Looking for an urban homesteading calendar of the basics for home and beyond? Look no further than Harriet Fasenfest’s A Householder’s Guide to the Universe (Tin House Books, 2010). This poetic guide provides the street-smarts needed to shop, garden, run a household and preserve and cook food according to the season. Follow Fasenfest into her home, her garden and her kitchen to discover the concrete tools every homesteader needs for sustainable change, all organized in an easy-to-use calendar. The following excerpt on fermenting pickles is taken from her August chapter in the section, “The Kitchen.”
What distinguishes brined pickles (which these are) from quick pickles is the active ingredient in the recipe. Quick pickles are “pickled” by the acetic acid in vinegar. You do not need to let them ferment, merely allow them to sit in the vinegar for a week or so (preferably longer) before you eat them. They are easy and quick, hence the name. Brined pickles, on the other hand, are pickled, or acidified, by the development of lactic acid during the fermentation process itself.
This recipe follows the guidelines for full fermentation and therefore safe canning. As I mentioned, some people choose not to can and either keep a pickle barrel in the basement or store the pickles in the fridge (though this is a hefty amount for refrigerator storage). I choose to ferment and can my pickles by August, so I can check them off my to-do list.
The leaves in this recipe are supposed to keep the cucumber firm. But even though I use them, I find that long brining takes a little of the crunch out of the pickle, no matter what you do. That’s okay by me. That’s how I remember eating them on Jerome Avenue.
This recipe will fill a 3-gallon crock.
2 handfuls grape, sour cherry, or currant leaves (not necessary, but nice)
About 12 pounds of 3- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers
2 tablespoons mixed pickling spice
1 garlic bulb, cloves separated and peeled
4 to 8 dill heads (you can find them in some farmers markets during pickling time)
6 quarts water
1 cup cider vinegar
1-1/4 cups pickling salt (do not use less)
Line the bottom of a 3-gallon crock with half of the leaves. (I use one of my food-safe plastic containers; using ceramic would be nice but heavy.) Wash the cucumbers gently so as not to remove the live bacteria and yeast that live on cucumbers and participate in the fermentation. Remove the blossom end (as opposed to the stem end). Hopefully, you will get cucumbers at the market that are young and fresh, not shriveled, and still have a fading blossom attached to them. The blossom end is said to contain enzymes that impede fermentation, hence the need to snip it off.
Layer the cucumbers, spice, garlic cloves, and salt in the crock. Combine the water and vinegar, and dissolve the salt in the liquid (this is your brine). Pour the brine over the cucumbers and lay the remaining leaves on top. Keep the leaves and cucumbers submerged by weighing them down with a plate topped with a clean rock or a water-filled jar, or with a large food-grade plastic bag filled with additional brine (in case it breaks—you don’t want to be adding straight water into the mix) and sealed. You want to make sure all the cucumbers are safely under the brine and not exposed to air. I like the plate-and-filled-jar system best. Cover the crock and the weight with a pillowcase or towel sufficient to cover them completely and store the crock at room temperature. I keep the crock in my kitchen for the first few days, unless it is crazy hot, and then I transfer it to the basement.
Within 3 days you should see tiny bubbles in the brine, but don’t freak out if you don’t—it might take a little longer. The bubbles mean that fermentation has begun. If a white scum forms on top of the brine (which it almost always does; it looks a bit like baby powder sprinkled on water), skim it off daily and rinse off and replace the plate and weight or brine bag. Doing this cuts down the yeast load that is developing in the brine, which can affect fermentation.
The pickles should be ready in 2 to 3 weeks (though the process can take up to 6 weeks in cooler weather), when the tiny bubbles stop rising and the pickles are sour and olive green all the way through. (Cut one open earlier in the process; you’ll see that it is still somewhat white inside. A fully green pickle means that the fermentation has reached the center of the cucumber. This is important if you are going to can them.) Skim off any scum.
Pour the pickles and brine into a colander resting in a nonreactive pot (to catch the brine). Discard the leaves and spices. Remove the colander from the pot and transfer the pot to the stove top. Bring the brine (not the pickles!) to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the brine for 5 minutes. Skim off the scum that forms. Rinse the pickles with cold water and drain them well.
For refrigerator storage, let the brine cool to room temperature. Pack the pickles into 2-quart or gallon jars. (This will be a hell of a lot of pickles in your fridge. If you give some of them away, remember to tell folks to store them in the fridge as well). If you like (which I do), add fresh dill and garlic to each jar (maybe a sprig and 2 cloves to each quart jar). Pour enough cooled brine over the pickles to cover them. Cap the jar and store in the refrigerator for as long as 6 months (and I think it can be longer).
For pantry storage, pack the pickles into pint or quart mason jars, adding fresh dill and garlic, if you like. Pour hot brine over the pickles, leaving a 1/2-inch space at the top of the jar. Close the jars with hot 2-piece caps. In a boiling water bath, process pint jars for 10 minutes, quart jars for 15 minutes. Or pasteurize the jars for 30 minutes in water heated from 180 to 185 degrees (a process I agree with but some extension offices do not). When the jars have cooled, store them in a cool, dry, dark place.
Reprinted with permission from A Householder's Guide to the Universe, by Harriet Fasenfest, published by Tin House Books, 2010.
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