Earlier today, I got an email from a reader. After many months of anticipation, she had finally opened a jar of garlic dill pickles she made last summer, using the recipe I posted in August. Only they were far, far too spicy for her. She was afraid that she was going to have to throw out the entire batch.
Upon reading her email, I felt terrible. I never post a recipe that I haven’t tried, tested and truly appreciated. So to hear that someone has made something according to my instructions, only to find it inedible, deflates me. It also got me thinking about the way I approach the creation of the recipe. I write for my taste buds, using the ingredients I have in my kitchen. Thing is, no two palates are exactly alike, so there’s no absolute guarantee that what worked for me will be as delicious for another.
As we head into another canning season (I know so many of you are planning your gardens and signing up for CSA shares with your summer canning in mind), I’d like to encourage a bit more herb and spice exploration. This doesn’t mean that I endorse wild experimentation or grand recipe deviations, as we all know that to keep our canned goods safe, it’s important to keep our acid and sugar levels steady and adhere to the basics of the recipe.
But I do want you to know that it’s okay to gently tweak the spices. If you know that you can’t handle a great deal of heat in your food, please, please reduce the amount of chili or cayenne that the recipe calls for. If you’re a cinnamon fiend, feel free to increase the amount you include in your blueberry jam. Also, keep in mind that a small amount of spice can increase in flavor over time, so if you’re making something in July that you don’t plan on eating until February or March, adjust accordingly. Most of all, remember that you’re making those pickles or that chutney for you, and so the way it tastes should always, always please you.
Additionally, get to know your particular spice rack (they are all different). Sniff and taste your way through the bottles, making sure that you’re familiar with their potency. Toss the things that smell like dirt or nothing at all and replenish the stash before embarking on a big cooking project.
Going forward, I am going to try to write my recipes with this “season to taste” mindset. I will continue to tell you what I did, but I will also include notes at recipe points where variation and adjustments are okay. Because really and truly, my goal here is to show you all that canning is accessible and enjoyable. And if you end up with something you can’t eat, that defeats me.
I made pickles using your recipe as a base, and spiced them with home-dried cayenne peppers that I got in my veggie box. I opened a jar or two at a party about 2 weeks after making them, and found them very tasty—but definitely spicy. I have one jar left that’s been hanging out for a few months that I’m very excited to open. They may be a little spicy for casual munching, but I think they’d make a pretty sweet vehicle for fried pickles.
Justin, frying those pickles is a genius idea. I love it. -Marisa
I finally opened up my jar of plum jam from the class I took with you in August. It was amazingly good – the perfect companion to some cottage cheese for several yummy breakfasts. So know that that recipe was a total winner as far as I’m concerned.
Oh hooray! I’m delighted to hear that! -Marisa
Marisa – I am so sorry. This was not my intention when I sent my note. I love your blog and it encourages me to experiment. These pickles were one of the few things that I could not eat. Some things I would not make again, but most of the time everything has been eaten.
Part of what I like about your blog is that you do try the recipes and they are what you would eat. Plus you experiment and give us all ideas.
In the meantime, I have a pile of clementines calling my name. I need to look up what kind of syrup you used and get going.
Dogear6, there is not a thing to apologize for. I appreciated your email because it got me thinking! -Marisa
Hi Marisa – love your blog and would like to make a suggestion I tried a while back after a friend gave me a very spicy jar of gherkins. I poured most of her spice mix off and put my own sweeter, less spiced vinegar over them. They have been fine and great in potato salad. I’m not a novice preserver and knew I could save something that would otherwise end up left in the cupboard or thrown out.
Loretta, I think that’s a brilliant move! -Marisa
Funny, but I had the same thing happen when I pickled some green beans using your basic brine recipe. They’re great for cleaning out sinuses though 😛
Caitlin, I’m sorry to hear that. At least now you know for next year that you need to add less pepper! -Marisa
She should give them to me… too spicy is never a problem 🙂
Sucks when that happens, but I bet *I* would love them!
I think this is likely to happen to anyone who may have made last summer their first ‘summer of canning’. I used canning recipes from multiple sources last summer to launch my first real full scale assault on the farmers markets- jams, pickles, ketchup, and salsa. I learned a lot about the process, and how different flavors cure over time in those jars. Now I know that next year my salsa needs more heat, my pickled beets need more sugar, and my ketchup… well no one’s allowed to open that. It was very labor intensive and i’ll probably be buried with it. In any case, it’s all a learning experience.
Shannon, I think you’ve pointed out something valuable, which is that canning requires a learning curve. Not everything will be to your taste every time, and so it’s important to keep track of what you made and which recipes you used, so you can tweak over time. And I hear you, ketchup demands a TON of work. -Marisa
The trouble with the net, personal tastes and wide ranging cultural and personal backgrounds for eating foods and spices could easily be solved: When you write a recipe for us tell us you get the hot-hot version of pad thai when you go out for thai. Tell us you grew up in northern MN and only ate cinnamon as a child, give us real world comparisons to things we could grab ahold of to know that you like your pickles to be as spicy as….. Some brands at the store come spicy, some foods can be found and tried in most parts of the US (and other western countries or large cities elsewhere) and if you give us a comparison to those foods “I find the red brand spiced pickles to be warm but not hot so this recipe reflects my wish for a hot pickle” Everyone will have a real world reference point. It’s a better version than “spice to taste” as many people who are canning for the first or second time don’t actually know how those spices work over time. You do. You can say, this gets me to my level of flavor I like which is similar to… That would be the most helpful bit and might help trigger someone’s memory when they’re adding and measuring or telling their friends about the recipe that they just wrote down from your site. And, don’t take this as criticism MANY THANKS to the wonderful ideas,suggestions and just plain encouragement you hand out weekly if not daily!!!
C, I will do my best to give real-world examples. Thanks for the suggestion! -Marisa
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has become my #1 motto for canning. Sometimes it means tweaking the recipe, sometimes it means finding a different one. Both require a little bit of intuition (“I might like this better if…”) and a LOT of patience.
Melissa, that is a totally rational and sensible approach! -Marisa
Ooooh, I would love some spicy pickles! I put extra jalapenos in my pickles this summer and we are loving them.
One time I used some canned tomatoes from a friend to make ketchup. Unfortunately, she adds salt to her jars and I never do. So I made super-salty ketchup! It can’t be eaten as a condiment, but I call it my salad-dressing base and we have had LOTS of French dressing this winter.
I hope your reader can redeem her pickles somehow!
Margo, hurray for your resourcefulness and finding a way to use that too-salty ketchup! -Marisa
This reminds me of the pickles that my dad and I made last summer. We got my grandmother’s recipe from her, over the phone, and then my dad did a little “simple” math on a scrap of paper to figure out how to multiply it to accommodate the two bushels of pickling cucs we’d bought from a farmer that day. Well…after a few months of anticipation he opened a jar. They were like a salt lick. Clearly the math wasn’t so simple. 🙂
But you have given me hope, Loretta! I had been thinking that we could pour off the original brine and redo them with a salt-free one to draw out the excess, and now I have the nerve to give it a try. Has anyone ever had to do this? Any advice would be great.
Sheila, I haven’t personally tried replacing the brine, but I have heard that other folks have done it with varying levels of success. It certainly couldn’t hurt! -Marisa
I love the spiciness of the pickles! If I were to make a change, it would be strengthen either the dill flavor or the sugar: the overall effect is just a little too vinegary for me. Unfortunately I don’t really know enough to be able to experiment intelligently, and it takes so long to find out what worked and that didn’t!
Thanks in large part to this blog, though, I’m starting to get the hang of jam to the point where I can improvise a little bit. I’m really looking forward to this summer!
Danny, it sounds like you’re on the right track towards smart alternations. There’s actually no sugar in this recipe, but you could certainly add a bit if you want to make your pickles a little less tart. You can also use fresh dill heads to increase the dill flavor, they’re just often hard to come by in my area, which is why I opted for the seeds. -Marisa
Oo, now that I know it’s a spicy garlic pickle, I definitely will try the recipe this summer. 🙂
I reiterate others’ comments in that what I like about your blog is that you don’t post a recipe unless it’s worth posting; you tell us what you were going for and how it tastes. My frustration with the carrot can jam was that almost everyone who made pickled carrots couldn’t tell us what they tasted like or why they were making them. After looking at almost all of them, I ended up making a very similar variation of your recipe (with the addition of some spices like caraway) because you were able to explain what the brine tasted like and exemplified tasting the brine for seasoning before canning, a simple yet novel idea. The spicy, herby, sweet, tart brine is awesome, by the way, and I’m so excited to open my carrots/daikons/parsnips in a few weeks.
On another note, I have the canning itch and recently realized with great delight that I have in my freezer strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and currants. Do you have any inspiration for me and my newly empty jars? I’ll trade you for a heavenly recipe for pickled eggs. 🙂
Anduin, if you like a zippy pickle, this is a good one for you! And I’m so glad to hear that my description of my carrot/daikon brine helped you decide to go in a similar direction! Hmm, as far as your frozen fruit, a mixed berry jam is always a delicious way to go. The one thing you should know is that frozen fruit doesn’t set up as well as fresh, so in order to get a good, jammy set, you’ll either need to cook it longer or use a bit more pectin. And I do think we need to talk about your pickled eggs. -Marisa
I love love love your recipe for garlic dill pickles. In fact I won a pickle contest with a version of them. I even added a couple thai peppers for added heat and a grape leaf for good measure. I get begged repeatedly for these pickles from those who have tried them. Unfortunately I have but a few jars left and am being very stingy with them as I know I will not get good cukes to make more for a while!!
Liz, that’s terrific! -Marisa
That’s too bad that a home-canned item won’t be enjoyed. Perhaps it will make a good gift? I’ve made enough recipes that I do tweak spice quantities, even with the first batch. Most sweet recipes don’t have enough spice for me, and I know that have to be careful with the spices I put into a curry, for example. Thanks for all of your yummy recipes!
Kathryn, I’m so glad to hear that you’re comfortable with adjusting spice quantities when cooking/canning. It’s so important! -Marisa
Sometimes it seems as if none of my friends have any tolerance for spicy/heat. I can have just used black pepper, and they are still likely to find my cooking challenging. It’s so hard to remember every time.
If anyone local comes complaining to too spicy pickles, I am totally willing to help them out with that problem. 🙂
Meanwhile, I just came into about a dozen blood oranges, so once I have time to breathe, I need to start looking up all those marmalade recipes from last month.
Livia, I recommend using the technique I showed in the three-citrus marmalade post. It’s the best one I’ve found for marmalade so far. -Marisa
Don’t be sad! Different strokes for different folks and all that. Say…..there may be a jar of extraordinarily gingery carrot chutney with your name on it….
I wonder if I turn off readers by including so many “season to taste” instructions regarding spices, but I really feel strongly that every single spice should be used to taste for exactly this reason. Flavor is so personal an experience and I have developed a really particular middle ground for my taste and my boyfriend’s (slightly pickier) tastes (though my upstairs neighbor might tell you that I’m really trying to ward off vampires with my garlic use).
Marisa, don’t feel defeated! It is indeed a matter of personal taste. I made your refrigerator pickles and added rings of fresh Hatch chile. Mmm!
What you have to hope for, and what you can’t take responsibility for, is that readers will take both instruction and inspiration away from your blog. That they will learn from you, but that they will also understand that they can leap forward on their own. Or backward, in the case of some spices. 🙂
Good work, always!
Most cooks know that when one is trying out a new recipe, one has to do a taste test before. I often make spicy foods that are mild to me, and way too hot for my sister. Don’t feel bad if a reader put up several dozen jars of pickles without first seeing if she needed to adjust the recipe to her own taste buds.
It sucks that she didn’t like the pickles, I love spicey foods though, so I bet I’d love the pickles.
Marisa, let’s get this back to the original question/problem, “season to taste”. I get what that means and I like hot salsa. I raise my own habinero (-sp-) and jalapeño peppers and each year brings a different level of “hotness” to the salsa. Is there a way to control this? This year I made my “hot” salsa and it’s hotter than even I can handle and I can handle hot salsa. Should I be drying and grinding my peppers making my own seasoning? Thanks
Marisa, I am trying to get away from commercially processed items. When canning my homegrown vegetables, would it be safe to use Maldon Sea Salt? Would the minerals in the sea salt cause my veggies to turn dark? Thank you in advance for any advice you might offer.