The Allure of Summer Pickles

You might feel as I do, that as the pace of our days has quickened, we rarely make room for anticipation in our lives. Experiences move past us one after another, with little time to hope or wonder about the future, and even less time to reflect on pleasures of the past. Yet in our flurry, we may be missing an aspect of life that is beautiful and essential; planning, looking ahead, and preparing for what’s to come enlarges our experience and, as it does, it deepens every satisfaction.

It pays to look for ways to welcome anticipation back into our lives and, in the summer kitchen, making pickles is one way to do this. The process of making pickles slows us down because it unfolds over days or weeks and can’t be rushed. It is a process that has a beginning, middle and end and, with each phase, expectation builds.

There is, of course, a familiar and circular challenge: making pickles takes time when we have none to spare. But pickle making is unique among many kitchen endeavors in that it allows us to rely on an invisible team of helpmates: the bacterial cultures that make fermentation happen. These cultures move our labors along and toil for us as we tend to other tasks. Once we establish a home for them, we have the pleasure of observing their work–marveling at their bubbles, smelling, poking, and tasting from time to time.

What’s better is that if you are at home as much as I am, you will appreciate experiencing adventure without ever leaving your kitchen because pickle making is an endless source of mystery and wonder. The process is fascinating; it is also the cherished source of a quiet and particular kind of excitement.

What I find most memorable about a good batch of pickles is its telltale crunch: sour and salty, cool and refreshing, and especially welcome in the heat of summer. Each batch of pickles has subtle variations in taste, texture, and color but, with each, you can bite into a pickle and hear and feel it give. This is what separates real pickles from all others.  Behind the crunch is the fact that real pickles are fermented in a salty brine, not preserved in vinegar; fermentation enhances their vitality and makes them a living food.

Homemade pickles are so easy to make. The recipe is as fool proof as a fermentation recipe can be, which is a confession of sorts. Once a summer, when it’s really hot and my kitchen is especially inviting to an army of microbes, I have a batch that fails. The reason why remains a mystery, but then how cucumbers become pickles is a mystery, too.

Here, then, is a recipe for you to use and enjoy. It comes from Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, and has been tweaked a bit by me:

Ingredients

3-4 pounds small pickling cucumbers
6 tablespoons coarse sea salt (I use gray Celtic Sea Salt)
3-4 heads fresh flowering dill, or 3-4 tablespoons dill in any form
2-3 heads fresh garlic, scrubbed with loose peels discarded and cloves separated (there is no need to fully peel the cloves)
1 handful fresh oak, horseradish, cherry or grape leaves
6-8 whole black peppercorns

Recipe

1. Rinse cucumbers and scrape off any remaining blossoms. If you are using cucumbers that were not just picked, soak them for a couple of hours in cold water to freshen them. Then, using a small toothpick, poke a hole in the stem end of each cucumber.

2. Place sea salt in 1/2 gallon of filtered water to create a brine solution. Stir until the sea salt is thoroughly dissolved.

3. Clean your crock. I use a Harsch Pickling Crock, but the recipe will also work with any ceramic crock (in this case, you will also need a plate that fits inside the crock, a gallon jug of water or other weight, and a dishcloth to cover). Then, at the bottom of the crock, place the dill, garlic cloves, fresh leaves (most often, I use fresh grape leaves), and peppercorns.

4. Place the cucumbers in the crock and gently cover them with either the Harsch weights or a plate. Then add enough brine to cover the cucumbers by several inches. If you do not have enough brine, mix more using the same ratio of just under 1 tablespoon of coarse sea salt to 1 cup of water.

5. If you are using a Harsch crock, cover the crock with its lid and then fill the outer rim with water. If you are using an ordinary crock, gently place the jug of water on the plate and cover the crock and jug with a dish towel to keep out dust.

6. In either case, check the crock every few days. Skim any mold from the surface, but don’t worry if you can’t get it all. If you are using an ordinary crock, you may want to rinse any mold from the plate and jug and replace them, taking care that all pickles are submerged under the plate.

7. Taste the pickles 7-10 days after starting them. If you like the flavor, you can enjoy them from the crock as they ferment over several weeks. Or you can remove them from the crock and store them, covered, in the refrigerator. In this case, strain the brine you used for pickling and add it to the storage jar, covering the pickles completely. If you are fond of garlic, you can also collect the whole garlic cloves from the crock, cover them with brine and store them in a separate jar in the refrigerator.

I love experimenting in the kitchen, which means I learn many lessons through trial and error. Based on my own experience, here are some hard-won pickle-making tips: Pickle-Making Wisdom

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul