Food for Soul

Homemade Pickles Require Just Three Ingredients

The author's homemade pickles in their natural habitat.
The author’s homemade pickles in their natural habitat.Credit…Matt Roth for The New York Times

By Cathy Barrow

  • July 9, 2013

Brooklyn purveyors and faux homesteaders from Oregon are not the only sources of artisan pickles. In less than a week and with nothing more than water and salt, you can cure a deli-worthy pickle — no vintage crock or hand-dyed apron required.

The prep takes less time than brewing a pour-over. The magic of lacto-fermentation (a fancy term for a crisp and tangy sleight of hand) does everything else.

Sandor Katz, the darling of the fermentation set and the author of “The Art of Fermentation,” says lacto-fermentation is “the transformative action of micro-organisms.” Yogurt and kimchi are results of this mélange of “good” bacteria and the passage of time. And so are half- and full-sour pickles, my briny passion.

Because there are only three ingredients, each should be exquisite. The water must be pure and clean and without chlorine. If your tap water is chlorinated, leave a quart on the counter overnight, uncovered, and the chlorine will dissipate. If you have any question about your water, buy bottled.

Choose kosher, fine sea or pickling salt. These salts dissolve quickly, ensuring even distribution. Do not use iodized; it plays havoc with the science. And because you are likely to use less brine than you make, do not place the salt directly into the jars, but dissolve it first.

Water, salt and cucumbers are all it takes.
Water, salt and cucumbers are all it takes.Credit…Matt Roth for The New York Times

For the cucumbers, use Kirbys or another dense cucumber with a bumpy, thinner skin and fewer seeds. They should feel substantial and plump, with no puckers or wrinkles. Avoid the long, slim salad cucumbers and any waxed cucumbers with thick green skin.

If the blossoms are still in place, wilted but attached, you have found nirvana: a freshly picked cucumber. Some say the best sours are begun the day the cucumber is harvested.

While the pickles are practically perfect plain, dill and garlic can be welcome additions. Traditionalists favor garlic, especially spring garlic, fresh, strong and pure. Scapes may be used, and eaten from the jar afterward, but their flavor is assertive. Do not be alarmed if your garlic cloves turn an otherworldly shade of turquoise; that means they’re old, but it will not harm the pickle (or you), and the result still tastes good.

Some prefer dill’s cool overtone, while others seek a balance of garlic and dill, and still others eschew dill altogether. The flowery seed heads of fresh dill are pretty in the jar, their fronds reaching between the cucumbers, but dill seed is a fine substitute.

Once in the brine, the transformation begins. Look for rising bubbles, even a little froth. When the visible activity slows and the brine becomes cloudy, after about three days, taste the pickle. Not sour enough? Leave the jar on the counter for another day and taste again, up to two more days. After five days, refrigerate the pickles or they will become less crisp.

My favorite brine takes the smallest cucumbers and includes young garlic, dill flowers, coriander seed and a whisper of jalapeño.

A bespoke pickle? Yes, indeed. No irony.A version of this article appears in print on July 10, 2013, Section D, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Get Your Hand Into the Pickle Jar. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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