I’ve been excited to try pickling as a means of food preservation for years. I love pickles – a nice tart dill pickle, crisp and cold and fresh, is a real treat for me, if not for Mrs. P, who can detect pickle on my breath from 20 yards. The idea that I could make pickles myself seemed really cool. But, I figured the process was difficult, and I worried that there would be a lot of complex steps followed by canning, a skill I’ve yet to start learning.
I needn’t have worried. Pickles are easy.
The hardest part proved to be getting cucumbers to cooperate. I’ve had really bad luck with my cukes over the years – they always seemed to end up malformed or discolored. But this year I finally got it right, and I managed to get well over 10 pounds of cukes just the right size and shape for pickling.
I decided that I wanted to make a lactofermented pickle. I’ve kind of got a thing for getting yeast and bacteria to do my work for me – sourdough bread being a delicious example. I really dig the complex flavors that can develop when microbes go wild, and it seemed like I’d be able to turn out something so much better than the vinegar-dipped cucumber-like nuggets available commercially.
I settled on a recipe from Mother Earth News – yeah, I know, but it’s a good resource for some things. For five pounds of cukes, the pickling brine is:
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 6 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 heads of garlic
- A couple of fronds of fresh dill
The recipe suggested flavoring the brine with either grape leaves, sour cherry leaves, or oak leaves. Since we had all three readily available, I figured I’d throw some of each in there. Everything went into my pickling crock – a 5 liter German Gärtopf fermenting crock that I got from Lehman’s a couple of years ago and never used. It has a neat lid design – the lid sits in a gutter in the top, and the gutter is filled with water to form a gas seal. Fermentation gasses bubble out through a little notch in the lid, but nothing can get back in because of the water seal.
After about a week, we tried the pickles. The brine develops a scum of bacteria and yeast which you have to fish through and rinse off, but it’s not slimy or nasty in any way. The pickles were quite tart and tasty at one week – a very complex flavor, almost like beer. I left them in for another week, hoping they’d get even more tart, but they ended up just taking on more of the flavors from the leaves – not a bad thing, but not exactly what I was looking for.
The next batch was simpler. Thinking that the fruity tones of the first batch were due mostly to the apple cider vinegar, I switched to white distilled vinegar. I also left the leaves out – just garlic and dill for flavor. Finally, I left them in the crock for only a week. Nailed it. Crisp, tart, plenty of dill flavor, and nice and garlicky. Exactly what I had in mind.
As for storage, it couldn’t be easier – pack them into clean mason jars, cover with fresh brine – the used stuff is a little cloudy and unappealing – and throw them in the fridge. Should last for months in the highly acidic and saline environment.
So my first foray into pickling, indeed food preservation of any kind, was quite a success. I ended up with six quarts of pickles that should last for a while. That was from six bush cucumber plants (which are still producing), so now I have an idea of how much to scale up next year – at least twice that many plants, and I’ll harvest more regularly to have more pickle-sized cukes. I should be able to put up a dozen or so quarts next year. I may also need to add another crock to make sure I can process the bounty fast enough – leaving the cukes in the fridge until there’s enough for a batch can take away from the crispness of the pickles.
And after all – two is one and one is none.