Lengthy unnecessary preamble to a recipe for Sour Pickles:
Two years ago I decided to do something with some of the extra cucumbers that came back from market. In previous years we had heard about sour pickles, but they seemed a little dangerous and risky. Instead we had made vinegar pickles. We were happy with the vinegar pickles but they were not crispy. Often they tasted good, but they were a little mushy. Other times they weren't mushy, but they weren't quite crunchy either. Mushiness is a non-starter for us, and we would just leave our pickles on the shelf based on the possibility of mushiness. So that year when the extra cucumbers started coming back from the market, we still had some vinegar pickles on the shelf. I was ready to throw the extra cucumbers in the compost. But there were a lot of very nice small cucumbers, and I strongly dislike throwing out perfectly good vegetables. So I decided to live dangerously. I started a batch of sour pickles.
An aside to the preamble: sometimes I am not ready for a good idea. Someone is talking about a very good book or movie and I don't grasp how important it is for me to pay attention closely. I am caught up in my own interests and drama and I fail to share in their enthusiasm or even listen well. I watch people get into something and I don't get it. I have a set of blinders that makes me not value things that do not seem relevant to me. I want to change this trait: my wish is for my attention for others to always be good, regardless of relevance to me. For now I just go around smacking myself on the forehead when I realize I have done this.
I look back at the things I am interested in right now and I realize that I have been exposed to many of them for years. Permaculture, ignored as impractical idealism until now, has recently come into my consciousness and cool and possibly world-changing. But it was introduced to me 17 years ago by my good friend Peter Seim. I just wasn't ready. Sorry, Peter, I get it now. I am currently into fermented foods. Kombucha, sauerkraut, kim chi, beer, hard cider, and sour pickles. But several years ago, my friend Nadine Wetzel-Curtis was already making kim chi and kombucha. And she was conspiring then with my partner Jen, who was using a book by Sandor Katz - Wild Fermentation. I didn't realize then how close I came to becoming the fermentation nut that I am today, but I basically stayed out of it.
Now Sandor is my hero. So two summers ago, when I wanted to make those sour pickles, I picked up Jen's Wild Fermentation book. It was like I had "discovered" America. Because suddenly I wanted to talk about and learn about all types of fermented foods. I can imagine my friends thinking - "it is about time!" and "where were you when I was making these three years ago?"
Better late than never, right? So I took and filled two five gallon pails with extra cucumbers. I added the grape leaves that Sandor suggested. I added kosher salt. I weighed them down with heavy plates and plastic bags full of water. And magic - one week later I had made ten gallons of crunchy, pro-biotic, yummy, sour pickles. I felt like I had engineered a miracle. I told everyone. I shared them in an aggressive way. I was probably obnoxious. Then that fall, Lucinda shredded some cabbage for us and mixed it with salt. The result was the most delicious sauerkraut I had ever had. I was obnoxious, again, in sharing this kraut and my new "discovery" of how to make it. We also had great luck that fall with countertop hard cider and Jen's continuing kim chi experiements. We could do no wrong. This was, of course, the beginning of hubris.
Last summer we made batch after batch of sauerkraut and kim chi. But when the time came for sour pickles, I was overly confident. I made the brine and added the cucumbers. Soon I "discovered" that I am not magic. Some of the cucumbers turned into a rotten slimy mush. They also became hollow as they shrunk in the pickling juice. The whole thing tasted awful and had to be composted. It put me off sour pickles for the rest of the summer. We actually went back to making some vinegar pickles that were fine, but still again slightly mushy.
So this year, I had the long winter to gain resolve and I decided to try again. We now have 3 gallon-sized jars of sours fermenting on the countertop. Maybe ready by this weekend. Here was my process:
Recipe for Sour Pickles
3 Tbs Salt (any non-iodized salt will do - we used coarse "Real Salt") per quart of filtered water (non-fluoride or chloride). Mix well until salt is dissolved. Cold water or room temperature is fine (I put my salt in a sealed jar and shook it vigorously to dissolve the salt. Others recommend dissolving the salt in boiling water and then cooling the mixture with ice). Note: Sandor says 3 Tbs/quart can come out tasting overly salty to some people. Maybe try 1.5 to 2? Alternately if your pickles turn out too salty, pour off most of the brine and add fresh water. The fresh water will draw some of the salt out of the pickles.
Dill tops or dill seed.
Garlic - whole cloves or coarse chopped.
Optional: Hot Peppers.
Use small or medium-sized cucumbers (big honkers will become hollow and are in danger of sliminess). Consistent-sized cukes are best because the smaller ones ferment quicker, so a mix of sizes will ferment unevenly (which is not the end of the world). Remove flowers and wipe off the spines. Soak in cold water just before using.
To Keep Crisp:
Some fresh grape leaves, or oak leaves, or horseradish leaves. A few leaves per gallon of cucumbers.
Pack the fermenting vessel (anything from a half-gallon glass jar to a five-gallon ceramic crock or plastic bucket - DO NOT use metal containers as they may react with the pickling brine) with cucumbers, layering in spices and grape leaves. Pack the cukes as tightly as you can. Place the small ones on the bottom and save some big ones for the top to smother the little ones asd they try to float. When your vessel is packed, pour the brine over the packed cucumbers until they are capable of being completely submerged. Then put a plate on top of the cukes and a weight on top of that to submerge to cucumbers. With a pail, a dinner plate works fine. A good weight is a ziplock bag filled with brine (in case a leak develops). I usually put a clean dish towel on top of everything to keep dust and bugs from falling in. Store it on your countertop or other place where you won't forget it, and keep it out of extremes of temperature. The fermentation should begin in a couple days and your cukes should begin changing color. The outside should go from bright green to olive drab and the inside should go from white to translucent. The pickles should be ready in 5 to 10 days depending on temperature and preferred level of fermentation. Then they can be jarred and refrigerated. I think if you had a ceramic crock or wooden barrel and a cool root cellar, you might not need to refrigerate, but I would worry that they would continue to ferment until they were mushy (which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place).
Note: You might get some mold or scum on the surface. This can be distressing and cause you to want to throw out the entire batch. I know this from personal experience. Have no fear. Those kinds of scummy molds cannot grow in the interior of the brine. They are the result of the interface of the air with the surface. Skim the scum off. If your cukes were truly submerged, they should be fine. If they weren't, just throw out the top ones.