As we move through June, the first local pickling cucumbers are quickly sizing up on the vines. With fresh cukes in the garden and at the farmers markets, it’s time to begin pickling and enjoying that unique crunch and explosion of flavor that only a homemade pickle can bring.
When it comes to pickling, one important thing to recognize is that regardless of what process you use or what recipe you follow, 75 percent of the quality, flavor and crunch of your pickle comes from the cucumber you start with. As appealing as it might be to try to redeem old, limp cukes with a dip in a briny bath, the truth is that old, limp or overgrown cukes will yield mushy, nasty pickles. American slicing cucumbers or English hothouse varieties are not suitable for a good sour dill either. For good pickles, you need fresh, Kirby-style, or Israeli-style, cucumbers, picked while still small and hard and refrigerated promptly.
Next, dill. While using dried dill is an option, and fresh dill leaves are fine, the best sour dills are made using the flowering heads of the dill plant. These are easy to grow, but if you haven’t grown any, try asking your farmer or gardener friends for some, as you won’t find them in a supermarket.
Then the biggest decision pickling decision: lacto-fermentation or vinegar brine? These two time-honored methods yield very different kinds of pickles and have different benefits.
Vinegar pickling, a more modern (by which I mean, the Romans made great vinegar pickles) method, uses the acetic acid found in vinegar to preserve vegetables. This method lends itself to an industrial food production system as it can create a shelf stable product and every part of the process can be meticulously controlled. It has no health benefits, but it does create unique and delicious flavors to accompany just about any meal. Most of the pickles you find in the supermarket (and all of the un-refrigerated ones) are vinegar pickles.
The basic process of vinegar pickles is to pack fresh cucumbers into sterilized jars along with any flavorings you want to use, usually garlic and dill. Then you bring a vinegar brine to a boil over the stove, which sterilizes the acidic solution. After pouring the boiling brine over the cucumbers, you seal the jars. To create a shelf-stable product, then follow instructions for water-bath canning.
Lacto-fermentation, on the other hand, is the artisanal method of harnessing live cultures of microorganisms to create lactic acid, a natural preservative. Lacto-fermentation has been practiced by humans all over the world since the dawn of time. Fermented foods are known to have numerous health benefits, including fortifying the immune system and helping your digestive system get the most nutrients out of the food you eat.
Lacto-fermentation involves mixing a brine of salt and water at room temperature, adding seasonings and fresh cucumbers and allowing it all to ferment together at room temperature. When fermenting, we use temperature to control our microscopic friends and refrigerate to stop the fermentation process. Fermented pickles can be kept refrigerated for up to a year.
I find both methods to be valuable for different kinds of pickles, but it is important to understand the different processes so as to make strategic decisions. Whichever method you decide to try, now is the time to source some fresh pickling cucumbers and make mouthwatering pickles!
Top photo courtesy of flickr user Maya83.