In season: Got cukes? Then you’re in a pickle
As any backyard gardener knows, those who choose to grow cucumbers are swamped with them at this time of year. The bins at the farmers’ markets and at the supermarkets overflow with them, too.
But there’s only so much Greek salad and Polish cucumber salad you can eat. Whatever to do with all these cucumbers?
Well, you can make your own pickles. It’s fun and easy to do. If possible, buy your cukes at the farmers’ market or grow them yourself. Supermarket cucumbers are often coated with wax to reduce transpiration and keep them fresh, which interferes with the pickling.
Some varieties of cucumbers are bred for pickling. A real farmer at the farmers’ market will know which variety he or she planted, so don’t be afraid to ask. The most common pickling cuke is probably Boston Pickling, but you may run into other excellent picklers like Solly Beiler (choose cukes the size of your thumb, no larger), Parisian Pickling to make gherkins or cornichons, Chicago Pickling, Delikatesse, Monika, and Muncher, all available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) or visit their store at 199 Petaluma Boulevard North in Petaluma (closed Saturdays).
One of the very best pickling cukes is the Persian Cucumber, now at Oliver’s. These small, warty fruits produce high-quality pickles. If you want to grow them yourself, Amazon sells a packet of 30 seeds of Persian cukes called Beit Alpha that were bred in Lebanon.
The long, ribbed, thin-skinned hothouse cukes that are often found wrapped in plastic in supermarkets do not make good pickles. And neither do very large, thick-skinned slicing cucumbers, which have bitter, semi-mature seeds when grown to marketable size.
To pickle cucumbers, you’ll need a pickling vessel, always glass or ceramic and never metal. I have several glazed stone crocks, and it’s my three-gallon crock that I use most often. A large, wide-mouth jar works just as well. You won’t need a lid.
In the herb racks at the markets, you’ll find pickling spices, and they go a long way toward making a tasty pickle. You could make your own blend but the commercial blend is probably cheaper in the long run.
When you get your cukes into the kitchen, always wash them, no matter where they’re from, to wash off dust and soil, both of which contain unwanted microorganisms. Bacteria called Lactobacillus acidophilus that occur naturally in the environment actually do the pickling, so you want to give them every advantage. These bacteria are probiotic, too, and are beneficial when they inhabit our gut.
After washing, trim a quarter inch off both the blossom end and stem end of each cucumber. This is extremely important, as these ends - especially the blossom end - contain enzymes that will result in mushy pickles, when what you want are crunchy, firm pickles.
The genus name of the bacteria, Lactobacillus, means a rod-shaped bacteria that transforms the sugars in the cucumbers into lactic acid. This acidifies the pickling solution, which makes it hospitable for the bacteria, whose species name, acidophilus, means acid-loving. The addition of vinegar to the pickling solution also increases the acidity.
It’s a feature of nature that spoilage organisms don’t like acid conditions, and this fact allows us to make healthful pickles. As long as the cucumbers are held below the surface of the pickling solution, you have no worries about spoilage. If, by chance, any portion of any of your cucumbers protrudes into the air, it will soon turn foul and spoil from fungus molds and yeasts. Keep your cukes submerged by covering them with a heavy plate on which you set a gallon freezer bag filled with water.
You also add salt to this pickling solution, making it into a brine. The salt - sodium chloride - dissociates into sodium cations and chlorine anions, and the chlorine helps destroy spoilage organisms, too. In addition, the brine’s impulse to equalize osmotic pressure means that the cukes will lose some water and stay crunchy.
So, armed with this information, and an armload of cucumbers, you’re ready to make pickles.
This recipe makes three or four quart jars of pickles, depending on the size of the cucumbers. You’ll store them for up to 60 days in the fridge. Longer storage requires you to can them using a standard boiling water bath. This kills the probiotic bacteria, but canned pickles keep for a year or two on a cool, dark shelf.
Makes 3-4 quarts
10 pounds unwaxed pickling cucumbers, washed and trimmed
1/4 cup pickling spices
2 bunches fresh dill weed
1 cup white vinegar
1 gallon spring or filtered water
1/2 cup coarse pickling salt or sea salt, not iodized
10 cloves garlic, peeled
Wash and trim the ends of the cucumbers.
Put half the pickling spices and one bunch of dill weed in the bottom of your fermenting vessel and add all the cucumbers.
Add the vinegar and water to a large bowl and stir. Add the pickling salt and stir until dissolved, then add this mixture to the fermenting vessel. Add the garlic, the rest of the pickling spices, and the second bunch of dill.
Add a glass or ceramic plate to weigh down and submerge the cucumbers and set a gallon freezer bag full of water, tightly closed, on top of the plate to insure the cukes are held under the brine.
Set the vessel in a place where the temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees, as cooler or hotter temperatures encourage spoilage. Cover the top with a clean dish towel held down with a book. Examine the brine’s surface every day and skim off any white yeast or mold that might be growing on it. This is crucial and must be done daily. Top off brine with salty water if necessary. Check pickles at three weeks. If they taste good, are dull pickle green, and crunchy, pack them into quart jars, add pickling brine to cover, lightly screw down lid and bands, and store in the fridge for up to two months.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.