Homemade pickles are so much better than store-bought ones, they are are really worth the effort. Mixed pickling spices add a subtle flavor that will surprise you. I love the taste of naturally fermented pickles, and they are easier to make than you might think – the process takes about three weeks.
This week, I purchased a huge sack of pickling cucumbers from Macias Farms, enough to fill up my five-gallon crock. And Bobby Bustamante of Crackpot Herbs gave me a great tour of his verdant backyard farm when I went to pick up some dill heads from him! He also was kind enough to let me take a few grape leaves from his vines, which can help to keep the pickles crisp.
You don’t need to have an old-fashioned crock, although you can still buy them (check out http://www.leeners.com/condiments-pickling.html). You can use a food-grade plastic bucket such as those sold at brewing supply places, a big glass jar, or even just a big glass salad bowl. The idea is to use a clean, non-metallic container, with something to push down the cucumbers so they stay submerged in the brine. Here is a basic recipe, adapted from The Joy of Pickling, by Linda Ziedrich. You can scale it up or down based on the size of your container or the amount of cucumbers you have.
12 pounds very fresh, unwaxed pickling cucumbers
2 handfuls grape leaves (optional)
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled
6-8 fresh dill heads
2 T. mixed pickling spice (available at grocery stores)
6 quarts water
1 C. vinegar
1¼ C. pickling salt (non-iodized, with no additives)
Wash the cucumbers thoroughly and cut off the blossom ends (these contain enzymes that can make the pickles go soft). Sterilize the container by rinsing it with boiling water. If you are using the grape leaves, lay half of them in the bottom of the container; you’ll use the rest to cover the top. Layer the cucumbers in the container with the garlic, dill and spices.
Combine the water, vinegar and salt, stirring until all the salt is dissolved, and pour this brine over the cucumbers. If your container has straight sides, set a plate on top of everything and weight it down with a zip-top bag filled with water or extra brine, to keep the pickles submerged. If your container has a neck, just use the water-filled bag to hold the pickles down. Make sure all the cucumbers are covered by at least an inch of brine – one protruding cucumber can spoil the whole batch.
Cover the container with a clean dishtowel and set it in a cool corner of your kitchen. After a few days, it should start to have a clean, pickly smell, and you should notice tiny bubbles rising. If any scum forms on the top of the water, scoop it off each day with a clean spoon, then rinse and replace the bag. As long as your cucumbers were fresh, your container was clean, and you skim it daily, no off-smells or flavors should develop. This method of fermentation is tried and true!
After two to three weeks, the bubbles should stop and the pickles should be sour. Pour the pickles and brine into a colander set on top of a large pot. Discard the leaves and spices. Rinse the pickles and pack them into glass jars. Bring the brine to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, skimming off any foam, then let it cool to room temperature. If it looks a bit cloudy, don’t worry – it’s just the minerals from our hard water. Cover the pickles with brine, cap the jars, and refrigerate – they’ll keep for up to six months.