When I was young, my sister and I used to spend the summer months at our grandparent’s house. It was great for us, because it brought me, my sister, and my two cousins that were about the same age together. We’d spend our summers climbing trees, running through the sprinkler in the back yard, and stealing vegetables from my grandmother’s garden. As I mentioned last week, the peas rarely made it out of the garden. The green beans were also picked off. The cucumbers, however, we left alone. Not because they weren’t delicious, but because my grandmother would use them to make dill pickles. To this day, I’m convinced that those pickles taught me the concept of tradeoffs; a delicious cucumber now or amazing pickles in a couple of weeks. The pickles usually won.
I started making my own dill pickles a few years ago. I’d buy a bushel of cucumbers at the farmer’s market and make a dozen or so jars of pickles. Normally, I would do fermented pickles. Fermented pickles take longer to process, usually eight to eleven weeks, but they flavors that the pickles develop are worth the wait. They’re more labor intensive, because you need to seal the mason jars with the wax-seal lids in a boiling water bath, so they’re generally more appropriate for larger batches …it’s not worth going through all that work for one jar.
Recently, I also started experimenting with quick pickles. Quick pickles are, as the name implies, quick! Since you can make them in a few hours, they’re great in a pinch, but they don’t have time to develop the deeper flavors that you would get from a longer brining and fermenting. But because you don’t need to worry about the time and labor intensive sealing process, quick pickles are also great when you only want to make a jar or two. It’s also great when, as I did this summer, you want to do some experimentation with different spices and vinegar and don’t want to wait months to figure out if you’ve made a masterpiece or a monstrosity.
Pickling involves four components: vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices. The vinegar acts as a preserving agent and speeds the fermentation process. Salt draws the moisture out of the cucumbers. Sugar adds sweetness to balance out the sour of the vinegar. The spices are used to flavor the pickles. Technically, you can make pickles using only a salt brine and skip the vinegar altogether. That’s the way pickles were originally made, after all, but it involves a bit more trial an error to get the right amount of fermentation.
This recipe is somewhere between quick pickles and the no-vinegar fermentation. The cucumbers are first soaked in a salt-water brine overnight to draw out moisture, then jarred for a week or two to develop the flavor. While I did seal the jars so that they’ll keep longer, you could also skip that step and leave these in the refrigerator for a week instead.
To draw as much moisture out of the cucumber, this recipe calls for salt-brining them overnight. Drawing the moisture out lets more vinegar back in and helps produce firmer pickles.
Trim the ends off the cucumbers, about 1/8 inch. The blossom end of the cucumber has an enzyme that will soften the pickles. I trim both ends to open up the cucumber a little and help the brine get in. You can also poke the cucumbers with a fork to help the vinegar absorption.
Use plates or something heavy to keep the cucumbers submersed during the salt-water brining process.
Jarring The Pickles
If you are going to seal the jars, remember to first sterilize them to get rid of any bacteria that would spoil the pickles. I’ve had success just running the jars through the dishwasher, but you can also boil them as recommended by the manufacturer’s directions.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavors and spices in your pickles. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so garlic and dill are my go-to ingredients when making pickles. I added a little peppercorn for some spice, but if you like a little more heat, try using crushed red pepper.
Once everything is ready, simple put the ingredients in the jars, cover with brine, seal, wait, and enjoy!
Easy Garlic-Dill Pickles
6 pounds pickling cucumbers*
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons kosher salt
8 cups white vinegar
8 cups water
4 1-quart mason jars with lids, sterilized
1/2 cup peppercorns
16 cloves garlic
1 bunch dill
Scrub the cucumbers under cold, running water to remove any dirt. Trim 1/8″ of each end of the cucumbers.
In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers with 1 cup of the kosher salt, then cover with enough water to submerge the cucumbers. Place heavy plate of stack of plates on top of the cucumbers to keep them submerged, and put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
Make The Pickles
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the water, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of kosher salt.
While the brine is heating, add 1/2 tablespoon peppercorns, 2 cloves of garlic, and a few sprigs of dill to each mason jar. Next, add enough cucumbers to fill the jar without overcrowding.
Once the brine solution reaches a boil, turn off the heat and wait one minute. Using a funnel, pour the brine in to each jar up to about 1/2 inch from the top. Use a fork to move around the cucumbers and tap the jar on the counter to release any hidden air bubbles. Add more brine until its again within 1/2 inch from the top. Wipe the rim of the jar with a wet paper towel to clean the area, add the lid.
Seal the jars according to the instructions on the package. Remember, you’ll need to adjust the time for altitude, as well. After the jars cool, check to make sure all the jars were properly sealed, and refrigerate any that did not seal.
*If you don’t want or can’t find 6 pounds of quality pickling cucumbers, you can use a smaller amount. You’ll just make fewer jars.
Cucumbers won’t magically firm up when the turn in to pickles, so if you use soft cucumbers, you’ll get soft pickles. Be sure to use fresh, crisp cucumbers for the best results.
You don’t technically need to jar and seal these pickles, they’ll just last longer if you do. If you choose not to seal them, store them in the fridge and use them within a week or two.
The key to keeping your brine solution clear is to use a salt without any additives, such as anti-caking agents. Kosher salt should work just fine, and it should already be in your kitchen. There is no reason to buy pickling or canning salt.
If you want to make more or less pickles, the basic math is about 4 cups of liquid (1/2 water, 1/2 vinegar) per 1 quart mason jar. You won’t need all 4 cups of liquid since there will be other ingredients in the jar, but it’s easier to calculate that way, and it helps to have a little extra in case of spilling. So if you wanted to make two 1-quart jars, you would need 4 cups of water and 4 cups of vinegar. If you wanted to make eight 1-quart jars, you would want 16 cups of water and 16 cups of vinegar. 32 cups of liquid divided by 4 cups in a quart is 8 1-quart jars of pickles!