One of the things we missed most when we left New York City was the pickles. Yes, that sounds weird. But it’s true. There aren’t many places in the country to get real kosher dill pickles. Most of the pickling done ’round these parts (do we sound like locals yet?) is done with vinegar. And heat. And while we do like an occasional Bread and Butter pickle, up until recently we longed for the non-vinegary “Full Sours” that come alongside every NYC deli pastrami sandwich.
“Full Sours” and “Half Sours” are pickles which are left to naturally ferment in a brine solution. No vinegar. Just water and salt. And usually a little dill & garlic. Maybe some other spices. They’re also known as “Kosher Pickles.” (Not because they’re made using kosher guidelines…because they’re made like the pickles served in kosher delis.) The difference between “full” and “half” is how long they’re left in the brining solution. A Full Sour is usually left longer than a week. A Half Sour is sometimes left in the brine for a mere few days. Its skin is usually still very crisp and green.
Brining pickles is certainly easier than canning them. The basic process is this: Put cukes in a crock with spices, cover with brine, and wait. Of course, there is a little more involved to keep your pickles from becoming a big stinkin’ science project, but it’s easier just to show you. Here…follow along with the pics below. (Full recipe at bottom of this post.)
The cucumbers come fast and furious in August…it’s best to get them for pickling while they’re still only about 4-6 inches long. Any longer and the insides are too mushy and seedy.
We use a combination of “Chicago Pickling” cucumbers and “White Wonder” cucumbers. You can use any kind of cucumber, but the “wartier” the skin, the better. (The warts let the brine in. Or at least that’s what we think.) They must be washed very well in cold water. No soap.
And if any cukes have any stem still attached, that must be removed. The stems have an enzyme that will make the entire cucumber mushy.
There are all kinds of pickling crocks. Any glass or glazed ceramic container will do.
To flavor our pickles, we use a combination of peppercorns, dill blossoms, garlic, hot pepper, and lovage seeds (you can use celery seed…we just have lovage in the garden.) Additionally, we add some horseradish leaves to the container. They’re supposed to help keep the pickles crisp. Does it work? Who knows? We’ve never tried without them. (If you don’t have fresh horseradish leaves, you can also use oak or grape leaves. They don’t impart any flavor.)
After putting the horseradish leaves and spices in the bottom of the crock, it’s time to fill with cukes. Tip: it’s easiest to tip the crock on its side while filling. That way you can lay the pickles in so that once you tip it up again, they will be tightly packed and vertical. Fill with however many cukes it takes to come to about 3-4 inches from the top of the crock.
Ok…now to make the brine. We only use bottled spring water. The presence of any chlorine (which is in many town water supplies and in our own well water system) will kill the good bacteria necessary for fermentation. If you’re not sure whether your water has chlorine, go the safe route and get bottled or distilled water.
To make the brine, empty about 1/5 of the gallon of spring water into the crock, over the pickles. (This is to make room to add the pickling salt to the jug without overflowing it.)
For any pickling purposes, you really must use kosher or pickling salt. These don’t have added iodine or anti-caking agents that cause your brining liquid to turn cloudy. Add the salt to the jug with a funnel. Then cap and shake it until it’s fully dissolved.
Pour it over the cukes until you’re about 2 inches from the top of the crock. If you need more brine, make a second gallon. If there’s some leftover, just keep it in the jug. You’ll use it for the next batch of cucumbers that are already ripening in the garden.
The cukes may float up, but don’t worry, we’ll take care of that in a sec.
This next step is important…you gotta keep the cucumbers completely submerged. Or they’ll rot, not ferment. There are multiple ways of doing this, but we find the easiest way is to simply invert a dinner plate, then weight it down with the jug of leftover brine. (Or if you don’t have any brine leftover, just fill up the empty jug with water.)
Oh…by the way, you’re going to want to add the brine after you’ve moved the crock to the place where it will age. We put our crocks on the counter while filling so that we could get good photos for you. But trust us. You don’t want to have to move a crock full of pickles and brine very far.
What’s the ideal spot? Somewhere wear the temp is between 64-74 degrees. We do ours on the basement steps. It’s too cool in the basement, and too warm in the kitchen, so we split the difference.
Now comes the hard part. The wait. With a new brand new batch of brine, you’ll probably have to wait at least a week for good Half Sours. If you’re reusing old brine, it can take as little as three days. For Full Sours, it might take anywhere from a week and a half to three weeks using new brine. Go ahead taste them one every few days. When you like them, they’re done.
You’ll be needing to check your crock every day or so anyway to skim the surface. All sorts of stuff can grow on top of the brine. Don’t be scared of any of it. As long as your cucumber-turning-pickles are below the surface, they’re perfectly safe. One of the most common things you’ll find on the surface of the brine is kahm yeast. It’s a white scum. Which sounds and looks awful. But it’s pretty harmless. Just skim off all you can every few days.
When your pickles are pickled to your pleasure, go ahead and remove them from the crock and put them in a covered glass container that will fit in your fridge. Strain the brine using a wire sieve, and use it to cover the cukes again. Don’t worry if the brine is cloudy. It will clear some in the fridge. If you have leftover brine, use it to start a new batch.
Once the cucumbers are refrigerated, the fermenting will stop, and your pickles should be good for a couple of months.
The greener pickle on the left is a Half Sour. It was only in the brine for a few days. (We re-use the same brine as often as possible since it has great bacteria growing in it. Successive batches take less time for the cucumbers to ferment.)
The measures in this recipe are for ratio only. As long as your brine is the correct strength, you can use any amount of cucumbers and brine that your crock will hold.
Prep Time: 30m
- 4-5 lbs pickling cucumbers (warty skins) between 4-6 inches in length.
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 4 teaspoons hot pepper flakes (optional)
- 4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 6 heads of dill flowers/seeds (or 3 tablespoons dill seed)
- 4 heads of lovage seeds (or 3 teaspoons celery seed)
- 2 horseradish leaves, or 6 grape leaves, or 6 oak leaves.
- 11 ounces pickling salt, approximately 1 cup plus ¼ cup
- 2 gallons spring, filtered, or distilled water
Wash your cucumbers thoroughly, removing any stems. Place spices and leaves in the bottom of 3-gallon crock. Tip crock on its side, and lay cucumbers so they will stand vertically once crock is upright again. Fill crock until cucumbers come within 3-4 inches of the top of the crock.
Place crock in a spot where it will rest for 1-3 weeks at a constant 64-74 degree Fahrenheit temperature. Combine salt with water and stir until fully dissolved. Pour over cucumbers until within 2 inches of the top of the crock. Invert a dinner plate into brine mixture and weigh it down with a jug of water or clean rock so that cucumbers are fully submerged.
Check crock every day and remove any yeast or mold growing on top of the brine. Check pickles after 5 days. Once pickles reach desired consistency (anywhere from 5 days to 3 weeks) remove them from crock and place in a covered glass container. Strain brine to pour over pickles. Refrigerate glass container. Pickles should last 2 months or more in the refrigerator.