Did you know that all you have to do to make a classic deli-style dill pickle is put cucumbers in salt brine and wait a few days? I tried this for the first time last fall, and wondered why I hadn't been doing it forever! I LOVE pickles, and these were the best pickles ever, for very little work. Now I make them all the time. Here's how to do it.
All you really need to know is this ratio: 2 Tablespoons kosher salt to 1 quart (4 cups) water. That's your brine.
Get some kirby or pickling cucumbers––the small knobby ones that have a thin skin, dense flesh, and fewer seeds. Wash them well in a big bowl of cold water with a splash of white vinegar (the vinegar is optional, but will help kill unwanted bacteria). Trim off any bits of stem or flower. Rinse the cukes, then fill the bowl back up with cold water and leave them to soak.
Clean a couple of glass jars well. It's not a bad idea to disinfect them with a little vinegar too, then rinse them thoroughly. All your tools, and your hands, should be very clean. The idea is to encourage good bacteria and avoid bad ones. Once fermentation starts, the acidity, along with the salt, will do that job.
You can make pickles without any seasoning, but lots of garlic and dill will make them taste like classic Kosher dills. Mustard seed and dried chilies are nice too. Peel a bunch of garlic and pack a few cloves into each jar. If you can find the fresh flowers or seed heads of dill, that's ideal, but a few sprigs of fresh dill leaves or even a spoonful of dried dill will do fine.
Tightly pack the cucumbers into the jars along with the seasonings. Leave some space at the top so they'll be completely submerged in brine. Make as much brine as you'll need by stirring salt into water (2 Tablespoons to one quart) until it dissolves. I like to make a little at a time until I fill all the jars (you'll probably need half as much as the volume of your jars). Pour brine over the cucumbers to cover them. I go right up to the top of the jar.
Putting a grape leaf in each jar will keep the pickles crisp. You can also use a cherry leaf, blackberry leaf, or oak leaf––even a tea bag or some hoppy beer. If you go foraging, make sure you know what you are picking! The tannins from the leaves help preserve the cell structure of the cucumber––Harold McGee or Sandor Katz can probably better explain how that works. A note of caution: look for the rounded oak leaves rather than the pointy ones. If you can only find the pointy ones, use a very small one. They're really tannic and can make the pickles bitter. With cherry leaves on the other hand, you might want to use two.
Place the leaf on top of the cucumbers to keep them submerged in the brine and protected from potential mold. You can loosely seal the jars: the good bacteria come from the cucumbers rather than the air. Gas will need to escape, so leave the lid loose, and open it once a day. It's not a bad idea to put a tray or dish towel under the jars in case a little brine spills over.
Usually it's recommended that you ferment things in the dark, but the antibacterial properties of sunlight will keep mold from growing on the surface of the pickle brine (I've never had mold, but it is something to watch out for). I ferment my dill pickles on the windowsill, but they will likely do just as well in a closet––see what works for you.
Check on the pickles daily. Lift the lid to let off gas. The pickles are ready when they lose their bright green color and smell sour. After three days, you'll have half sours, after a week or two, sour dill pickles. When they reach the taste you like, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. Eat the pickles within a few months, and then make more.
If you have fun with this and want to try other fermentation projects, The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz will tell you everything you need to know, including the history and science behind a lot of the recipes. It's one of my favorite books.
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