Last summer I totally fell in love with the idea of making my own pickles. Full of optimism, I bought 5 pounds of the most gorgeous Persian cucumbers, and spent hours slicing cukes, simmering vinegar, perfecting seasonings, canning and processing. And oh my, those pickles were gorgeous: they looked like jewels in their shining glass jars. We waited in anticipation for the jars to cool, the pickles to pickle, the spices to infuse, and when we opened the first jar, pulled out the first emerald spears, we closed our eyes, took a bite and...
So soft and mushy that the pickles disintegrated in their pretty jars until they looked like jars of sad pea green soup. We threw them all away.
It was such a bitter and total epic FAIL, that I couldn't even blog about it. That's how disappointed I was (according to my husband, I do not deal well with disappointment or frustration. Go figure.) In typical fashion, I vowed that one day, I would indeed conquer the pickle, once and for all!
That day is today. It turns out I did a few things wrong last year. First, I used the wrong kind of cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers, the sort of cukes usually found in big chain grocery stores, tend to be soft and watery, perfect for salads and cucumber sandwiches, but far too soft for pickles. Those Persian cucumbers were so soft and bendy I was doomed from the start. What you want are pickling cucumbers, which are crisp enough to stay crunchy for the long haul. Second, the brine/hot pack waterbath process also had me doomed, because the heat that sterilizes the brine also cooks the cucumbers, making them that much softer.
The secret to getting really crisp, really deliciously cool pickles is to skip the "quick-pickle" method and do it the old fashioned way: fermentation. This is the way pickles have traditionally been made throughout history, and they are incredibly delicious. And not only do they taste better than their shelf-stable vinegared cousins, but they are better for you. Fermented pickles are "pickled" by friendly lactic acid bacteria. This fermentation renders foods easier to digest, introduces "good" probiotic bacteria into the gut (much like yogurt or kefir), and lastly, offers an alkaline balance to acidic foods, like meat. Also, they taste better. What's not to love?
"Half Sour" Kosher Dill Pickles
probably the hardest thing about this recipe is finding the right kind of cucumbers to pickle. This summer, I grew my own organic pickling cucumbers in my back yard, but you can also also find pickling cucumbers at farmer's markets and specialty stores. I think you can probably use Persian or kirby cucumbers in this recipe, but I can't guarantee how crisp the results will be.
It is VERY important that the brine is made exactly as the recipe indicates, with the exact same ratio of water to salt. Fermentation pickling works by allowing the lactic bacteria, naturally present on the surface of all vegetables, to flourish and ferment the cucumbers. The salt brine inhibits the growth of other bacteria, so it's important to be at the right strength. Too little salt, and bad bacteria may grow in your pickles. Too much salt, and the pickles are too salty to eat without soaking first.
This recipe is for "half sours," or pickles that are half-fermented and finished off with a splash of vinegar. They take about 2 days to ferment, give or take depending on the weather. You can flavor your pickles with whatever spices and herbs you like, through fresh dill and mustard seeds are traditional and a good place to start. Or you can get creative, adding minced fresh garlic, red pepper flakes, olives, red peppers, etc.
small firm cucumbers, such as pickling, kirby, or persian cucumbers
pure filtered water
kosher salt or sea salt (no iodine)
optional: red pepper flakes, minced garlic, black pepper, etc.
1. Scrub cucumbers well, and cut of flower end, as it contains enzymes which can soften the cucumber. If desired, slice cucumbers into spears or slices. Rinse any herbs you will be using as well.
2. Pack cucumbers into a large food-grade crock or jar, leaving at least 1" of head space at the top. I have been making mine in large French style mason jars, but you can make them in almost anything. Pack cracks with sprigs of fresh dill and sprinkle with mustard seeds or other spices.
3. Make brine: mix together salt and water, with 1/4 cup salt to every 4 cups water. Mix together thoroughly, until brine is clear. Pour over packed cucumbers.
4. Cover pickles with a lid or cheesecloth, and let ferment. Depending on how warm or cool your home is, this process can take anywhere from 2 - 7 days. When small bubbles begin to form on the surface of the pickles and dill, you pickles are done. You can continue to let them ferment as long as you wish: they will not go bad, they will simply continue to intensify in acidic flavor. When your pickles are at the desired sourness, pour off the 1" of brine head space, and add a splash of vinegar. Store in the fridge, which will slow fermentation. Enjoy!