As a garden cook, I cannot imagine a year without basil or parsley, and the same goes for easy-to-grow dill (Anethum graveolens). In addition to depending on dill as an essential pickling spice, I use the succulent leaves in fresh cooking, and save the dried seeds for adding to winter veggies, soups and breads. Every year, I find myself growing more dill.
I am not alone. From its humble beginnings as a southern European weed, dill has earned prominent places in Greek, Scandinavian and German cuisines, and dill is an important herb in traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine. Indeed, recent research has suggested that dill can enhance cardiovascular health while working as a potent antioxidant. Dill teas have long been used to soothe upset stomachs, but instead of letting things get that far, I include dill (or fennel) seeds whenever I cook cabbage, beans or other “gassy” vegetables. I don’t know how it works, but a half teaspoon of dill seeds will neutralize the gas-producing compounds in flatulence foods before they ever get to the plate.
Growing Dill for Pickles
Much of my garden dill is used for making pickles, and while there is no hard-and-fast rule on the best stage of growth for harvesting dill for pickles, I prefer the green seed stage. This occurs about two weeks after the yellow flower umbels appear, typically about 70 days after planting. Healthy dill plants then continue blooming for four weeks or more. In comparison, my pickling cucumbers take 75 days to reach full production. In order to have robust dill plants for pickling, I start my dill seeds two weeks before my cucumbers, and use cloches or tunnels to get them off to a prompt start in spring.
Because I want my spring-grown dill to flower quickly, I use varieties like ‘Bouquet’or ‘Long Island Mammoth’ , which are famous for early blooming and overall vigor. After harvesting many green seed umbels for making pickles and bunches of leaves for everyday cooking, I let the spring-sown plants go to seed. Meanwhile, I direct-seed bushy ‘Fernleaf’ dill in early summer. Grown in beds or large containers, the summer-sown plants bloom from midsummer to fall, providing an endless supply of fresh dill “weed” (the thread-thin leaves), blossoms and green seed umbels for summer cooking and food preservation projects, like pickled green beans.
Some gardeners freeze dill stems that have been washed and patted dry, which gives better results than drying unless you work fast, with a dehydrator. However, dill seeds are easy to harvest, dry and store, and they do an excellent job of imparting dill flavor to a huge range of dishes. To harvest dill seeds, wait until the seeds start to turn brown; as the seed clusters gain weight, they may need staking to keep them high and dry. Gather the ripe seed heads by clipping them into a paper bag, and place the bag in a warm, dry place indoors for a week or more. Crunch through the dried seeds and stems with your hands, and then dump the contents of the bag into a large pan. The seeds can be sifted out, or you can use a fan to winnow out the bits of plant material. Allow the collected seeds to dry for another week or so at room temperature before storing them along with other spices in a dark, dry place.
Just before using them in breads or cooked dishes, I crush dill seeds with a mortar and pestle to help them release their essential oils. I always have too many seeds, so by spring I even feed some of them to the chickens and wild birds.
Many gardeners see volunteer dill seedlings in their garden every spring, but I am not one of them. I do keep trying, though, by placing mature seed heads in areas where I would like dill to grow. Cold climate gardeners may be shaking their heads now, because in chilly climates where dill reseeds, it does so with a vengeance. But the spindly little plants are easy to pull out, enhance weeding sessions with their fresh fragrance, and disappear fast in the compost pile.
By Barbara Pleasant
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