Of all the food transformations that occur in a kitchen, few are as exciting as that of a cucumber into a pickle. Not because the process is so complicated, but because it’s so simple. Salt, water and a little time in a jar are all it takes to transform a cucumber into an entirely different food. What’s truly amazing is that so many people love pickles even if they’ve never tasted a really good one. A great pickle makes your eyes widen in surprise and your tongue tingle with pleasure. The sourness should make you salivate for more, rather than pucker and wince, and the texture should have a noticeable crunch when bitten into.
If it’s so easy to transform a cucumber into a pickle, though, then why are grocery store shelves filled with so many mediocre specimens? In a word, vinegar. Many store-bought brands use vinegar to pickle cucumbers because it guarantees a sour flavor and acts as a preservative. However, this method misses the entire point of pickled food. Using vinegar instead of brine (salt + water) prevents natural fermentation from occurring. Without natural fermentation the live bacteria cultures that turn pickles into a healthy probiotic food are absent. Not to mention that when pickles are soaking in vinegar for a long time it typically results in an overly sour flavor and rather limp texture.
There are brands of naturally fermented pickles to be found in stores, although they can be expensive. Making naturally fermented pickles at home is cost effective and easy to do and the anticipation of biting into that first spear is more fun than you might think. When you taste your first homemade pickle, be prepared for an audible crunch and a pleasantly tangy flavor. It will be ever so slightly infused with garlic and dill and taste fresher and snappier than a store-bought spear.
As much as you will love your first batch of homemade pickles, also be prepared for your mind to immediately start coming up with new variations. Why not spicy pickles? How about pickles flavored with star anise or cinnamon? What about herbs besides dill? And why stop with cucumbers? Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower…pretty much any vegetable is fair game.
This recipe is for one jar of pickles but can easily be doubled, which is a good thing. Once you’ve tasted the first batch, you just might find yourself feeling that no meal is complete without a homemade pickle on the side.
6-8 small (3-4 inches long) un-waxed cucumbers. Look for pickling or “Kirby” cucumbers which are an ideal size. Persian cucumbers can also be used but don’t always stay as crispy.
1 1/2 cups filtered water
2 tablespoons sea salt (or other non-additive salt)
4-8 sprigs of fresh dill
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half and smashed with a knife
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Plus: 1 wide-mouth 16-ounce glass canning jar (sterilized in boiling water and air-dried)
Optional seasonings: red pepper flakes, hot chiles, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, celery leaves, bay leaves, fresh herbs, onion, cinnamon stick, cloves
Combine salt and water and let sit until salt dissolves
After washing cucumbers, cut the tips off on both ends. Leaving the cucumbers whole or cutting them in half or into spears is a matter of personal preference. Experiment to see what you like best.
In the jar put 4 sprigs of dill, garlic cloves and peppercorns.
Tightly pack the cucumbers in the jar. Add remaining dill.
Cut one cucumber in half and set it horizontally on top of the other cucumbers –this will keep the cucumbers from floating up above the water in the jar when they shrink a little during the pickling process.
Pour the salt water into the jar. It should completely cover the cucumbers.
Set the lid loosely on top of the jar, don’t seal it. Let the jar sit undisturbed at room temperature. You’ll know fermentation has begun when you see bubbles rising to the top of the jar and the water becomes cloudy. A thin layer of white scum might also form on the surface of the water. This is harmless and can be scooped away with a clean spoon. However, trust your nose. If the pickles smell bad while fermenting, throw them out.
It will probably take 3-10 days before the pickles are done. Taste the pickles during this timeframe to see if the texture and flavor are to your liking. This is the only sure sign that your pickles are done. Once you’ve decided they’re done, tighten the lid and store the pickles in the refrigerator. Because there is no vinegar to preserve the pickles, they will only keep about a week. If the flavor of the pickles is not vinegary enough for you, try drizzling a little vinegar on the spears right before eating.