Being of the persuasion myself, I think I’m allowed to use the J-word in a sentence without being weird, but NOW, for a limited time only, you too can be a Jew with this delicious recipe for pickles.
Non-Jew pickles are usually made with vinegar and sometimes (gasp!) sugar and (gasp again!) pickling spices. I sort of get pickles like that upon occasion (if I channel my inner shiksa), but nothing really matches that corned-beef-sandwich-at-Katz’s-Deli kind of feeling like a sour pickle.
Jewish pickles are fermented in brine, which is different than pickling per se, canning, or ‘putting up’. A fermented or “sour” pickle doesn’t get canned, instead it’s kept cool or cold once its finished, which removes my often irrational nervousness about Botchulism (Botulinum toxin is for wrinkles not pickles!).
Fermented foods are deliriously good for you (maybe not as good as the Louboutin, but…) – loaded with probiotics, vitamins and digestive enzymes. Most of the world eats fermented food as part of their daily intake; Americans are just culturally more freaked out about this stinky kind of stuff. We prefer our food prefabricated and free of all things, but I’ll save my ‘Americans don’t eat right’ cocktail party rant for another time.
My fermentation Guru is Sandor Katz. If you’re at all inclined to weird, olde time-y projects and deliciously foaming fermentation foodstuffs, you should check out his books or his Wild Fermentation website. His new book is the bible on fermentation, bar none. Pickle-making is one of the highlights of wild fermentation – a finger-lickin’ reward for your patience and a job well done.
Pickles can be a little trickier to make than sauerkraut, another fermented staple. Cucumbers (which…y’know, pickles are made from) can get soggy and they can develop a whole bunch of mold on the surface, so you need to prepare for those things.
Adding something with a lot of tannin to the batch will keep the cukes crunchy. My neighbor, Kelli, has grape vines, and grape leaves are great for this purpose. In a pinch, you can actually add a tea bag, or so says Sandor Katz, but if you can pilfer fresh grape leaves from Kelli (or your neighbor, maybe), it’s much more authentically pickle-y.
I pick my small to mid-size cucumbers for a few mornings until I have enough to make a decent batch all at once. If you get your pickles at the grocery store instead of my garden, make sure to choose small to mid-size pickling cucumbers. A relaxing bath of cold water for your cucumbers for an hour or so before you make them up increases your chances of perpetual crunch.
How much salt to use in your brine is another big question. I’ve often made a batch that seems too salty or not salty enough and have had to scramble to make some adjustments in situ. Brine strength is expressed as a percentage with a lower-percent salt (about 3%) and shorter ferment time pickle referred to in deli-speak as a ‘half-sour.’
This recipe is for a ‘full-sour’ – about 5%. In different batches I’ll experiment with how much or how little salt to try in my brine but “a general rule of thumb to consider”, Sandor Katz says, “in salting your ferments: more salt to slow microorganism action in summer heat; less salt in winter when microbial action slows.”
And as for the layer of mold on the top. Get over it!
Or more accurately, get under it!
Mold does not mean the pickles have gone bad. Instead the mold forms a kind of a ‘cap’ to your pickles and is a normal and necessary part of the process. Any part of a cucumber that sticks up above the mold line will be moldy and gross, but anything below it will be delicious. When you remove your pickles or taste them throughout the process, just rinse off the icky bits et voilà! Le Jew Pickle!
LE JEW PICKLE
Timeframe: 1-4 weeks
- An uber–clean ceramic crock or (my choice) big Ball Jar*
- Plate that fits inside the mouth of the crock (if you’re using one)
- Kitchen towel to cover
*Note: you may need more than one.
3 to 4 pounds small to medium size cucumbers
6 tbsp sea salt
3 to 4 heads fresh flowering dill, or, if you must, store-bought dill seed
1/2 gallon (2 liters) water
2 to 3 heads garlic scrubbed clean and sliced in half
1 handful fresh grape leaves (if available) or 1 teabag
10 black peppercorns
Yield: a buttload
- After the cucumbers spend a nice while (15 – 60 mins) in a cold water bath, gently scrub them. Make sure to remove the blossom end.
- Stir the sea salt into the water until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.
- Place the dill, garlic, grape leaves (or teabag), and the peppercorns into the crock or jar.
- Place cucumbers in the crock adding them snugly but not forcibly. I like to use a Ball Jar because the cukes naturally fit under the lip of the jar and the brine covers them, no problem.
- Pour the brine into the crock or jar. The brine should cover the other junk. If you use a crock, you’ll need to put something over the cucumbers, like a small plate, to weight them down below the surface of the brine.
- Cover the crock or jar with a kitchen towel. I used to put my crock in a cool, dark place to wait out the process but I’ve recently read that a bit of sunlight can help make Le Jew Pickles perfect, so my sunlit jars are currently on my windowsill (behind the artisan bread!)
- Check the pickle jar every day. You can skim the mold or forget about it.
- Taste the pickles after a few days. They may initially taste too salty but as they ferment the flavor will mellow out.
- In one to four weeks your pickles will taste done. If would describe ‘done’ as tasting sour and not exceedingly salty. It’s better to catch them a little too early than too late. They will continue to ferment a bit in the fridge.
- Move them into the fridge (I will sometimes put into smaller, easier to manage jars) to slow down the fermentation to a near-halt. These will stay delicious like this for 6 months.
Take off those boots before you come in here!