Pickles are one of foods that appears on plates in summer and sliced up and used on a condiment on a burger. They are good with many meals and ones made the old fashioned way can help you digest the rich food that might be on your plate at that outing or harvest party you might be attending or throwing.
One thing that I learned recently while watching A Chef’s Life Season 3, Episode 4 is that cucumber pickles are a big crop in Eastern North Carolina. They are graded into various sizes and a rule of thumb ( literally in this case ) is that if you can reach around one and touch your index finger to your thumb, it is a good one for pickling whole. Bigger than that and you might want to slice it into quarters or slabs.
Recently I was planning a class for the local Lyme disease group in my area, Southern Tier Lyme Support . I was searching for some seasonal vegetables to bring along for tasting and I came into an abundance of late season pickling cucumbers at the local farm stand near me, Country Wagon Produce.
Old School Pickling and Quick Pickling, there is a difference
When it comes to abundance and preserving it, nothing beats fermentation, old-school pickling as it is also called. Not to be confused with the type of pickling where one uses boiling hot vinegar, also know as quick pickling. This is more or less a type of canning, which creates a sterile environment, preserving the pickles by killing off all the microbes present on the them.
Lactofermention is what we are after
It is lactofermentation that we are after when we want to produce old-fashioned pickles. This is when lactic acid producing bacteria, which are already present on everything and everywhere, are allowed to take over. Take over in the sense of, they become the ruling bacteria and help stomp out the others that might be hazardous to our health.
All we have to do is provide the environment that will allow them to multiply fast and get ahead of the other bacteria and fungi present on the vegetables that is trying to rot them away to mush.
How Do We Get it Going?
We give the lactic acid producing bacteria the right environment to thrive.
The lactic acid producing bacteria, known as lactobaccilus can live in a salty brine with no problems, other bacteria are less tolerant of salty brines. This allows it to thrive and the others, not so much. Once the lactobaccilus starts growing it produces, you guessed it, lactic acid. This raises the acid level in the brine, gives pickles the tartness that we expect and provides an environment that excludes other bacteria that would be harmful to us.
It goes without saying that the pickles have to be submerged in the brine. The process of lactofermentation is anaerobic, meaning without air. If some cucumbers are not submerged, most likely the ends sticking out will get moldy.
My Recipe for Pickling Cucumbers
A quart jar will hold roughly a pound of pickling cucumbers. In my case, I measured 400 grams, just a bit less than a pound ( 454 grams ).
- Take the cucumbers and let them soak at least 30 minutes in some salty water to help loosen up any dirt. The quantity of slat for this step is not critical, use what you would normally for boiling pasta for an example.
- Clean them with a sponge or an abrasive vegetable cleaner. Don’t use any soap or chemicals.
- Clip off the ends. According the NPR Article of 3 Secrets to Crispy Pickles there is an enzyme present on the blooming end of a cucumber that can make it go soft after a while. If you are not a pro at identifying the blooming end of a cucumber, clip off both ends to be sure. They have a few other suggestions as well, it is worth reading the article. One suggestion is adding leaves such as oak and cherry which have a lot of tannins to your jar, this can keep pickles crisp longer.
- Measure the weight of the cucumbers that will fit into the jar, I had 400 grams for a quart jar.
- Pack the cucumbers in the jar. Most likely for the second time as you would have had to put them in once and pulled them back out to weigh them.
- Add 5% by weight of natural salt. By natural salt, I mean salt that is just salt nothing else added. For me it was 20 grams of salt. A tablespoon is slightly less than 20g of salt, so make it a heaping tablespoon, or go by weight by putting the jar on the scale and pouring in salt until you hit the mark.
- Add pickling spice. ( I bought some locally at Country Wagon Produce ) About 2-3 tablespoons is good enough for a pound of cucumbers. I like to bring an ounce or two of water to a boil in a pan and steep the pickling spice in it, allowing the whole thing to cool off and then I add it all in. The steeping process hydrates the spices and creates a tea. The spices quickly infuse into the water and this gives the spicing process a head start over just adding the dry spices.
- Top off with water, making sure the cucumbers are submerged and leaving a 1/4 to 1/2 inch of air space and put on the lid.
- Place in a cool ( 55-70 deg is best), dark place and wait.
- Loosen the lid every few days to relieve the pressure. More often in warmer weather as the process of fermentation moves faster.
- After about 3-4 days, pull one out and taste test, if it’s not ready give it a few more days. When it tastes right to you, put them in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process and enjoy.
How Long Will They Stay Crisp?
They will last a while in the fridge, the first month is the best. But eventually the enzymes produced by the microbes will start to soften the pickles. They are basically being cooked, or more like digested slowly at the temperature of the refrigerator. This happens much slower than at room temperature as the biological and chemical process are slowed down by the cold temperature. It all happens at a very slow rate by the enzymes and acidity present in the solution. It can take months but eventually they will get soft.
Upcoming Workshop Flyer
An outline of fermentation basics from a presentation that I did a few years ago.
A few more posts on fermentation…