Let us take a moment to consider the pickle. In order to fully understand and perceive its wonder, I think we should first consider, if only for a sentence or two, its two most popular forms: the cucumber pickle and sauerkraut. The most common adjective for the cucumber would probably be “boring”—the cabbage, “stinky.” But add some salt, water, a few spices if you feel like it, and some vinegar if you’re canning them, and wait—both the hardest and most important part of pickling—and eventually you have nature’s most delectable act of controlled rot.
We are a pickle-eating family. I grew up on Vlasic, Claussen, and most importantly my grandma’s and aunts’ home-canned varieties. I didn’t eat cucumbers as a child—the bland flavor didn’t compensate for the gigantic seeds in the ones my family grew. I pushed the seeds off the pickle spears with my thumb before eating them, enjoying the meaty, briny “boats,” as I seem to remember calling them. For my high school graduation, my best friend’s mom got me a gallon-size jug of hamburger-sliced dills, which I finished before leaving for college. My daughters both got on the bandwagon before they turned two (see below for one of Checkers’ first words), and my wife, the least empathic pickle-eater among us, eats what’s left when we’re done.
For the rest of this post, I’d like to consider with you pickle as a verb. New York City has a long and rich history with pickling, from the Lower East Side Jewish communities that brought their fermented varieties with them from eastern Europe to the current vogue for brined pickleries (if that’s a word) including McClure’s, Brooklyn Brine, and a borough full of others.
Which brings me to the two major methods of pickling, both of which are surprisingly easy to do at home. Those old-world kosher pickles are the fermented variety—they require no canning, though they must be refrigerated once they’ve sufficiently fermented. The ones you get from (or make in) vacuumed packed jars are the non-fermented, vinegar-based variety—they require no refrigeration and can keep almost indefinitely as long as you don’t break the seal, but they do tend to have a strong, well, vinegar taste, and some die-hard picklers might even tell you they are real pickles.
Let’s start with the vinegar-based variety. This is actually the more time-intensive, less labor–efficient method, but it is the method I grew up knowing. The key to this process is that the brine’s work, unlike the fermented varieties, is primarily to preserve rather than flavor the pickle. If you’re shoring up for the apocalypse, this is the pickle for you. Once you’ve done the work of brining and canning them—which is the labor-intensive part—you can throw them on your shelf and they’ll last as long as the seal holds.
Here’s a basic recipe for dill vinegar-based pickles I’ve adapted from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, one of the best places to start for aspiring-to- intermediate home canners:
This makes about 6 pint jars.
- 3 Tbsp pickling, kosher, or canning salt (The key is that the salt be non-iodized)
- 3 cups white vinegar
- 3 cups water
- 4 ½ lbs cucumbers (or any other vegetable, really – the original recipe was for dilled green beans, and I particularly love thinly sliced jicama)
- 3 small red bell peppers, seeded and sliced into thin strips
- 18 whole black peppercorns
- 6 sprigs fresh dill (or more, if you’re dill-crazy like me)
- 6 cloves garlic
First prepare the canners, jars, and lids. For the sake of brevity I won’t go into this process here, but if you’ve never canned before you can find plenty of sets of instructions on this. Here’s one.
In a very large saucepan, combine the salt, vinegar, and water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the salt. Add the cukes and peppers. Return to a boil, then remove from heat.
Place 3 peppercorns, 1 sprig (or more!) of dill, and 1 clove of garlic in each hot jar. Pack the cukes and peppers into the hot jars to about a half-inch from the top. Ladle or funnel the brine into the jars to a half-inch. Remove air bubbles with a rubber spatula, and add more liquid if necessary. Wipe the rim, center the lid on the jar, and screw the ring around the lid.
Submerge the jars completely in boiling water, cover, and boil for 10 minutes. Wait 5 minutes, then remove the jars. Check the seal—if any didn’t seal properly, put them in the fridge for a couple of weeks, then eat them within a year. Otherwise, put them on the shelf, wait as long as you like, and enjoy them at your leisure!
If that sounds like a lot of work, well, compared to fermented pickles, it is. I didn’t know this until earlier this year when, at my wife’s behest, I attended a fermentation workshop at Congregation Beth Elohim. This workshop was run by Jeffrey Yoskowitz, founder/owner of the Gefilteria and fermenter of probably every known food. During introductions in the packed kitchen, he asked two questions. The first was which of us was of Jewish Eastern European descent; I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand. The second was which of us had prior pickling experience; I was the only one who raised my hand.
If the work of a vinegar-based brine is primarily to preserve the pickle, the fermenting work of a salt-based brine is the opposite; in fact, Yoskowitz was the first but not the last person I’ve heard describe fermentation as controlled rot. (It’s actually a beautiful thing. Own it.) Besides bringing the sour, this process creates those wonderful probiotics that aid in digestion, which is one reason why pickles and pastrami have been served together for so long (they’ve been in use much longer, actually, than the word “probiotic”).
Contrary to my own preconceptions, fermentation is also well-suited to small batches; I’ve in fact done all of mine a mason jar or two at a time. Sauerkraut is the most common fermented pickle of beginners, and it’s what we made at the CBE workshop. For good reason: it is so easy a child could do it. (Yes, that was a suggestion. Put those tykes to work.)
This makes three pint jars.
INGREDIENTS (yep, that’s it!):
- 1 medium head cabbage
- 1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
First, finely chop the cabbage. Then, put it in a big bowl with the salt. And finally, grease up your elbows and spend about 10 minutes “sweating” the cabbage—squeezing and massaging it as hard as you can in your hands until the cabbage “sweats” what will end up the brine water. This is a kind of magical process, especially for kids. The first time you do it you’ll be astounded at the amount of water coursing through the veins of that little cabbage head.
Once the bowl has a good bit of liquid at the bottom, you have unfermented sauerkraut. Give it a taste: yep, salty cabbage. Put it in the jars, add enough brine to cover it, and put something inside the lip of the jar (a smaller jar, a cup of water, a water bottle) to press down the cabbage below the surface of the brine. If you don’t do this, you might find a bit of mold at the top of the jar as the kraut ferments. Cover it with a cloth to keep any stray bugs away, and let it sit in an out-of-the-way place on the counter.
After three days, try a bit of it. You should start to taste it “souring” as the fermentation process works its magic. Eat it at your leisure, letting it ferment more to make it sourer. Once it tastes right to you and your family, put it in the fridge; the cold will arrest the fermentation process. As long as you keep it refrigerated, you can eat it at your leisure for probably a year or so.
As with the non-fermented pickles you should experiment with other ingredients, though you’ll have to add water for the brine if you don’t use cabbage. Beware, though: I added garlic to my first batch, and while it was delicious it stank up the kitchen for days.