Pickle-Making Wisdom

Based on many summer days spent making pickles in the kitchen, here are my hard-won pickle-making tips:

  • It is best to make pickles from small cucumbers, usually Kirby, that are the freshest you can find. If they are not recently picked, soak them in cold water to revive them. Fresh Kirbys are easy to get at farmers’ markets all summer long. They don’t all need to be the same size, but look for the smallest, “tightest,” cucumbers and forgo those that are large–even if they are labeled Kirby–as you will not get a good result. Juicy cucumbers are not a pickle maker’s friend.
  • Since proper crunch is essential, it is important to know the secret behind it: it seems to be the leaves you place in the pickling crock with the rest of your ingredients. According to fermentation guru, Sandor Katz, it’s the tannin in these leaves that preserves the crunch. I used to use oak leaves; I now use fresh grape leaves and these are my preference. Katz says that cherry and horseradish leaves work as well.
  • Homemade pickles are fermented, and later preserved, in a salty brine. After getting a batch or two of pickles that didn’t preserve well, I tried making a fresh brine for storing finished pickles. This new brine ruined the pickles as I was never able to attain the correct ratio of salt to water.  To avoid the heartache that comes with ruining perfectly good pickles, strain your pickling brine and use it to store your finished pickles.
  • Most pickle recipes call for dill heads; these are flowers that form at the end of dill stalks as they grow in the garden. If you like to grow herbs and you simply allow your dill to go to seed, you will have all the dill heads you need. If you have no garden, you can use a fresh bunch of purchased dill and this will work, too.
  • Knowing that beneficial compounds in garlic are released when cloves are cut or crushed, I tried cutting the garlic that I added to my brine and this approach ruined several batches of pickles. It is not a good idea to create such a potent garlic flavor if you want to keep your friends and family close to you; whole garlic cloves give a more pleasing result.
  • Cucumbers are held under weight in the pickle-making crock. It took me years to learn that this weight should not put any real pressure on the cucumbers. On the contrary, it should be placed gently on top as its only purpose is to submerge the cucumbers under the brine.
  • Mold, alas, is part of the pickle-making process. Do not fear it. You can skim and toss it if there’s a lot. As long as mold stays on the surface of the brine and doesn’t touch the tops of the cucumbers, you will get good pickles. When you are ready to store the pickles, skim the mold. Then strain the brine into your storage container.
  • In my New Jersey kitchen, pickles predictably take ten days to mature. You might eat yours earlier or later depending on the flavor you seek. They improve, for a time, after you store them in the refrigerator. I have had success keeping pickles for a couple of months, but not longer than that.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul