Now, you might think something along the lines of, "Pickles? How hard can this be?" but let me assure you that it's not as simple as one might think. This is actually my second time making pickles (did once a couple years ago) and there are, in fact, follies to be had by the newbie. ;) So let my lessons benefit you, here ya go:
Lesson #1 - The variety of cucumber you grow/pick for this purpose should be a pickling type and not a slicing type. The slicing type tend to not be firm enough for pickles.
Lesson #2 - Do Not let them grow to plumping. Basically, when they look to be the size of a good whole pickle, harvest them then. When they start to "plump" (grow out more in the middle than the ends) you get a mushy middle. No Goodyear blimp cukes, mkay?
Lesson #3 - Try to harvest when you are going to have 20 mins to prep them because they are fresher and better for pickling that way. But if it comes down to pickling cucumbers after harvesting to prevent the above blimping situation, then indeed, choose to harvest them on time and pickle later - just soak them in very cold water for a couple hours before starting your pickling process and you're okay. This puts any lost moisture back in them.
Lesson #4 - Spines. Most varieties have bumps and on the peak of that bump is a tiny pokey spine. I just put the cucumbers in a bowl of water and rubbed them off with the backs my nails - a slow process, but better than an unpleasant pickle-eating-experience! Now, I do not know if I left those on there if the pickling process would dissolve them or not...anyone know? I will experiment next time I think and see what happens :)
Lesson #5 - Not all pickles are alike! Decision time - first off you have to decide if you want fresh pack pickles or fermented pickles. Fresh pack are made using vinegar and fermented are made using brine. They comes out different and are a matter of taste-preference. Now, that's the simple version - when you feel ready there are also combos like icebox and half-sour, oh my!
We chose to try the fermented style and then, next time, we will try the fresh-pack. There are more cucumbers about ready to be harvested, so the next blog post may just well be about that! After it's all said and done, we will post the results, comparisons, and more lessons learned! So keep an eye out for that.
Here are the steps (with pictures) of the Fermented Pickles we made:
1 - Wash (and de-spine, if necc.) and slice (if wished) about 3lbs of cucumbers.
2 - Get a crock - crockpot, old crock from antique shop, etc. Fill it with your spices/herbs. We wanted garlic dill - so we put in a diced head of garlic, 3 tbsp dried dill (no fresh on hand), and a pinch of peppercorns. There are other additions that are wonderful in pickles: mustard seed, chili peppers, etc. Our goal is to start simple and go from there as we experiment.
3 - There's an old trick that I've heard form several sources that will keep your fermenting pickles crispy! Put in a handful of leaves of a tree/vine that has tannin in it. Grape leaves are the classic - if you have access to those (wild grapes are great too!), then use those. Sour cherry, white oak, or horseradish leaves all will work too. Place these leaves and the herbs/spices/additions in the bottom of the crock. Place your cucumbers on top of these.
4 - Make your brine by mixing together 1/2 gal water and 6tbsp sea salt. Do not use salt with iodine - it will kill the critters needed for fermentation. Sea salt is best. Kosher or pickling salt will work as well. Pour the brine over the other things in the crock.
5 - Congratulate yourself because you did it! Now, fermenting food needs to be tended to carefully and protected from building up nasties. So, here is what you have to do:
- Make sure the cucumbers are submerged in the brine at all times - to do this get a plate that is a little smaller than the opening of the crock and place it (face up, no air pockets) on top of the cucumbers/pickles. No fruit should poke up above the brine level.
- Weigh down the plate with a clean container filled with water. If you need more liquid to submerge the fruit, then mix more brine (1 1/2 cup water to 1 tbsp salt).
- Cover the whole shebang with a cloth - we used cheesecloth - to keep any flies or other wandering creatures out. The kitchen counter is a good place if you have room because it is warm and easy to access.
- Check it everyday - skim off any mold you can (a little won't hurt), taste the pickles as they ferment and in a couple-few weeks you should have yourself some mighty yummy pickles!
- Once they get to the point you like - you can put them in clean jars and keep them in the fridge for up to a year. The fermentation will continue for a bit longer in the fridge, but it will slow significantly and stop soon after moving them to the lower temperature.
Okay, we'll report back and post the results of our pickling adventure :) We also have to make the next batch of fresh-pack soon as well! See you then!