This section is from the book "Culinary Herbs", by M. G. Kains. Also available from Amazon: Culinary Herbs, Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses.
Dill (Anethum graveolens, Linn.), a hardy annual, native of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions, smaller than common fennel, which it somewhat resembles both in appearance and in the flavor of the green parts, which are, however, less agreeable.
In ancient times it was grown in Palestine. The word translated, "anise" in Matthew xxiii, 23, is said to have been "dill" in the original Greek. It was well known in Pliny's time, and is often discussed by writers in the middle ages. According to American writings, it has been grown in this country for more than 100 years and has become spontaneous in many places.
Ordinarily the plants grow 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. The glaucous, smooth, hollow, branching stems bear very threadlike leaves and in midsummer compound umbels with numerous yellow flowers, whose small petals are rolled inward. Very flat, pungent, bitter seeds are freely produced, and unless gathered, early are sure to stock the garden with volunteer seedlings for the following year. Under fair storage conditions, the seeds continue viable for three years. They are rather light; a quart of them weighs about 11 ounces, and an ounce is said to contain over 25,000 seeds.
Dill, of Pickle Fame
Where dill has not already been grown seed may be sown in early spring, preferably in a warm sandy soil, where the plants are to remain. Any well-drained soil will do. The drills should be 1 foot apart, the seeds scattered thinly and covered very shallow; a bed 12 feet square should supply abundance of seed for any ordinary family. To sow this area 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of seed is ample. For field use the rows may be 15 inches apart and the seed sown more thinly. It should not be covered much more than inch. Some growers favor fall sowing, because they claim the seed is more likely to germinate than in the spring, and also to produce better plants than spring-sown seed.
At all times the plants must be kept free from weeds and the soil loose and open. When three or four weeks old the seedlings are thinned to 9 inches, or even a foot apart. As soon as the seed is ripe, shortly after midsummer, it must be gathered with the least possible shaking and handling, so as to prevent loss. It is well to place the stems as cut directly in a tight-bottomed cart or a wheelbarrow, with a canvas receptacle for the purpose, and to haul direct to the shade where drying is to occur. A good place for this is a barn, upon the floor of which a large canvas sheet is spread, and where a free circulation of air can be secured.
The French use dill for flavoring preserves, cakes and pastry. For these purposes it is of too strong and pronounced a character to be relished by American palates. The seeds perhaps more often appear in soups, sauces and stews, but even here they are relished more by our European residents than by native Americans. Probably they are most used in pickles, especially in preserving cucumbers according to German recipes. Thousands of barrels of such pickles are sold annually, more especially in the larger cities and to the poorer people; but as this pickle is procurable at all delicatessen stores, it has gained great popularity among even the well-to-do. An oil is distilled from the seeds and used in perfuming soap. The young leaves are said to be used in pickles, soups and sauces, and even in salads. For the last purpose they are rather strong to suit most people, and for the others the seeds are far more popular.
Dill vinegar is a popular household condiment. It is made by soaking the seed in good vinegar for a few days before using. The quantity of ingredients to use is immaterial. Only a certain amount of the flavor can be dissolved by the vinegar, and as few samples of vinegar are alike, the quantities both to mix and of the decoction to use must be left to the housewife. This may be said, however, that after one lot of seed has been treated the vinegar may be poured off and the seeds steeped a second time to get a weaker infusion. The two infusions may then be mixed and kept in a dark cupboard for use as needed.