This week’s blog is by Louis (aka Eliezer) Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his Southfield, Michigan home.
UPDATE: Got questions on pickling? Just ask by adding a comment below. Eli already has answered one set of questions here.
Robust cucumber plants in my backyard garden have started to flower, and when that happens, my thoughts return to pickles. About this time of year, I remember Mr. Fenster’s sour pickles, which contributed significantly to the joy to my childhood.
Barrel pickles by the pound
We bought our pickles at Mr. Fenster’s Appetizing Store under the elevated subway station a few blocks from the New York house where I grew up. We walked to that store about every week; I even worked there one summer. Pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes floated in a huge wooden barrel near the entrance to the store. Like the other customers, we would bring a glass jar, washed since it last held jelly or peanut butter. Other customers might ask for “half sours,” but we would ask for “sours.” While we watched, Mr. Fenster stuffed the jar with the maximum number of pickles, and poured brine, “pickle juice,” over them to fill the jar.
These pickles had character.
When the experts at Consumer Reports rated commercial pickles last year, they were not looking for anything like Mr. Fenster’s sour pickles. Consumer Reports wanted vinegar-cured pickles that have bright colors, crispy skins and crunchy textures. I have no nostalgic feelings for vinegar-cured pickles.
Produced by natural fermentation
Sour pickles get produced by natural fermentation, just like bread, sour cream, yogurt, wine and beer. Microorganisms change the sugar in cucumbers into lactic acid. If you want to make anything that relies on fermentation, you learn to keep the little microorganisms happy. When they’re happy, they will do nice things to your food.
The trick to sour pickles is having the right amount of salt in your brine. Too much salt and the microorganisms do not thrive, the brine stays clear, and you wind up with something that tastes like a salted cucumber. Too little salt, and who knows what might happen! If you get the right amount, the microorganisms thrive. After a few days, gas bubbles out of the salt water, which turns greenish and cloudy, giving off a magic aroma. What were once mere cucumbers turn first to half-sours, and then to that triumph of culinary art, the sour pickle.
Keep those microorganisms happy!
So how much salt makes the right little microorganisms happy? Sandor Katz, in his book Wild Fermentation, says between two and three tablespoons per quart of water, yielding a solution between 3.6 and 5.4 percent salt by weight. Jamie Geller, author of the “Joy of Kosher” blog, recommends one-half cup per gallon, which agrees with Katz’s lower number. Use kosher salt or pickling salt, not iodized table salt.
Some recipes insist on stuffing as many cukes as possible into your fermentation jar. That seems to me like nostalgia for what Mr. Fenster did after the pickles had fermented. You can do this if you want to; it may help keep the cukes below the level of the brine. But the cukes will pickle just as nicely if they swim freely in a tub. The important thing is not to let them above the brine.
The pickles turn sour because the little microorganisms produce lactic acid. The longer you wait, the more intense the sour flavor. Eat them when they are as sour as you like them.
Add some spices
Besides the salt and water, it’s spices that give the pickles the traditional “kosher pickle” flavor. Do not use a package of pickling spices from the supermarket; it might include all sorts of spices that belong nowhere near a sour pickle, such as cloves and allspice other items that belong with a vinegar pickle.
For every quart of brine, add a few whole, peeled cloves of garlic, a few peppercorns, a few mustard seeds, and some dill – either dill seeds or feathery dill leaves. Mr. Fenster also added a few tiny dried hot peppers, and you should too, unless you cannot stand the heat.
Use fresh, small cukes. Keep them whole, but cut off the blossoms.
If you pickle cukes in a glass jar, shake it up a couple of times a day, to make sure that the brine can touch every spot on every cucumber. Be sure there are no air pockets. If you make pickles in a plastic bucket or a crock, swirl it around and make sure that no cucumbers float above the surface. The surface might turn moldy, but the pickles, under the moldy surface, are doing fine.
In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz suggests putting a weighted plate on the surface of the brine, to keep the cukes below sea level. You can let keep them in the fridge, or you can let them ferment faster at room temperature, like Mr. Fenster did. (Katz also has a blog with the same name, Wild Fermentation.)
Try this idea to speed things up
I never saw this next idea in a recipe for pickles, but it works for every other fermented product, so I bet it would help with pickles. If you happen to have a jar of fermented pickles – the real thing, not the shelf-stable vinegar pickles – then you can add a splash of the brine from the pickle jar to your pickling brine. This will give a head start to the right kind of microorganisms in your jar or bucket or crock. Mr. Fenster did not have to do that, because the right kind of microorganisms had been living in his wooden pickle barrel for years.
When the first frost warnings appear this fall, you might have a bucketful of green tomatoes in your garden and no good ideas for what to do with them. Do not despair! Pickle the tomatoes the same way you pickled the cucumbers, or pickle a mixed barrel of cukes and tomatoes.
How do you know when the pickles are done? A half-sour looks like a cucumber, maybe a little more translucent, and tastes like a cucumber, but saltier, and with a little sourish snap. A sour pickle looks translucent, is dull olive green in color, and tastes like, well, like one of the joys of my childhood, like a link to my ancestors.
When your pickles are sour, move them to the refrigerator, and keep them in the brine. Serve them with meat sandwiches, or chopped up in potato salad. Or, on a hot day when you have been working in the garden, just eat a whole sour pickle right out of the barrel!
Since making pickles is more of a method than a recipe, today’s recipe is for potato salad that includes a chopped sour pickle.
What foods bring you back to your childhood? Can you share a story and a recipe?