Dilly Beans, and canning tutorial

I’d been saying for several years that I knew one day I’d get into canning, but it wasn’t until last summer than I finally took the plunge. I bought a bunch of new canning jars (although I already owned a great deal of vintage jars that I store food and goods in, and ferment things in, and dispense soap from, and drink out of…you get the picture: I had a lot of jars and I bought a lot more jars) and Marisa McClellan’s wonderful Food in Jars. I’d been reading Marisa’s blog for a long time, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into, and I knew I’d trust her recipes to be both tasty and safe. Marisa’s book is a fantastic resource for the new canner, and especially those who might be daunted by visions of 15-hour canning sessions, pounds of fruits or veggies to peel and cook, and tons of finished jars of store…and eat. Food in Jars is great because most recipes yield about 4 pints, which is perfect for trying out recipes with little investment, squeezing short canning sessions around busy schedules, and not overwhelming small households with hundreds of jars of the same thing. Plus, Marisa is personable and very responsive to commenters on her blog.

The first recipe I made from her book, and the first thing I ever canned, was Dilly Beans…which I think is probably the first thing a lot of people try. And for good reason: they are easy and delicious! Since Marisa generously shared her recipe on Serious Eats (it’s actually slightly different than the one in the book in that it makes 5 pints instead of 4, and which worked out perfectly brine-wise for me), I’m going to go ahead and repeat it here with my photos just to inspire any of you out there who are like me and want to try canning but are worried about the initial investment or the time it might take up, or think it might be difficult to do. However, if like me you end up enjoying canning, I strongly urge you to buy Food in Jars or Marisa’s new book Preserving by the Pint, because the recipes are good and easy to understand and there is a ton of info for new canners.

Spicy Dilly Beans
Recipe by Marisa McClellan, shared on Serious Eats

3 pounds green beans (I had 2.8 lbs, all but about 6 green beans I was able to force into 5 pint jars)
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
5 cloves garlic
5 tsp dill seed (not dill weed)
5 tsp red chili flakes or cayenne powder, or 5 small chili peppers, slit (last year I used fresh chilis that Mark grew), or you can omit this if you don’t want spicy dilly beans

About the vinegar: although I use it by the gallon around the house, I usually don’t cook with white vinegar, preferring a myriad of flavored and homemade vinegars, however, in an unprecedented move I followed most of the canning recipes I used last summer faithfully instead of getting creative, and not only did these turn out delicious, but everyone I’ve served or given them to has raved, so I’m sticking with the white vinegar for now. In an older version on her blog, Marisa uses apple cider vinegar.

The first thing you need to do when getting started canning is purchase or scrounge up the following:

  • canning jars and rings – You will need 5 pint jars for this recipe and they will come with rings, which hold the lids on in the boiling water bath until they’ve sealed to the jar.
  • lids – Although you can and should reuse the jars and rings for many years, lids can only be sealed once. New jars will come with a new lid for each jar, but if you are reusing jars, you will need to purchase enough new lids for the batch you plan to make.
  • a pot large enough to fit the 5 jars (in a single layer) as well as water to cover by a couple of inches, plus another couple of inches head room for boiling
  • an insert for the pot that the jars can sit on instead of sitting directly on the bottom of the pot
  • small saucepan for warming lids
  • jar lifter or some other device, such as tongs, for moving jars into and out of the boiling water bath – Jar lifters are cheap and are a LOT easier than tongs, so I do recommend you pick one of these up if you can
  • magnetic lid wand – optional but handy device for lifting lids out of simmering water; you could also use tongs
  • dish towel – for setting hot jars on
  • clean towel – for wiping jar rims after filling

As much as I love kitchen gadgets and pots, I have no desire to buy a dedicated canning pot (unless I later decide to get into pressure canning, which doesn’t really interest me at the time). I already had this 12-quart Calphalon stock pot and pasta insert that is perfect for up to 5 pint or 4 quart jars. Unfortunately I can’t really find it for sale anywhere; I bought it as part of a larger set years ago. But if you already have a large stock pot, you can easily rig something up without a pasta insert, just by putting a heat-safe trivet on the bottom for the jars to sit on.

The first step in canning is to sanitize your jars. You can run them through a dishwasher cycle if you like, or bake them in the oven at 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but since you are going to be boiling water anyway for the water bath, the easiest thing to do is just boil them. So put your insert into your large pot and the jars on the insert, then add water to cover by a couple of inches (I also like to add a glug of white vinegar, which keeps the jars sparkling) …

… then bring to a rapid boil for 10 minutes. Now what you should NOT DO is at this juncture realize you need more vital wheat gluten for the seitan you are simultaneously making and just drive off to Wegmans to buy more, leaving the water boiling on your stove because you are an idiot. DO NOT DO THAT. (The good news is Mark was home the whole time I was gone, although until/unless he reads this, he had no idea!)

Put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a very low simmer. All you want to do is warm the seals on them so they adhere to the jars later.

Use your jar lifter or tongs to remove the jars from the water (very carefully pouring the water out of them without spilling it on yourself) and place them on a folded dish towel. You can keep the water simmering while you continue prepping.

Prepare the brine by combining the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bringing it to a boil. Let it simmer until you are ready to use it. I saw this fourth burner pot on Marisa’s blog and yes, I DID have to buy it, but I don’t use it just for canning. You can absolutely use any pot you have that the brine will fit in; I just like this one because it has a spout that makes it easy to pour into the jars later, and also when canning, the stove tends to gets crowded and this pot takes up little stove real estate.

Next, prepare the green beans (or you could do this ahead of time if you are more efficient than I am). I don’t do that whole bean snapping thing. I just do not have the time for that nonsense. I line a bundle of beans up, chop off the ends with a sharp knife, turn the bundle around, line them up again, and chop the other end off. The important thing here is that you make sure the beans will fit in the jars, so what I do is trim one to the perfect size for my jars then lie it on my chopping block as a template. I’m not super fastidious about this, but if you don’t make them short enough to fit, it’s annoying later to go back and trim them down.

It’s easiest to fill the jars if you keep the trimmed green beans orderly:

By the time you’ve trimmed the green beans, the jars should have cooled enough to handle, so stuff each one with as many beans as you can fit, without smashing the beans up. I find it easiest to put a bundle in, hold the jar on its side …

… then shove another bundle on top, then sit the jar upright and fill in any gaps with more beans.

Put one clove of garlic, 1 tsp of dill seeds, and 1 tsp of chili flakes or cayenne pepper or one whole chili pepper into each jar.

Turn the burner under the brine off and pour the brine into each jar, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Carefully (they’ll be hot!) tap each jar on the counter and/or poke a chopstick around the edges to remove trapped air bubbles. If necessary, add additional brine to bring the headspace back to 1/2″. (By the way, you want to add HOT brine to the jars so they don’t go into shock when you later put them in the hot water bath…so don’t pre-make that brine and add it cold to the jars.)

Use a clean towel to wipe the rims of the jars (spilled brine could keep the lids from sealing properly). Next, turn the burner under the lids off and carefully remove the lids from the pot, placing one (seal-side down) atop each jar. Screw a ring onto each jar just until hand-tight.

Jars ready for canning:

If necessary, bring the large pot of water back up to a rolling boil, then use the jar lifter to carefully place each jar onto the insert on the bottom. You will probably have to remove some of the boiling water from the pot now that the jars are full; I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup to do this or you could use your small saucepan. Once all jars are in the pot, you want the water to cover them by about 2″ (so they are entirely submerged even when the water is bubbling). This picture is hazy because my camera was looking straight down into the steaming water.

Once the water is at a rolling boil after the jars are in, set the timer for 10 minutes. Let the jars boil (this is what is meant by “process in a hot water bath” that you may have read in recipes) for 10 minutes, then use the jar lifter to carefully remove the jars and set them back on the dish towel (the dish towel helps prevent shock from a cool counter or table top). [Note: Always process canning recipes for exactly the amount of time specified. If you don’t process for long enough, the internal temperature of the jar may not go high enough to create a seal and safely preserve your food, and if you process for too long, you may end up with overcooked food. Use only canning recipes from sources you trust. When in doubt refer to the USDA Canning Guidelines or the Ball website. Do not use older publications as the USDA guidelines have changed over the years and older canning books may be outdated.]

As the lids seal, you may hear a little “ping” from each one. This is a joyous noise because you know the lid has sealed when you hear it, however, not all seals will ping, so don’t worry if you don’t hear it. I usually hear a ping, but none of these five pinged for me and they all sealed. Let the jars sit overnight (or 8 hours) to completely cool, then you can remove the rings and test the seals. There are two tests you can do: 1) push the middle of the lid slightly. If it gives or pops, the lid is not sealed. 2) gently try to pry the lid off with your thumb. If it comes off, it’s not sealed. If you buy quality lids, they should almost always seal, but everyone will occasionally have one that does not. If you have one that didn’t seal, no problem: just put the jar in the refrigerator and use it up first.

Pro tip: always write the name of the contents and the date packed on the lids. These dilly beans will be good for at least a year. Also, store the jars without the rings. Apparently there is some debate amongst canners about storing with or without rings, but I’m firmly on the “without” side because a) rings could get stuck on over time and b) if the seal breaks during storage (a rare but possible occurrence), it’s harder to notice it if the ring is on. (Note: if after storage, you go to open a jar and find that the lid comes right off without being pried, throw the contents of the jar away. They might be okay, but it’s better safe than sorry in this case.)

The Serious Eats recipe says wait at least a week to eat these pickles; the book says two weeks. I’ve always waited two weeks, which may seem interminable, but believe me, it’s worth it!

Some people don’t know how to open a sealed jar. I use the bottle opener hook of my can opener (it looks like this one), but you can also use a church key or dull butter knife or spoon.

These dilly beans are really popular and I bring a jar or two to every party I attend in the summer and throughout the year. There is an ever-growing number of people who love to receive a jar of these or other of my canned items as a gift as well. When I give canned foods as gifts, I tend to stick a ring back on it, so if the recipient doesn’t use the contents in one sitting, they have an easy way to secure the lid and refrigerate the jar. Personally, I save up the standard-sized metal and plastic screw-on lids that come on commercial products like peanut butter, Vegenaise, cocounut oil, etc. and use them for storing jars in the fridge as they are less hassle than a lid + ring, and I toss used lids in the recycle bin as I open jars. If you give jars away, tell your friends to recycle the lid, but to save the jar and ring. I always tell recipients that they are welcome to keep the jar (and ring) if they want it, but if they have no use for it, to return it to me so I can fill it up for them again. :)

Dilly beans make any barbecue fare – nay, any meal – many times better, are awesome in bloody marys, and are just great snacks! These are from the open jar I currently have in the fridge, canned last year. The pepper is one of Mark’s, and yes, I will eat that (and the garlic!) too. Pickled peppers, yum! (Pickled ANYTHING, yum!)

If I can be like Bryant Terry and provide a soundtrack for this recipe, or any canning recipe, it would be any (non-annoying) song by Led Zeppelin. Mark and I both consider Zeppelin to be quintessential summer music and I listened to my all-Zep playlist over and over last summer while canning. In fact, whenever a Zeppelin song comes on now, I’m instantly transported to sitting on a barstool in my kitchen peeling, coring, and canning 100 lbs of tomatoes last summer. Which was a really zen thing for me for some reason. (Does anyone want a tutorial on canning tomatoes once tomato season hits? Because as awesome and delicious as dilly beans are, tomatoes are by far the most useful thing I canned: I haven’t bought a single can of tomatoes in a year, and I used to go through a LOT of cans of tomatoes!)

[PS If you feel like Led Zeppelin is overplayed, enjoy one of my other favorite summer songs. YOU’RE WELCOME.]

I’m extra excited about canning season this year because all I’ll have to buy is new lids, so it’ll be much cheaper this year than it was last year when I had to make the initial investment in the jars (which aren’t really expensive, but I bought a lot). And canning just does it for me. I’m as guilty as most other Americans of generating more waste than I have any right to burden this planet with, but I HATE it. I get really, really sick thinking of all that trash sitting in landfills, most of it not biodegrading, and all the plastic floating in our wonderful oceans. It’s true I keep on consuming, but I really try to think about packaging, and purchase as little of it as possible. To me, canning is just so great because I support my local farmers by purchasing everything I can from the farmers market (I’d grow it myself if I didn’t have a black thumb!), and I carry it all home in my market basket and reusable shopping bags, and I can it in reusable jars, and not only do I have a bounty of delicious, local ingredients to enjoy year-round, but I’ve wasted NO PACKAGING. It just makes me deeply happy. And I have LOVED opening my jars all year and enjoying the contents. I’m still amazed every time I open a jar of my home-canned tomatoes and they smell just as fresh as the day I canned them. It’s a scent and sensation I’ve never gotten from commercial canned tomatoes, even the really expensive ones I’d buy because I’m a pizza snob. So if you’ve been on the fence about trying canning, hopefully I’ve given you the push you needed to try it out this year – it’s very rewarding. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a picture totally unrelated to food, did you? Here is a groundhog climbing a tree:

4 Comments »

  1. susan Said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    Thrift stores always seem to have canning pots (if you have the space) alone with bundt pans.
    Great post. I love giving home canned produce as gifts.

  2. renae Said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    Great point, Susan!

  3. Josiane Said,

    July 18, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    I love your tutorials, they always make everything seem so doable! Thank you for this one, and for all the little tips and tricks sprinkled throughout – to me, those little details make a world of difference in how confident I feel about tackling something like this. You’ve totally convinced me about canning, but it won’t happen this year, because my summer is entirely devoted to recovering from surgery (which is why I’m just now catching up on your posts). This post is totally bookmarked for next year!

  4. Renae Said,

    July 19, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

    Josiane, I’ve been wondering where you’ve been! I’m sorry to hear about your surgery. I hope it wasn’t serious, but if it’s going to take all summer to recuperate, it sounds like it was a bit. I hope you are doing okay!

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