How to prepare a peck of perfect pickles

Pickles complement sandwiches the way basil enhances fresh-picked garden tomatoes. But often, commercial pickles are too sour or salty, with extra vinegar and salt added to extend their shelf life. There are a few exceptions – some commercial brands found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store do taste fresher.

The art of home pickling was lost from most of our lives when our grandmothers decided it was too cumbersome. Today, few cooks bother with traditional pickling because it's time-consuming, and the pickling process can take about two months.

There is an easier way, though: letting friendly bacteria in the air naturally ferment and pickle a cucumber, a process similar to sourdough bread fermentation. Naturally fermented pickles are also called "genuine dill pickles."

From now until fall, most supermarkets or farmer's stands carry small pickling cucumbers.

The process is admirably simple, does not involve canning, and is always successful in my kitchen (see recipe, page 16). Once I assemble the ingredients, the jar is ready in 15 minutes. Natural bacteria found in the air produces lactic acid that gradually ferments the cucumbers.

When stored at room temperature, the pickles are ready in four or five days. They're not too tart, not too salty – but crisp, delicious, and natural. Their shelf life is only about two to three weeks, but they are so good, they rarely last that long.

Natural pickle fermentation starts with warm brine. The amount of salt must be exact – too little salt, and unfriendly creatures invade the liquid and interfere with the fermentation process. Too much salt, and the friendly bacteria cannot perform their function of creating lactic acid for the pickles. Measure salt accurately, and make sure you only use pickling salt, which is free of chemicals. The added chemicals in table salt interfere with fermentation.

Because the pickling jar is open to the air, mold and yeast sometimes form, but they only grow on the surface (salt in the liquid is their enemy), and they are not harmful. You must simply scrape the scum off the surface regularly to prevent off- flavors in the pickles. One more thing: Use only firm, unblemished pickling cucumbers.

Following are recipes for dill pickles, pickled peppers, and pickling spice.

One-day pickled peppers

Pickled peppers are particularly good in midsummer, when good-tasting fresh bell peppers are selling for a song at farmers' markets. Out-of-season peppers make good pickles, too, when they are firm. These pickled peppers take about 25 minutes to make – time well spent when you are ready to enjoy them.

3 cups water
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons table salt
1-1/2 teaspoons pickling spice (see recipe)
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds bell peppers (may be red or green), cut into thin strips
1 large clove garlic, peeled
1 to 3 fresh hot chilies, slit on one side

Bring water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pickling spice to a boil in a medium, nonreactive (not aluminum or cast-iron) saucepan. Add pepper strips and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat, add garlic and chilies, and let the covered pot rest for 10 minutes. Spoon everything into a clean 1-quart jar, close with a lid, and let the mixture marinate on your counter for a day. The peppers will fully pickle. Refrigerate.

Peppers will keep for a few weeks. Makes one quart.

Pickling spice mix

6 three-inch cinnamon sticks, crushed
3 tablespoons whole white mustard seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon dill seeds
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon whole allspice seeds
1 tablespoon ground mace
3/4 teaspoon ginger powder
1 bay leaf, crushed
3 tablespoons red pepper flakes

Mix ingredients in a small bowl and store in a jar. Makes three-quarters of a cup. Keeps for two to three years.

Salt-cured half-sour summer pickles

Before you undertake this pickling process, be sure you have a place to ferment the cucumbers as close to the ideal temperature of 68 degrees F. as possible. Pickling will still be good if 5 degrees cooler or warmer. (Below 50 degrees, fermentation is slow; above 80 degrees, cucumbers ferment too fast and will turn mushy.)

2 pounds (about 2 quarts) fresh, firm, unblemished pickling cucumbers
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 sprigs fresh dill (or 3 fresh heads of dill weed)
2 to 4 hot chilies, fresh or dried, slit on one side
4 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 tablespoon dill seeds
1 tablespoon pickling spice (see recipe)

Wash cucumbers, and slice each one almost all the way through lengthwise. If cucumbers are large, slice one more time.

Place garlic, dill, and chilies in a 2-quart glass jar or crockpot. Slip cucumbers into the jar so they stand up, side by side.

In a saucepan, heat water until lukewarm, add pickling salt, and stir until dissolved. Add dill seeds and pickling spice and pour over cucumbers until they are totally submerged.

Cover with a cheesecloth and let ferment at room temperature, about 68 degrees F.

Check pickles daily, and scrape off any scum that may form on top of the liquid. After three days, start testing pickles. The cucumbers will turn translucent and half-sour with a pleasing fermenting scent. As soon as they are sour enough for your taste, but still crisp, cover the jar and refrigerate. They keep in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.

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