Do you love pickles? I do. I love to eat them and I love to make them. Our summer weeks are framed by the pickle projects Skip and I have going. In one corner of the basement, 14-day pickles will be brining away for… that’s right, 14 days. In the pantry multiple batches of French Pickles are soaking in muliti-day-long brine baths. And in the “center ring” we’re quick-pickling whatever’s fresh—baby carrots and squash right now, soon to add green beans, okra, and peppers.
But the most Celebrated Cucumber Cruncher in all of pickledom, the QUEEN OF PICKLES, are the ones we make in a crock in our basement. Barrel Pickles. Not preserved in vinegar like most pickles, these are fermented, more precisely, lacto-fermented pickles. Sauerkraut is their lacto-fermented sister.
Now that it’s full blown summer with fresh, young cucumbers rolling into your local tailgate and farmer’s markets, it’s time to make some pickles, FOLKS! So let’s get cracking on the simplest of all pickle possibilities.
Over a barrel
If you’ve spent enough time in a good size Northern city, one that still has local pickle makers following old world brining methods, you’ve probably eaten barrel pickles. Any authentic New York deli or long standing, respectable diner will slide in the ubiquitous bowls of half sours, sour dills, green tomatoes, and spicy red cherry peppers before you’ve settled into your seat.
Digression: Crossing Delancey is a favorite movie and on my first trip to NYC, the FIRST place I wanted to go was Delancey Street to have those pickles. Unfortunately there weren’t many picklers left.
For years I toted half sours from Zabar’s on airplanes before they became a threat to homeland security. I was excited when I discovered Ba-Tampte Half Sours here in Asheville—fresh from Brooklyn—but supplies weren’t reliable.
Now we’re makin’ it
Then a farmer friend at our downtown tailgate market, Anne Gaines (now Grier) of Gaining Ground Farms, started making and selling fermented pickles. Skip and I bought a large jar every week that summer. It became the flavor of summer. But Anne’s farm kicked up the next notch with production and she stopped making pickles to sell. We’d whine every week until she finally told us “Just make your own. It’s easy.”
Her instructions were short and simple: Put cukes, garlic, and seasoning in a jar and cover with salt water—some people put a drop of vinegar, I don’t but you can if you want—and let them sit for a week or so. Oh. And don’t get freaked out if there’s scum on top. It’s supposed to happen. Just scoop some of it off.
That was more than 5 years ago and since then we’ve had crocks and canisters in the basement cycling barrel pickles all summer long. And, full dosclosure, I’ve had some good batches and bad. So here are some helpful things I’ve learned.
Good to know
• Barrel pickles are alive. They provide pro-biotics, or beneficial bacteria, in a similar way as yogurt, cheese, and miso.
• Beneficial bacteria is great for colon health. But people with hyper-sensitive digestive systems may want to take it slow the first time they harvest a batch (it won’t be easy to hold back). After a couple of days eat as much as you want.
• Any crisp vegetable can be barrel-pickled. Young and dense squash (patty pans!), carrots, onions, peppers of any sort, Jerusalem artichokes, fennel, and green beans. Okra too, but leave on the stems.
• We add all sorts of veggies to our barrel throughout summer but our first batch is always cucumber-based. Superstitious? Probably.
• Cruciferous vegetables add that distinct sauerkraut odor to the barrel. We start a separate batch for things like kohlrabi, cabbage stalks, turnips, and radishes & Daikons. They are wonderful, but you’ll definately know they’re there. (FYI, by contrast, cukes have a fresh pickly scent when fermenting.)
• Dense, young cukes make the best pickles. Small or thin varieties are ideal because of their smaller, drier seed cores. Avoid overripe, bloated, yellowed, or old & wrinkled cukes.
• Don’t use large hybrids commonly seen in grocery stores, and avoid ‘European’ varieties (those long, smooth ones). Both of these have soft flesh and watery seed cores and make soft pickles. Not ideal.
• Sometimes we add grape leaves to our batches. Popular wisdom is that tannins in the leaves make the pickles crisper. Grape leaves have been added to pickles since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Folks also add cherry or oak leaves, and horseradish leaves. I want to try horseradish leaves.
• Never, ever ferment waxed cucumbers. Total yuckness will result.
Fermented Barrel Pickles Recipe
You will need
A non-reactive vessel—glass, crockery, or stainless steel. Pictured is a 2-1/2 gallon container
3-4 pounds of fresh cukes to make about 3 quarts (feel free to do more)
Pickling salt or kosher salt
Seasonings: garlic (a must), onions, hot peppers, dill and/or tarragon—fresh is best
Spices: peppercorns, bay leaves, celery seed, red pepper flakes
For each quart (4 cups) of water add 3 Tbls salt and 1 tsp vinegar.
What you do
1. Thoroughly clean vessel with hot, soapy water
2. Briefly soak, then lightly scrub cucumbers
3. Shave blossom end from cukes and similar veggies (such as squash)
4. Cut into chunks, vertical halves, or leave whole
5. Add peeled, sliced garlic cloves to taste, with black pepper and onion. Optional: Dill or tarrgon, grape leaves, celery seed, red pepper flakes or pods, or any hot pepper pods. If making a large batch, layer seasonings and cukes.
6. Add brine solution to cover at least 1 to 1-1/2 inches.
7. Lay plate on top of vegetables and weight with jar of water.
8. Cover crock with a light kitchen towel (bugs will get through cheesecloth) and cinch lightly to keep out critters
9. Set in coolest place in house. In summer, basements or cool tile floors are best.
• Check pickles after 2 days. Lightly skim scum or blue-gray blops of mold (these form around loose floating specs of food or seasonings. And don’t freak out. Scum means things are going well and it may take up to 4-5 days to form. You don’t have to remove it all.
(Probably this will be your first exposure to live fermentation. And when you gaze upon an active batch of pickles you should expect to be surprised and maybe even alarmed by the sight and smell. Just close your eyes and think about cheese and the scent will make sense to you. This is the real thing, baby. Embrace it.)
• After 5-10 days (depends on temperature) the process should be complete. This year mine averaged 7 days for the 1st batch, 3–5 days for subsequent batches reusing the remaining brine. For crisp half-sours I try to jar mine up just as they’re turning from green to olive.
• To store, skim off the majority of scum and pack pickles into spotlessly clean jars (important!). Ladle in brine with garlic and spices to cover. I add a tablespoon of cider vinegar to each quart for extra tanginess, optional.
• Seal loosely (it’s still active) and refrigerate. Will keep for a month or more. (Last year we served pickles at Thanksgiving from a late September batch. A little soft, but still good.)
For your next batch, two options
You can harvest your entire batch and start a new one using the leftover brine. This is a good way to start out. The liquid is now very active so your next batch will ripen much more quickly.
Or you can gradually ramp up production by adding to existing batches, layer upon layer. To tell additions apart, alternate cutting method—lengthwise, cross-wise, or whole—so you can tell which is oldest.
Add a tablespoon of salt with each new addition. Add more seasonings as you go—garlic, dill, hot peppers, etc. When additional liquid is needed add more of Brine Formula.
So go out and make some pickles! Be FEARLESS. And let me hear about your lacto-fermentation experience. Anything you want to share with others about barrel pickle making?