There is no better cucumber than a pickling cucumber. Crisp and freshly-scented, they grow well in our gardens and love to perk up our salads. Sadly, they are only here for a short while, soon replaced by imported field cucumbers and long, plastic-wrapped English cucumbers – OK, but not the same.
As summer ends, gigantic bundles of dill show up in buckets beside baskets of these little cucumbers at the farmer’s market. Time for pickling!
For my Polish parents, this was non-negotiable. Didn’t everyone ferment jars of pickles at this time of year? Once sour, they lived in a big cloudy jar in the refrigerator or the cold-cellar, served up as quartered spears alongside open-faced sandwiches on buttered rye, topped with ham or salami, a dab of mustard, tomato slice and some diced green onion on top “for decoration”. Whenever I smell dill, I’m back at their table.
The difference between the pickles found on store shelves and deli-style Polish dill pickles (also known as Kosher dills) are that regular store pickles get their flavour from a vinegar spice-and-brine solution with which they are canned.
Polish dills are fermented in jars (or barrels if you’re into volume) in a brine solution, but no vinegar and they are never sealed. Once they have reached the right consistency, they go straight in the fridge. They are never sweet, but tangy and garlicky, adding an eye-squinting sizzle to your sandwich or snack. They are alive.
Fermentation is an age-old process to preserve food while also enhancing its nutrition to feed your gut microbiome—the 100 trillion or so bacteria and microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. A healthy microbiome means a stronger immune system with far-reaching health benefits.
Steps to make a 1 quart / 1 litre mason jar of pickles (note – you may easily double, just by doubling ingredients, which I did for photos here. I made 2 L)
Sterilize – you don’t want the bad bacteria joining your good bacteria.
- Put jars in dishwasher sterilizing cycle
- OR wash with regular dish soap and water and place in oven at 110°C (230°F) for 15 minutes. Remove and cool.
- Boil the lids in a pot of water for minimum 5 minutes and allow to air dry on a rack or clean towel
Ingredients to make 1 Quart / 1 Litre
- 1 pound/500 grams of unwaxed pickling cucumbers
- 1 1/2 tbsp non-iodized sea salt, Kosher salt or Himalayan pink salt
- 2 cups non-chlorinated water (preferably filtered or spring)
- 1-2 heads fresh-flowering dill (the big flower-head on the dill plant)
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- 1 or 2 horseradish or fresh grape leaves (optional – for extra crunchiness)
- Thoroughly wash the cucumbers. If they are not fresh off the vine, soak them in cold water for 30 – 60 minutes
- Dissolve salt into non-chlorinated water. If you are using tap water, boil the salt with water, mix well and allow to cool
- Into your sterile jar, place a big fresh dill flower on the bottom, plus one horseradish or grape leaf if using
- Pack your pickles tightly into jar, lining them up against the sides and filling gaps as you go, until you reach the top
- Stuff extra dill florets in any spaces, and add 1 clove sliced garlic pieces and 2 whole cloves among the pickles
- Pour the brine in to cover all cucumbers, spices, garlic and make sure everything is submerged.
- You may wish to use a weight like this to hold everything down
- Leave the pickles until the colour turns from bright green to army green
- It is important to “burp” the jars every day for the first few days since carbon dioxide forms as the ferment begins. Little bubbles will rise to the top. That’s a good thing! Just loosen the lid to let the gas escape.
- The speed at which sourness develops depends on temperature – much faster if it’s hot and humid; a bit longer in cooler temps – so the time frame may range from 4 days to 2 weeks.
- Taste one every so often until they’re how you like them
- If white scum appears on the surface, don’t panic. Just skim it off. That’s not a problem at all. If it is black or smells bad, compost your pickles and start over.
- Pickles should be crispy, sour and infused with garlic and dill flavour. If they ferment too long, they may get a bit soft
- If you feel you’re at the right texture, place in fridge to stop ferment and enjoy for up to 6 months. Seriously. They can last that long. But they never do.
Ready to Eat!
The guru of the modern fermentation movement is Sandor Katz. His book The Art of Fermentation – An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World is referred to as the Bible on this topic.
He does have a lighter volume, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Cultured Food, that is a bit more accessible with short descriptions and more conventional recipes. Highly recommend.
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