Pickles didn’t used to be “pickled”. Cucumbers were fermented. In fact, that tangy sour flavor we have all come to know and love is the process of acetic acid, lactobacillus, and millions of other beneficial bacterias, yeasts, and developed enzymes in changing the cellulose into a now pre-digested, probiotic packed treat.
During the Industrialization of food, and the fear of bacteria, particularly in what we call the hygiene hypothesis phase of government and scientific “freak out”, foods were pasteurized, sanitized, and all over killed in the hopes in NOT make them healthier but to prevent any potential pathogens.
And not only did that not work – we’ve actually never had so much digestive distress as we do in this time period. The solution for what used to be a fermented treat and the perfect way to preserve your summer cucumber bounty (fermentation is not only a process of preservation but it is humans first known cooking process) was to can the items in vinegar, distilled or white, or add other horrific ingredients to what used to JUST BE SALT AND WATER! Yep, turn over those pickle jars, if there is anything other than spices you can identify, salt and water, then it is NOT FERMENTED.
In fact, that process of distilling the cucumbers is very similar to our distaste and fear of pesticides. You are literally killing all the good (and sometimes leaving room for just bad to flourish).
So I love teaching people how to ferment veggies but for some reason pickles daunt my students because they can’t seem to perfect them. Thus today, I’m going to illustrate some KEY TIPS AND POINTERS!
USE pickling cucumbers NOT ENGLISH SLICING CUCUMBERS. Pickling cucumbers are meant for this activity as the skin and the inside have a similar viscosity and it allows even fermentation. In addition the “warts” on the flesh allow the brine to seep through to ferment both inside and out. Slicing cucumbers are meant for salads and slicing and have a very waxy thick exterior and will almost never successfully stay crunchy or evenly fermented. (Some varieties of Persians can work as long as you don’t let them exceed 70 degrees while fermenting).
Make sure you make your brine with the correct measurements of salt to water. It’s 1.5 tablespoons of COARSE sea salt to 4 cups of NON TAP water. If you want a double sour (make your mouth pucker, it’s 2 tablespoons). My suggestion is to dissolve your total amount of salt in a smaller level of water (as it needs to simmer to dissolve and you don’t want to wait for a large amount of water to get to 80 degrees before you pack away the ferment).
While you are dissolving your salt, one of the most assured modern tricks to keeping a crunchy pickle in the end is to “blanch” your cucumber. This typically works by pouring boiling water over the veggies and then giving it an ice bath. I’ve actually found that simply soaking my cukes in hot water, straining and adding cold water and then putting in the freezer for 30 minutes does the same trick. You will actually see the veggies “perk up” and become brighter in color.
Another way to assure your cukes don’t sag, is take off the BLOOM on the top and the navel on the bottom of the fruit. Both of these areas hold a specific enzyme that will actually create a soft top and bottom to your pickle. So just use your fingernail and pop it off. I also scrape the outside of my cuke a little with my nails so the brine can penetrate on the first day and assure a more even ferment.
DON’T FORGET TO SPICE YOUR BRINE. While just a sour pickle tastes OK, a dill garlic cuban spiced pickle tastes AMAZING. We also add in an herb or leave with some tannins to help keep crispy pickles. In this case I added bay leaves (just one for 2 gallons is enough) but you can pack in a grape leaf if in Cali with the abundance of vines (as long as not sprayed vines), oak leaves or even a 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of black tea leaves. As far as spice amount, I always say for every 2 tablespoons of salt, add a tablespoon of spice. So in this batch I had 12 tablespoons of sea salt dissolved and 6 tablespoons of my pickling spices.
Pack in your pickles, make sure they are fully covered in brine. Make sure there is not alot of space from top to first pickle in your jar. You really don’t want anymore than 1/2″ or you will form KAHM’s Yeast, which isn’t bad for you but alters the flavor of things to be a little musty and it can make things smushy. Yeast loves air, so less air, less yeast.
Next weigh your cukes down. I just used a porcelain soup bowl but you can also weigh down with onion halves, folded cabbaged leaves or boiled river stones. Just make sure the cukes are under liquid and there is little air exposure in the jar.
Finally crunchy pickles like cooler dark temperatures. 55-65 degrees is ideal, but since we don’t all have a root cellar or an old wine cooling fridge (but if you do!) then an average temp will work. But if your house feels warm, move it in and out of the fridge over the course of fermenting.
Pickles are ready by day 3 – if they are sour. So cut a piece and try. Still salty? Return to the brine and try in another 3 days. Pickles can ferment at the right temperature – well, forever (remember above about fermentation being a process of preservation). And like any ferment the flavors just get more complex and intense over time. So feel free to do a large batch but ferment in smaller jars so you can try a pint over the first week, the second pint over the second week, etc. etc.
HAPPY PICKLE MAKING!