The ladies in my family have been making homemade pickles for many generations. It's always a fun project to look forward to each summer when cucumbers appear on the local vines. I have fond memories of heading out early in the morning with my mom to pick 5-gallon buckets full at the local u-pick farm. It was back-breaking work, but when we returned home to complete the project, the fragrance of fresh dill and garlic in the kitchen, and the thought of the upcoming spicy, fizzy pickles made it all worthwhile.
Homemade pickles are surprisingly easy and much healthier than commercially made pickles. Instead of processing the cucumbers with vinegar and heat, this process is accomplished by lacto fermentation; the good bacteria found naturally on the cucumbers do all the work in preserving the vegetable.
Only a few key ingredients are needed:
- Pickling cucumbers. The smaller ones work the best, both for packing into jars, and for remaining crisp. If you can find organic pickling cucumbers, use those. Pesticides kill the microorganisms that are needed to make your pickles. However, I've had good luck using cucumbers from u-pick farms, as well as from a fruit and vegetable stand, neither of which were specified "organic."
- Sea salt. Salt prevents the bad bacteria from growing, so that the good bacteria can take over and do their job. It's important to use an un-iodized salt, as iodine can inhibit the growth of the good bacteria.
- Distilled water. Do not use tap water if at all possible - the chlorine content and other impurities can prevent the good bacteria from doing their job, and your pickles may not turn out.
- Black tea leaves. Tea leaves contain tannins, which work to keep your pickles crisp. Grape leaves and horseradish leaves will also work if you have access to those.
- Garlic cloves
- Black peppercorns
- Red pepper flakes (if you like your pickles spicy)
- Fresh dill
First make a brine by dissolving about 1 Tablespoon of sea salt per 1 quart of water. Depending on how many jars of pickles you are making, you can decide how much brine you will need. If you need to heat the mixture to get the salt to dissolve, allow the brine to cool some before using; you don't want to cook your cucumbers or kill the good bacteria with heat.
Rinse your cucumbers and remove any dirt or prickly pieces. I like to use a bowl of distilled water for this to make sure I'm not destroying any of the beneficial bacteria with chlorinated tap water.
Completely remove the blossom from the end of the cucumber in order to keep your pickles crisp. The blossom end contains enzymes which soften the pickle. I prefer to take a sharp knife and cut a thin slice off this end to ensure I get it all.
In clean glass Mason jars, place a few garlic cloves and about a teaspoon each of peppercorns, red pepper flakes (if using), and black tea leaves. I use this quantity for a quart sized jar, so you may want to use more or less depending on your jar size.
Pack the clean cucumbers into the jar. The taller ones work well in the bottom, and the smallest or oddly shaped ones fit best on top. Leave a few inches of space above the cucumbers for the dill. Take a few sprigs of dill and bunch them up on top of the cucumbers; pack it in tightly to help keep the pickles from floating to the top of the brine.
Once all the cucumbers and seasoning elements are added to the jar, you're ready to start adding the salty brine. A canning funnel can make this process a little easier.
Once the brine is added, make sure the rims of the jars are dry. Add clean dry lids to the jars and seal them up! Give them a little shake to evenly distribute the spices within the water, and then watch and wait. They will work faster in a warmer environment, but it can take 2-3 days before they start working.
You will know they are working when they start to develop a cloudiness and fizzy bubbles. This is what you're looking for!
Once you have working jar, if any of your other jars are struggling, take a spoonful of the working brine and add it to the other jars. This will get the process moving along quickly. It's a good idea to save a jar of good brine after you've eaten all the pickles, so you have a good starter for the next batch!
In about a week or so, you can transfer the jars to the refrigerator and enjoy delicious homemade pickles! The longer you leave them at room temperature, the more sour they will become, so you can test them and see how they taste before moving them to the fridge.
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