Monday, October 6, 2014

Lower East Side Jewish Pickles

Time was, you could throw a cobblestone in the lower east side and hit a pickle vendor. Now they're all gone but for The Pickle Guys (and I don't really care for their pickles). For years, I've been frustrated about this, and given serious thought to making my own. Ultimately, I was stopped by the lack of access to appropriate cucumbers- you can't just use any variety.

However, I recently stumbled onto some at a farmer's market. I decided to finally put my money where my mouth is and give it a try. Coincidentally, I had recently been looking up pickle recipes. They tend to fall into two categories:

1. The Wrong Kind. These are the recipes which call for things like vinegar or enormous quantities of dill. If you are only familiar with pickles that you get in your supermarket, these are for you. These are not the kind I was looking for. However, the FDA has a page with some of these recipes and give a bit of useful background on them too, worth reading.

2. The Hippy Kind. These were posted by people who swore that the secret magic of fermentation cured their AIDS. I'm not joking.

So, before I go into my recipe (which is the simple part) I want to talk a little bit about what pickling is, how it works, and what you *need* to be aware of before you start. You can skip this section if you've done it before, but it's good for newcomers to learn about proper, safe setup.

What it is: there are two types of pickling, fast and slow. Fast pickling has to do with preserving food by storing it in boiling hot vinegar. This is normally what your sauerkraut at the supermarket is, or how onions may be preserved. More or less, if it's been canned, it's probably the fast method. And that's fine for a lot of things.

Slow pickling is very different. Here you generally (although not exclusively) use a salt brine solution to allow naturally occurring anaerobic lactobacteria (bacteria which are active in oxygen-free/limited oxygen environments, as opposed to aerobic bacteria which thrive in oxygen rich environments. So if you buy an airtight coffin, it's the anaerobic bacteria which will break you down) to break down and ferment the food. When done correctly, you get a pickle. When done incorrectly, you get poison.

Which begs the question- how can I do this correctly? Well, remember that you want to encourage growth of anaerobic bacteria, not aerobic- so you need to limit the amount of fresh air the brine is exposed to. However, the fermentation process results in the production of carbon dioxide (just like in beer) which means that you can't use a sealed container. A sealed container will undergo high pressure and may explode. In addition, the carbon dioxide may re-dissolve in the brine solution, increasing the acidity higher than it should be, affecting the anaerobic bacteria. So, you need to have a way of releasing the pressure while simultaneously minimizing the exposure to fresh air.

There are many different ways of accomplishing this, and with a little bit of thought, you can build a water well setup like I have or create your own. Or you can buy a fancy high-end kit. It's all up to you, depending on the amount of work/expense you want to dedicate to the setup.

I used an old clean 1/2 gallon mason jar I had laying around. I cut the bottom out of a pint sized plastic food container to that it would slip down and around the neck of the mason jar. The edge was sealed with silicon caulking and allowed to dry. I then cut the top of a diet coke bottle to shape so that it would fit over the mouth of the mason jar. Once the mason jar was filled, I was able to pour water around the outside of the neck of the mason jar and fit the diet coke bottle over it. This acted as a water well- the water would seal off the inside from fresh air, but when the carbon dioxide inside built up, it could bubble out without a problem.

In addition, as the pickles fermented, mold will grow on top. It is very easy to scoop that off the top and throw it away.

Now, you've got your setup completed. What kind of pickles do you want? There appear to be two competing theories regarding Half-Sour vs Full Sour pickles. One is that it is dependent on the salt concentration in the brine. A lower salt content will simply develop a half sour pickle and be done with it. A higher salt content will create full sour. The other theory is that it has nothing to do with the salt content, it has to do with the length of time that the fermentation is allowed to continue. So a half sour pickle will turn into a full sour pickle.

From my experience, I think that both of these theories are correct to an extent. I suspect that in addition to the temperature, the salt content plays a role in the activity of the lactobacteria. Thus, a lower salt content may prevent a full sour from being achieved in a reasonable timespan. However, people who have experience with real pickles know that they have a limited lifespan, as the older they get, the softer they will become as the bacteria continue to break them down. Thus, new full sour pickles are crunchy, while old ones become mushy. To make the fermentation process more rapid, a higher salt content is desired. However, a salt content that is too high will also inhibit the bacterial growth, so it is a balancing act.

Since the temperature plays a key role in the bacterial growth, the fermentation time can vary. I predict ~1 week for half sour, 3-4 weeks for full sour.

In the interests of science and tastiness, I decided to try a middle ground.

One last note, and it's on salt. Look on the back of the salt container you're going to use. Most table salts contain anti-clumping agents which are perfectly non-toxic for you and me, but cause issues with fermentation. As such, you'll want anti-clumping agent free salt. Everyone tells you to use sea salt or kosher salt. This is bullshit. Some kosher/sea salts will contain anti-clumping agents. There's no magical way to know unless you actually check the ingredients. The kind I used listed only sea salt as the ingredient, and had a warning that since it contained no anti-clumping agent, that clumping could occur over time.

Take your pickling cucumbers and give them a good rinse in cold water and remove any remnants of the blossom. Naturally, the fresher the better. Prepare your brine by making a 5% by volume salt solution. That is: measure out 9 1/2 cups warm water (it does not need to be boiling- in fact, you don't want it boiling hot as it will thermally cook the cucumbers. the warmth is simply to aid the dissolution) and add a half cup of salt. Mix until the salt has fully dissolved. This is way more brine than you'll require for a single 1/2 gallon jar, but it's better to not have to make more if you need it- and it's salt water, it's cheap.

Fill your mason jar with the cucumbers. Try to wedge them in so they won't be floating and bobbing to the surface too much. Pour the brine over them. Add the following to the brine:

1 tsp dried dill
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp celery seed
1 head garlic, peeled.

Close up the container, however you've decided to do it, and wait.

 Jar, on initial setup.

My reports:

1. After ~48 hours, the clear brine has become cloudy. The brine is becoming proper pickle juice

2. After ~96 hours, the cucumbers seem to be visibly changing.

 3. After 135 hours (~ 5 1/2 days) 1 pickle removed to check taste and consistency. Conclusions: a) it's definitely working- it's a pickle alright. b) the flavor is more or less dead on exactly what I was looking for. c) the pickle is just shy of being half sour- what is called a New Pickle (thanks mom). This means that most of it has reached half-sour status, while parts of it are still under-fermented. The color looks a more olive green. d) some mold grew on top overnight, scraped off. e) seems to be meeting my prediction for 1 week=half sour. Remains to be seen if full sour will be achieved, how long it will take, what the state of the pickle will be at that point. e) pickle has large hollow center, which stems from the age of the cucumber before pickling (fresher cucumbers do not form hollow centers.) This is also evident from the size/hardness of the central seeds. f) while the pickle isn't soft, it isn't quite as crunchy as I'd like. This may be partially due to my slicing it with a knife to share with people. Will know more later. A soft full sour is *not* desired.
 Jar after 5 days

Pickle after 5 days

Pickle jar after 12 days

Pickles after 12 days

After 12 days, I was worried. I'd begun to notice some growth among the dill and celery seeds along the bottom of the jar. In addition, the brine smell was beginning to take over in my apartment, partially thanks to my rather shoddy homemade pickling jar. So, I figured to roll the dice and decant the pickles a couple of days early. I gave them all rinses in water just in case.

Coincidentally, my father and sister had gone to Katz's Deli to pick up some pastrami, and grabbed a couple pickles while they were at it. I thought it'd be fun to have a taste comparison.

My pickles: range in shade from light to dark green, but healthy looking
Katz pickles: uniform deep green, slightly wrinkled as if they were a little old.

My pickles: crunchy (!) like a half sour
Katz pickles: some crunch, but more firm than crunchy

My pickles: garlicy and flavorful, with the bite at the back of your tongue that I always look for.
Katz pickles: they tasted like unflavored brine. Boring. My sister went so far as to spit hers out in disgust.

So, overall a resounding success. Some notes and thoughts for the future:

1. The garlic flavor intensified as time passed. If you don't want it as garlicky, either use less, or decant sooner.

2. Better protection from the air.

3. Seeing some mold at the bottom of the jar among the spices makes me think it might be time to buy some new spices.

4. Nobody has come down sick with anything after ~24 hours.

5. The debate regarding brine concentration versus time is still not settled, but I'm still going with my argument of both.

6. The cucumbers were right on the edge of usability. I had two left over that I couldn't fit in the jar. I put them aside for a couple of days. Within 4 or 5 days, both had become disgusting rotten masses. In addition, some of them were clearly older and more fully developed than others- less developed is better, to prevent the hollow middles, the hard seeds, etc. Try to get the youngest and freshest you can find. Remember that these cucumbers go from green to yellow during the growth cycle, not the other way around.

7. The flavor is excellent, the texture is excellent, this is a classic LES pickle.

8. The temperature will naturally have some effect on the length of the pickling process. This was completed late September/early October, and the temperature in my apartment was generally in the neighborhood of 75 degrees for most of it. But during the hottest part of the day it could go up to the mid-upper 80s, and on cooler days it could potentially drop down into the 60s (though only the last few days did the temps begin to really drop).

I'm really, really pleased with how well this turned out. I'm determined next year to grow my own cucumbers, my mind has been made up now.