Fermentation Fascination: Garlic Dill Pickles

My 10-year-old nephew was coming over to spend the day, and while he's pretty low-maintenance—Legos and our vast collection of books, everything from Tintin to Narnia to Bulfinch's Mythology seem to keep him occupied—it's always fun to do a project together. That's when I noticed the bunch of cucumbers from my neighbor Bill that were needing to be used.

An ice bath helps firm up the cukes.

The cukes were the bumpy, prickly kind good for pickling, though they were larger than I normally think of for dill pickles and I was a little nervous about being able to jam them into the quart jars I had. But heck, there's a reason it's called a science experiment, so I washed the jars and stuck the cucumbers in an ice bath to firm them up.

When my  nephew arrived, we read the instructions for making pickles in the extremely informative and useful "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz, a tome suitable for fermentation nerds and newbs alike. As we let his words settle in, we walked around the corner to my neighbor's garden to pick grape leaves, which Katz recommends adding to the jars. Apparently the tannins they contain help to keep the pickles crisp, and with grape season in full swing there were plenty to choose from. (Katz also mentions that horseradish leaves, oak leaves, cherry leaves or other tannin-rich materials can do the same job.)

My able assistant was pleased!

Back home with our leaves, we gathered the ingredients to add to the pickles, including fresh dill, garlic and peppercorns, plus mustard seeds and dried chiles from Ayers Creek Farm. We measured the salt into two quarts of water for the brine, and while my able assistant stirred it to dissolve the salt, I cracked the peppercorns and peeled the garlic.

All that was left was to jam the cukes into the jars with whatever struck our fancy—I confess mine were probably more than a little garlic-heavy—and to fill the jars with brine. We placed canning lids on top and loosely screwed on the bands to allow gas to escape as fermentation progresses. It can also include some liquid bubbling out, so we prudently placed the jars in a baking dish before taking them down in the basement to ferment for a few days.

A couple of days later I was able to report to my nephew that not only had their color begun to change, there was noticeable bubbling and a tiny bit of liquid had escaped. The fourth day there was more bubbling, the brine was slightly cloudier, a larger puddle of brine had formed and there was a distinct vinegar aroma wafting over our jars.

Success!

I waited a full week before pulling out a jar to taste them.

Fresher and a bit milder than most store-bought brands, our pickles were nicely crunchy with a tart, light vinegar flavor that was infused with garlic, dill and mustard.

On his next visit, one jar went home with my nephew and the rest are sitting in our refrigerator—lacto-fermented pickles are not shelf stable—awaiting our next antipasto platter, hamburger extravaganza or albacore salad.

Basic Lacto-Fermented Garlic Dill Pickles

2 lbs. pickling cucumbers
12 medium-sized grape leaves
Mustard seeds
Garlic cloves, peeled
Bunch fresh dill or dill flowers
Dried red chiles
Peppercorns, lightly crushed
Sea salt

Wash four quart jars. Wash cucumbers, rub off the prickly bits and place cukes in an ice bath for one hour.

Make a 5 percent brine by dissolving 6 tablespoons of sea salt in two quarts of water. Set aside.

Start with a grape leaf in the bottom of each jar, then tightly packed in the cucumbers with one or two more leaves and a variety of flavoring ingredients. Leave an inch or so of head room above the cucumbers, then add brine to within 1/2 inch of the lip of the jar.

A "pickle pipe" fermentation airlock.

Place a canning lid, coffee filter, or a device called a "pickle pipe" airlock on top, then loosely screw on a jar band. The idea is to allow gas to escape during fermentation, so you don't want to seal it completely or the pressure buildup could cause it to blow off. 

Watch for color change, bubbles and cloudiness. A spongy mold may form on top, but you can just pull that off and dispose of it…the pickles should be fine as long as they have stayed submerged and they still smell good (that is, pickley). After five days, pull a jar and taste one of the pickles. If it's not pickled enough, put the lid back on and let it ferment another day or two (temperature plays a big part in the time it takes to ferment).

When pickles are to your liking, store in refrigerator for several months.

 

No Waste: Making Vinegar from Apple Peels!

Here in Portland, especially in our increasingly warm summers, we know that yeasty, vinegary smell whenever we go out to dump our compost in the bin the city provides. (Portland has had curbside composting since 2005 when the city developed the Portland Composts program that required city garbage companies to offer it.) Well, those intense olfactory experiences had me pondering how to make my own vinegar, especially since I've been learning about fermentation lately, and discovering how incredibly simple it is.

Looking up a few vinegar how-to websites made it even more of a slap-myself moment. Being the cautious sort, I decided to start small and see how it went, but since I'd just bought a few apples for pie, the supplies for a small batch—apple peels and cores—were readily at hand.

As with most fermentation projects, it takes patience. As in waiting a month until you know if your vinegar experiment has yielded a desirable result, which is the hardest part of the process (at least for me). Fortunately this one, when I strained out the solids, gave about a cup of pink-tinged, delicately apple-perfumed vinegar (top photo) that will be lovely sprinkled on soft lettuce salads or to give a light acidic touch to other dishes.

It gives me the courage to try again with a larger batch, maybe with another fruit or vegetable, so stay tuned!

Apple Vinegar

Quart wide-mouth jar
Peels and cores from four or five organic apples
2 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/2 c. boiling water

Bring the water to a boil and stir in the sugar until dissolved.

Pack the jar 3/4 full of apple peels and cores and pour the sugar water over the top to fill the jar to the shoulders. Use a chopstick to poke the submerged apple peels and dislodge air bubbles. Refill the jar with more sugar water if necessary. The apple bits should stay submerged, so place a canning weight or smaller jar inside if necessary to hold them down.

Place a square of coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth over the jar and secure with a rubber band or canning ring. Place in cool, dark place for one month, checking to make sure no mold is forming.

The contents may get cloudy or a SCOBY (vinegar mother) may form, but that's normal. Taste the vinegar after 4 weeks and, if it's to your liking, strain out solids, place a lid on it and store in refrigerator.

Fermentation Fascination: DIY Hot Sauce

I had this whole plan, see? I'd been searching without success for the thick-skinned, thick-walled, fleshy espelette peppers like the ones I found four years ago from Viridian Farms—which is unfortunately no longer in existence—and used to such great effect to make some kick-ass, fruity, smoky harissa. In the intervening years I'd tried espelette peppers from various area farms, but the fruit, while it had the requisite thick skin, was uniformly thin-fleshed. When roasted, the flesh stuck to the skins like glue, making peeling arduous and not worth it in terms of resulting volume.

Harissa.

This year I was determined to try again to find those perfect peppers and purchased peppers from two more farms. Again, sad trombones.

With the first couple of pounds I managed to make a very small batch of harissa, but the next two pounds were just not going to be worth the work. Not wanting to waste their fruity, biting heat, I was casting about for good uses. Most suggestions were to dry and grind them to a powder, but then I ran across farmer and author Josh Volk's Instagram photo of chopped peppers that he'd fermented in a 3.5 percent salt mixture.

Bubbling away.

Aha!

A little back-and-forth with Josh led me to chop the two pounds of peppers in the food processor, add the salt, pack them in a Mason jar, set the jar in a dish in the basement, then put a zip-lock bag of water inside the jar like a pickling weight, which allows it to breathe (and overflow if necessary). Putting a lid on isn't necessary, but if you do, make sure it isn't screwed on tight—it needs to breathe!

Hank Shaw's sour corn.

After four days I saw bubbles and a little puddle underneath the jar, which indicated that fermentation was, indeed, occurring, so I left it for a few more days. Recipes say you can allow it to ferment for as long as a month, but being the impatient person I am, I gave it a week before bringing it upstairs to whiz in the blender, adding water to thin it to a sauce-like consistency.

The result? Well, we used it as a hot sauce on pork tacos along with some of Hank Shaw's sour corn that I'd made earlier and we thought it was great. But the real test came when I gave some to my neighbor Ivy Manning,  a hot sauce aficionado as well as author of countless authoritative cookbooks, for her expert opinion. Her reaction? "Can you just pour some out on the counter so I can roll in it?"

'Nuff said.

Fermentation Fascination: Rave-worthy Quick Refrigerator Pickles

I'm not a woo-woo sort of person. Pragmatism runs deep in my veins, but recently it's been feeling like the universe is pointing me in the direction of fermentation. Not in a Portlandia "I can pickle that" way, though the show definitely picked up on a trend here with almost every chef in town featuring her own house-made pickles on every plate.

Great-grandma's recipe.

Granted, for several years I've been saying "This is the year I'm going to learn to make pickles!"—or kimchi or sauerkraut or whatever. And the year comes and goes without much progress being made, though I've participated in a few pickling sessions with friends. One of those sessions involved making pickled onions with my neighbors Bill and Jen, who have a huge garden on their city lot and preserve a great deal of what they grow every year.

When I dropped by their place to pick up some cucumbers the other day, Jen brought out one of two thick, three-ring binders full of favorite family recipes that her grandmother had carefully typed out—color me envious! It included one from her great-grandmother for fresh cucumber pickles that are ready in 24 hours. Need I mention that anything quick and easy has my name written all over it?

Rinse those cukes!

And indeed, when I got home, I sliced up those cucumbers, salted them down per great-grandma's instructions, made the brine, and a couple of hours later had two quart jars of pickles sitting in the fridge. I admit I sampled them before the 24 hours had gone by and they were delightful. So good, in fact, that they ended up coming with us that very evening as part of an antipasto platter we were taking to celebrate our friends' new home.

As for future fermentation festivities? Turns out the universe wasn't done with me just yet. Dave gave me a copy of Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation as an anniversary present, so expect to read about those adventures in future installments!

Great-Grandma's Fresh Cucumber Pickles

From my neighbor Jen.

5-6 cucumbers, about 8" long
1 medium onion
3-4 Tbsp. salt
2 c. cider vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
Optional: mustard seeds, peppercorns, fresh dill, dried chiles, whole garlic cloves

Slice cucumbers into 1/8" coins. Slice onion into quarters lengthwise, then into 1/4" slices crosswise. Combine in large bowl. Add salt and mix. Place in refrigerator for 90 minutes.

While cucumber mixture is soaking, in a medium-sized pan heat vinegar and water to a bare simmer. Add sugar. Stir until it dissolves, then add any desired spices (mustard seeds, pappercorns, dried chiles and garlic cloves). Allow to cool slightly.

When cucumbers are ready, rinse in several changes of running water, draining thoroughly between rinses. (Great-grandma says to rinse until they no longer taste of salt, but mine never did get to that stage.) Drain thoroughly. Pack cucumbers and onions into quart jars, layering them with spices from the brine and the fresh dill. Pour brine over packed cucumbers, using a chopstick inserted down the side to press out air bubbles as much as possible. Cover with lid and put in refrigerator. The pickles will be ready in 24 hours. Makes approximately 2 quarts.