Friday, August 17, 2007

Pickling Like Mad

I have a confession to make about last year's pickles.

I don't think they were that great. We made quite a large quantity for my "food appreciation" classes at the private elementary school where I teach here in the District of Columbia. The kids were wild for them and we served them at the parents' night dinner. Some of the parents even requested jars to take home.

The pickles were okay. But they were missing a certain zip. This year, I'm pleased to announce, we've got the zip.

These are fermented pickles, meaning they cure in a salt brine and when finished resemble those "kosher dills" you remember being served with your pastrami sandwich at the Jewish deli. I may be halfway over the learning curve because I've become rather adept at stopping the fermentation process at just that point when the pickles have absorbed the garlic and dill flavors and still retain the bright fresh color and the crunchy cucumber snap.

Some people call these "half-sours."

If you let the cukes ferment much longer, they turn a deep, dark green and become somewhat softer--not completely flaccid, mind you, but somewhat beyond snappy--more like the standard dill pickles you find in a jar at the supermarket. These would be "full-sours."

Not fermented enough and the pickles are missing the proper flavor and aren't cured all the way through--they taste more like salad.

Somehow, August doesn't feel like pickling season and with the temperatures this high, the fermentation process moves right along, more quickly than it might in the fall when things are cooler. But this is when the cucumbers are ripe for picking. You can't let them sit around and go bad, so into the brine they go.

At current temperatures, the pickles seem to reach the proper flavor and consistency for my taste somewhere between five days and a week in the brine. At this point, they need to be refrigerated to stop the bacterial action and arrest the fermentation process until you are ready to eat them.

(Remember the formula for making these pickles? Dissolve six tablespoons pickling or fine sea salt in one gallon of water. Add peeled cloves from two heads of garlic, a couple of dill plant seed heads if you have them, a fistful of leafy dill sprigs, another fist full of oak leaves and maybe a half-teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Place all this and the cucumbers in a heavy-gauge plastic bucket. Cover with a ceramic plate that fits just inside the bucket and weigh this down with a plastic container filled with water to keep the cucumbers completely submerged in the brine. Place the bucket in a cool, dark spot and check on the pickles after a few days. Skim away any mold that might form and watch the pickles carefully so that you stop the fermentation when they reach your desired doneness.)

I've made several buckets of pickles recently and yesterday was the designated day to put them away for storage. Even the cukes that had grown very large on the vine while we were on vacation pickled to a crispy, garlicky turn. I cut the cukes in half lengthwise, then cut these pieces in half and sliced them into spears to fit quart-sized plastic containers. Add a few garlic cloves, some dill stems and top off with brine. Then place the containers in the fridge.

I also saved a large container of brine, in case the pickles need to be topped off at some point in the future. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how long these pickles will keep in the refrigerator. I just don't have enough experience with them, and I'm not sure they won't be eaten well before they expire. But judging from the fermented sauerkraut I made last December, which remains delicious in the fridge to this day (note to self: eat more sauerkraut), these pickles should keep for a good long while.

I couldn't help munching on the pickles as I worked, they are that good. Pretty irresistible, in fact. I was pining for that pastami sandwich. I would have settled for tuna fish.

Some batches turned out better than others, meaning I just have to keep a closer eye on things next time. My cucumber plants are exhausted at this point. Fortunately, you can buy pickling cucumbers at the farmer's market or the Whole Foods and, unlike mine, they will be about the right size for canning, not the monsters I've been using. So I will be making some mean pickles with my "food appreciation" students this year.

Now, to find a recipe for that pastrami...


Norma Jean said...

I just printed the recipe out and filed it away for future use. I can't wait to try it - though I'll have to get my cukes at the farmers' market. Next year I'll grow my own.

I definitely want to make my own sauerkraut - have you posted this recipe before? I would love to have that one too!

Ed Bruske said...

Norma Jean, here's a link to an earlier piece on sauerkraut. It's very easy. Enjoy...

MA said...

Dear Ed,

While you were on vacation and eating a ton of lobster, i was slaving over a hot stove putting up 24 pints of bread and butters. When i get home, i will have to do at least 24 pints of baby dills. Now, i have to add to my "TO DO" list, make some of Ed's Half Sours. C'est la vie! Meanwhile, sitting at the Oregon Coast slurping on Dungeness crab and Oregon Bay shrimp and all those fine Oregon wines...........

Ed Bruske said...

MA, I would love to hear more about your bread & butters and baby dills, how you make them. You are way ahead of me where quantities are concerned. Love the idea of crab and wine slurping in Oregon. I think the fermented dills are worth a try--very easy.