inches, so I cut them into spears.

Step one...

Step one…

I didn’t have a crock or bowl that was big enough to handle the quantity. So I carefully checked my water bath canner. There were no chips in the enamel or rust (either of which could have introduced weird tastes/colors/contamination into the final product), so I decided it would do just fine and gave it a thorough cleaning in hot water.

I placed the cukes in the canner along with the dill and fennel and half of the dry spices.

Even with just the spices and cucumbers, the perfume rising from the pot was just amazing.

Even with just the spices and cucumbers, the perfume rising from the pot was just amazing.

At the same time, I heated the brine ingredients to boiling and allowed them to cool to room temperature. (This is important because you want the cukes to be crisp, not softened by the hot water).

I ladeled the brine over the cukes, leaving several inches of water on top, tossed in the garlic and the rest of the dry spices.




Adding the rest of the dry seasonings…


… to the brined water…

Then, taking a clean plate, I pushed the cukes under the brine and weighted the plate down with a quart jar filled with water. (This step is very important–fermentation is an anaerobic activity, so no oxygen can be introduced to the process).

This is what it looks like. One cute escaped from the plate... so I ate it! (And it was yum).

This is what it looks like. One cuke escaped  the plate… so I ate it!

I covered the whole thing with a clean towel, and then the towel with a lid,

Add towel...

Add towel…


Add lid…

and put the whole mess of cucumbers and brine in a cool spot to do their thing.

... and voila!

… and voila! Out of sight, but not out of mind…

So they’re out of sight, but not out of mind. I’ll be checking them every day and removing any scum that forms. So far nothing, but it will happen–and it won’t be any big deal. Gas bubbles are, after all, a normal part of the fermentation process, according to all the experts.

When the bubbling ceases, the fermentation will be complete … and it will be time for step 2: packing my deli dill spears into glass jars and processing them in a boiling water bath.

In the meantime, those sick looking Ashley vines are still pumping out fruit. Marc brought in 5 or 6 the very day I started this process. We’re probably up another five or six pounds since Monday… But they will just have to wait… because now there are 10 pounds of tomatoes in a basket to deal with, too.

3 comments for “Desperately seeking deli dills

  1. Laura Crary
    August 12, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    These photos are gorgeous, and I love reading your memories. For me, dill pickles were bought at the local kosher deli, along with potato pancakes, eaten cold, and kosher corned beef sandwiches. They were always cold and crunchy, not like the small, smushy dill pickles my Midwestern mom bought in jars from the store.

    • August 12, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Food reminds us of the things that bring us together, doesn’t it, Laura? You’ll have to tell me how you make potato pancakes. We’ve got lots in the garden!

  2. August 13, 2015 at 2:44 am

    YES! Dill cucumber pickles are the hardest to make and fermenting them is the way to go. (I don’t even bother with them anymore because I find them too frustrating!). Joy of Pickling has some good techniques, but it sounds like you’re on the right path. I keep hearing good things about this low temp pasteurization – Leni and I have been posting articles back and forth on our facebook pages, so look there to read more.

    I also made a freezer pickle last week – say the word and I’ll get you the recipe. My cucumbers got eaten by deer pretty early on, but I’ve had a steady stream of drop-offs of cucumbers and therefore have pulled every pickle recipe I know out of my hat. I hadn’t made the freezer pickle recipe since before Edie girl was born and as I made it, wondered why, because it’s easy and good.

    So happy to see the Goddess back! I’m loving all these posts!

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