In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. Just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
I suppose pickles are not technically cooking. These pickles are brined, which means they are cured in a salt solution and allowed to ferment. Lactic acid on the surface of the cucumbers ferments and preserves them, while any dangerous microbes are inhibited by the salt solution. PLEASE NOTE: do not tinker with the salt quantities in this recipe; you need a strong solution to inhibit microbe growth. The taste of these pickles is completely unlike store-bought or even home-canned; they don’t have the sharp vinegar bite of pickles that use an all-vinegar solution. Everybody in the family loves them. And because they’re lacto-fermented, they’re a good source of beneficial bacteria for your gut.
In the days before reliable refrigeration, making pickles was one way of ensuring that some of summer’s bounty was still available when the cold winds of December were howling around the eaves. When pickles were made in a barrel, every country store had a pickle barrel and customers dipped out the pickles they wanted to eat. For home use, the housewife was more likely to cure her pickles in a crock. She usually made a series of crocks as the cucumbers ripened, finishing off the last crock just before the first frost of the year. The oldest pickles would be used first, and the last batch was still good well into the spring, especially if stored in a cool basement, root cellar or spring house. Although this recipe is for cucumbers, you can also pickle other vegetables such as summer squash, green beans, onions or carrots. Depending on the size, cut into 1 ½ inch chunks or quarter lengthwise.
If you don’t have a crock, you can use a glass jar. Whatever container you choose, it must have a lid that fits inside the jar opening; you place a clean weight on top of the lid to keep the pickles submerged in the brine. A smaller glass jar filled with brine (in case it leaks) makes a good weight for a gallon jar of pickles.
4 lbs. of 4-inch pickling cucumbers (you want fresh, crisp cukes that are just ripe – don’t use overripe cukes!)
2 tbsp. dill seed or 4 to 5 heads fresh or dry dill weed
1/2 cup salt (canning or pickling salt – NOT table salt)
1/4 cup vinegar (5 percent)
8 cups water and one or more of the following ingredients:
2 cloves garlic (optional)
2 dried red peppers (optional)
2 tsp. whole mixed pickling spices (optional)
2 or 3 well-washed whole grape leaves (although these are technically optional, the tannins in the leaves really help keep the pickles crisp)
This recipe makes about a gallon of pickles. If you want to make smaller quantities, figure 3-4 cukes to a pint, 7-8 to a quart. Wash the cucumbers well in plain cold water. Cut a very thin slice off the blossom end, but leave the stem end intact with about ¼ inch of stem attached. Slice cucumber length-wise if desired. Place half of your dill and spices in the bottom of a thoroughly washed glass jar. Add the cucumbers, then the remaining dill and spices. Dissolve the salt in the water and vinegar. Fill jar(s) with brine to within 1/2 inch of jar top. Place a plate or cover on top of the pickles, and weight it so the pickles are completely submerged. Store in a place where temperatures range from 55 to 75 degrees. In the summer, I don’t have a place within that temperature range, so I keep them on the kitchen counter. They’re usually ready to go in the fridge within a week or so. Cooler temps mean the pickles will take longer to ferment — 5 to 6 weeks instead of 3 to 4. Check the container several times a week to be sure the pickles stay submerged and remove any scum or mold (the mold won’t hurt anything if promptly removed and is a normal part of the fermenting process). Pickles that become slimy or mushy should be discarded. Once they have reached the three-week point, start tasting them; when the taste is to your liking, you can store them in the refrigerator for several months or can. Pour off the brine, bring it to boiling and pour it over the pickles. Seal jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. I don’t like the taste of the pickles once they’re canned, so I usually don’t bother unless I’m really short on refrigerator space.