If your only exposure to a pickle has been via Vlasic or some gargantuan soft deli dill, it's high time for home brine. Prime pickling season peaks right around Labor Day, even though cucumbers, in the general, salad sense, have been in season since the end of May. But a good kosher-style dill pickle needs density. Lacto-fermentation, the traditional process by which your cuke goes sour, works on all cucumbers, but if you want good, snappy dills, you have to choose for firm flesh.
But lucky for us, super crispy pickling cucumbers are reaching their peak season at the markets right now, which puts us just a couple of weekends away from some really spectacular homemade sour pickles. And yes, there's a recipe after the jump.
Making pickles, cucumber or otherwise, is incredibly easy, which is why, after jam, it's the gateway into other food preservation methods (fermented pickles can last up to half a year in fridge). You essentially pack clean, prepared cukes into a clean, prepared jar, add spices and brine, and then let it sit for a few weeks. That's it. Nature does the rest with little to no input from you. The product is the amalgamation of all the best qualities of a good pickle - a clean, bright sourness from the lacto-fermentation, a depth from the spices and herbs, and just enough salt to balance. It's like learning to make your own salad dressing. Once you've done it, you never go back to store-bought.
Several vendors have the short, stocky cucumbers used for making a good sour dill. They'll be bumpy with a matte, non-waxy skin, and a mostly even green color, though may have some paler, yellow sun bleached spots on one side. If the cucumber is soft or squishy in any way, do not select it. You want firm, heavy cucumbers, with no nicks and no give. Fermentation will soften them up enough. Any softness going into the jar will just become mush and could possibly compromise your entire pickle batch.
You also want to choose for a nice uniform size, in both girth and length. While it may be appealing to use those giant, fat cucumbers, don't. The best pickles will come from cucumbers that are around four inches long with a nice, even width along the length of the fruit. Straight cucumbers make for easier packing in the jar, but if whimsy is on the plate go ahead and choose for curves. Just be aware that it'll mean you'll have less space for pickles in the jar if you do.
The following recipe comes from Master Food Preserver Ernest Miller, and is included with the lacto-fermentation jars he sells at the Farmer's Kitchen. You can ferment in any food safe container, but the airlocks on his fermentation jars practically eliminate the formation of any yeasty scum on the surface of the brine. That yeasty scum can soften your pickles, so you'll want to skim it off if it develops. We've used those airlock jars a few times now and have been thoroughly impressed with the complete lack of yeast growth.
Selecting your cucumbers: For the best pickles, use firm, smaller pickling cucumbers or Persian cucumbers. Salad cucumbers are too large and soft for proper pickling whole. Cucumbers must be unwaxed, as wax prevents brine from penetrating the cucumber. Enzymes which cause softening begin to work as soon as the cucumber is harvested, so use the freshest cucumbers possible, no later than 24 to 48 hours after harvest if possible.
Kosher-style Dill Pickles
From: Chef Ernest Miller, Master Food Preserver
Notes: Do not use table salt in place of kosher, pickling, canning, or sea salt. The anti-caking agents and other additives in table salt change the flavor of the final product, and not for the better. Also, make sure the vinegar you use is 5% acidity. Most are standardized to this, but recently some bargain brands of vinegar have been cropping up at 4% (Smart and Final's "Simply Value" brand is one of them).
Makes: about 5 lbs. or approximately four, quart-sized jars of pickles
5 lbs. of 4-inch pickling cucumbers
2 ½ tablespoons dill seed or 3 to 4 heads fresh dill weed
4 oz. (113g) canning, pickling, kosher, or sea salt
2 ½ oz. distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
10 cups water
3 cloves garlic (Note: We add quite a bit more than this for a batch of co-pickled garlic.)
1 tablespoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
1 tablespoon whole mixed pickling spices (optional)
1. Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch slice off blossom end and discard (the blossom end contains an enzyme that can soften pickles). Leave 1/4-inch of stem attached. Place garlic, half of dill and spices (if any) on bottom of a large (gallon sized) clean jar. Add cucumbers (preferably standing on end), remaining dill, and spices, if any.
2. Dissolve salt in vinegar and water and pour over cucumbers. Add suitable cover and
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weight to keep the cucumbers below the surface of the brine (a ziploc bag full of brine works very well). Store where temperature is between 70ºF and 80ºF for about 2 to 4 weeks while fermenting. Temperatures of 55º to 65ºF are acceptable, but the fermentation will take up to 6 weeks. Avoid temperatures above 80ºF, or pickles will become too soft during fermentation. Fermenting pickles cure slowly. After three days, the brine will cloud up. This is normal. Skim off any surface yeast or scum that forms. Fermentation is complete when the cloudiness settles and clears the brine. Taste test to check.
3. Slice or keep whole and pack the pickles into jars for refrigeration, straining the brine through a coffee filter or paper towel to cover the pickles.
Caution: If the pickles become soft, slimy, or develop a disagreeable odor, discard them.
Fully fermented pickles may be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator in the strained brine for about 4 to 6 months.