It was a mere 55 degrees out when the sun awoke me at 5 a.m. last Monday. I didn’t want to get out of bed and grimaced while donning my slippers and coat over my PJs. But my reluctance disappeared when I sat down at my desk; I was suddenly awash in gratitude for quiet time to write in the pre-caffeinated dawn, as my husband and 3-year-old Theo still slept downstairs.
A few paragraphs polished, I went to the kitchen to press summer’s cold-brew coffee. I smiled at the big batch of pickles I’d started soaking the day before. It might be chilly getting-out-of-bed temperature (at least for summer), but it was perfect pickle-making room temperature.
Brining a bucket of wild-fermented, kosher-style dill pickles is the ideal, relatively effortless, family summer food-preservation project. Especially here in Maine, when unseasonably cool late July weather cooperates and provides just the right temperature range for the beneficial bacteria to multiply in a saltwater bath. That, in turn, converts the vegetable’s sugars into lactic acid, which imbues homegrown cucumbers with a preservative-free, addictive tang. At that point, you have pickles to enjoy for months to come.
That Monday, it warmed only into the mid-70s, so I could put off lugging (and splashing) the heavy bucket down the steep stairs to the musty but cooler basement. And after just a day of fermentation, the familiar salty-spiced, vegetal smell transported me. It’s particularly evocative for those of Jewish and Eastern European backgrounds, unleashing memories of deli snacks from big oak barrels.
Yet stoking the fermentation fires of late have been D.I.Y. Portlandia (“We Can Pickle That!”) hipsters and homesteaders, from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. They’ve invoked the traditions of their great-grandparents, as they rally around pickle prophet Sandor Katz, the gregarious keynote speaker at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair last September.
I’d brined a bucket of cucumbers only once before, to rave reviews in summer 2009. What took me so long to do it again? Since Theo adores pickles, I finally committed to making a batch again this summer, envisioning mother and son working side by side, washing and cutting cukes and stirring the brine. But when overflowing market baskets of lime green, warty, hoophouse-heated cucumbers appeared earlier than I’d anticipated, I hesitated. Surely there was time to procrastinate on this preservation project.
“How long will the pickling cuke season last?” I asked Six River Farm’s Gabrielle Gosselin, who is expecting her first child in November. The cukes are coming on thick now, was all she’d say. Lesson learned: Pickle while the picking is ripe. I got to work, with a little “help” from Theo, who I hope will become a true pickling partner in the years to come.
First, we needed a crock. My countertop stoneware one isn’t big enough. In Oregon, I scored a five-gallon leftover food-grade plastic container from my food co-op. Morning Glory Natural Foods here in Brunswick needs theirs to store compost scraps for farmers, but Big Top Deli a few doors down had one to spare. What serendipity: It was a green Hans Jurgen cold-pack pickle bucket and emitted that telltale aroma when I lifted its lid.
Then, though we prefer long, skinny Asian or English cucumbers for slicing, we needed enough bumpy, firm ones for pickling, cousins of the common Kirbys my kid sisters and I loved to crunch on as kids. I ordered 20 pounds from organic Six River, for a bulk discount of $2 (down from $3) per pound. Somehow, Theo and I managed to bike them home from the farmers market, stuffed into the back pouches of his trailer seat.
For some reason, cucumbers don’t figure much into my gardening repertoire. Next summer, I plan to remedy that, as I am coveting the slicing cukes that my neighbor Jill Pearlman grows as a refreshing snack for her dog, Reggie (who knew?) in her tidy front-yard raised bed. I’m already excited to execute a new garden plan: I’ll build a large circular, segmented raised bed in the now-sunny space where a scraggly pine once stood. I’ll need well-drained, fertile soil, warmed with plastic mulch and protected with row cover to ward off cucumber beetles. I’ll transplant high-yielding varieties, in clustered hills instead of rows, and direct-seed a few more to see if those take. As they ripen one by one, I’ll submerge the cucumbers in brine, so we’ll enjoy half-sours alongside more funky ones.
One day, I’ll be able to make true backyard pickles: Alongside the cukes, I plan to grow the garlic, dill heads, cilantro that seeds into green coriander and cayenne (or some other hot red) peppers also needed to make pickles. The only thing that won’t be my own is the salt – I just bought the standard additive-free boxed pickling salt from Hannaford, but Maine sea salt could work – and the water, plus a little vinegar to control the growth of yeast and mold while jump-starting fermentation. (Some pickle makers add acidic whey or probiotic powder instead.)
The finished brine is a boon. I drink my (preservative-free) tonic straight from the jar. The hypothesis that consuming such fermented foods in moderation contributes to a healthy gut is part of what’s driving the pickles, kimchi and krauts revival. Maybe I will take a cue from Russian balaboostas – homemakers – and rub some on my face, too, as they did, to keep it wrinkle-free. I also enjoy this kvass in dirty martinis, salad dressings and soups.
Whole kosher dills loom especially large in childhood. My friend Rebecca Goldfine fondly remembers her grandfather, Moses “Mo” Goldfine, a successful smoked fish broker in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bringing the pickles with the whitefish and lox when he came to visit her family in Cape Elizabeth. And my mother-in-law, Debbie Farber Stone, growing up a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, loved trips to the deli, where aluminum bowls on every table brimmed with half-sours, perfect for snacking while hungrily awaiting your pastrami sandwich.
I fell for those pickles, too – and my then-new boyfriend, now-husband Dan – eating with his grandma in Queens at Ben’s of Bayside deli. At the time, I didn’t fully understand how cold-fermented pickles “cooked” without added vinegar or heat. My education happened in Oregon, where I tasted exotic ferments at the farmers market and attended, more than once, a stinky, annual Fermentation Festival (www.portlandfermentationfestival.com).
Now, my son insists on only the pure wild-fermented kosher dills, whole, not sliced or speared, thank you. Toddlers, I’ve found, reject things cut up; they insist on whole hot dogs, whole loaves of bread (why we buy him individual Borealis raisin rolls), whole carrots and whole ears of corn. “I wanna hold it,” Theo says, asserting control.
“We made Baxter the Pig who Wanted to be Kosher pickles,” Theo said proudly, invoking a favorite children’s book about a pig who guzzles those red-and-white jars of Ba-Tampte kosher dills, trying in vain to become pure enough for Shabbat dinner. Why does he love them? “Because they’re salty and big,” Theo replied. “And they’re made out of challah.” (In addition to the pickles, Baxter the Pig consumes belly-busting amounts of raisin challah in his efforts.)
This week, I’m taking my cues from Brunswick therapist Leslie Joy Simmons, whose family in Minneapolis bonded over the making of a batch of kosher dills every summer. Someday, I hope Theo will fondly remember the Maine pickles of his youth, as Thomas Jefferson himself recalled those from the state where I grew up:
“On a hot day in Virginia, I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spice pickle, brought up troutlike from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs in Aunt Sally’s cellar.”
KOSHER-STYLE GARLIC DILL PICKLES
This recipe is adapted from the Pacific Northwest Extension’s succinct “Pickling Vegetables” guide. I also consulted Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning and The Householder’s Guide to the Universe by my Oregon acquaintance Harriet Fasenfest, who draws on advice from our trusted pickling guru Linda Ziedrich.”
To keep the cucumbers submerged 1 to 2 inches under the brine, weigh them down with a pie dish or dinner plate. Ferment the pickles in a 5-gallon stoneware crock, a food-grade plastic bucket or glass quart jars.
To store, you can boiling-water process the pickles, but that kills their crispness and probiotic good bacteria. Theo and I prefer their fresh-from-the-fridge funky flavor.
Use the following amounts for each gallon of your container’s capacity:
2 to 3 handfuls grape leaves or horseradish leaves
4 pounds (4-to-5-inch) pickling cucumbers
4 to 5 heads fresh or dry dill weed (or 2 tablespoons dill seed)
2 heads green coriander (cilantro gone to seed) or
1 tablespoon dried coriander seeds
2 dried or fresh red peppers
1 small horseradish root, cleaned and sliced
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic
½ cup pickling salt
¼ cup vinegar (5%)
8 cups water, preferably filtered of chlorine, which inhibits fermentation
Line the bottom of the clean crock with half the grape or horseradish leaves. Wash the cucumbers. Cut a thin slice off the blossom end. Leave ¼-inch of stem at the other end, which prevents shriveling and makes a cute handle. Layer the cucumbers, herbs, spices and garlic in the container.
Dissolve the salt in the vinegar and water, pour the brine over the cucumbers and lay the remaining leaves on top. Weigh down the cukes and cover with a pillowcase or towel, to maintain ventilation but prevent contamination from insects and mold.
Store where the temperature is 70 to 75 degrees for about three to four weeks, or 55 to 65 degrees for five to six weeks. Above 80 degrees, and the pickles will become too soft.
Check the container several times a week and promptly remove surface scum or mold. If the pickles become soft or slimy or develop a disagreeable odor, discard them.
You can store fully fermented pickles in the refrigerator, submerged in brine, for up to 6 months, if you regularly remove any surface scum or molds.