You think you know what a pickle tastes like. You think that everyone is on the same page with this. Pickles appear everywhere. A ubiquitous commodity. They feature in my memories of Richard scarry's illustrations of cats and dogs and Lowly the worm going about their business showing my young mind how the world worked. Clearly, pickles were required to keep it going round too. You see a picture of one and the flavour floods into your virtual mouth. Sweet and vinegary, crunchy. Most varieties leaning towards the sweet.
So my first taste of a kosher dill pickle in San Francisco was quite a shock. Salt! Then sourness. Not a trace of sweetness. Also, running underneath was a baseline of new and interesting fermented notes. If you get served a pickle in the states they don't mess around. You generally get a whole one, not just a few slices. It's a lot to take in for the kosher dill novice.
Last summer I finally tracked down a pickle grower. We have grown them before but it is a lot of work to keep them in good shape. The other problem is you only harvest a few of them at a time. So it takes a while to build up a decent batch of them for processing. It was at the end of the season when I got a hold of about 3 kg of these big lumpen beauties.
There are two styles to choose from if you're going for a New York style Kosher dill. Full or Half sours. For full sours you use a 5% salt solution for half sours 3%. Apparently with a half sour they are removed a little earlier from the brine. At a point where they are half cured. There is a gradient of cured to still slightly raw from the outside to the centre of the pickle.
Traditionally they are made in a barell or a big earthenware crock with straight sides and a wide open mouth. The pickles go in with the brine and desired flavourings, generally craploads of dill and whole garlic cloves, and then they are weighed down with a plate of some sort to keep them submerged.
A common pitfall when making fermented pickles is that they go soft and mushy before they are ready. It's not easy fermenting something at the height of summer. Your pickle jar can become a primordial soup before you know it.
In his book The Art of Fermentation, author Sandor Katz revealed that UV rays were the secret. Leave your pickling vessel on a window sill and expose it to as much daylight as you can. Also, sea salt helps cross link the proteins, so give that a shot too.
My plan was to use large agee jars. I figured glass was the simple solution. I made two brines of different strengths and then washed my pickles well by soaking them in ice cold water and rubbing off the spines and any flower blossoms from the ends. I packed the jars with pickles and herbs and then submerged them in brine. I really wedged the pickles in there so they would stay submerged. Onto the windowsill they went whilst I anticipated success and some excellent sandwiches in a few weeks time.
First there was a thin layer of mould on the surface of the brine. As it slowly developed a jaundiced yellow hue, the fruit flies appeared. Then the smell. Remember, it's summer y'all. Strong odours began to dominate my studio space that contained them. My band-mate Nick nearly wrteched into his bass clarinet when I absent-mindedly forced him to rehearse in there with me. I guess I had gotten used to the strong garlic dill belch odour they had developed.
Every week or so I would extract one from the now scary looking jars and slice it open to see where we were at. I was looking for a translucency to the flesh and a rounding out of the flavours. At first the garlic and dill flavours are raw and clearly defined, the salt aspect dominating everything. It's unpleasant and not encouraging to the novice pickler. Let alone the fact that the brine has now become cloudy and the surface covered with slimy ropes of god knows what.
As you may have guessed if you've followed my adventures in this blog, the best plan at this point is to quell your unease and persevere. Chill out and wait. the important thing was that the pickles were still crunchy. This was encouraging. I realised that if all the pickles were together in a much larger vessel, things would have been a little less grim. If you can get the pickles deeply submerged and weighed down, then it would be a simple matter of scooping the mould off the surface of the brine every few days. However, it's still going to stink to high heaven.
After about 6 weeks the flavour had rounded out and the herbs and garlic had melded with the fermented flavours into a cohesive whole. They tasted salty sour and deeply savoury. Quite a change from three weeks earlier when I had nearly gagged.
Visually it was still a nightmare. The pickling brine had become a murky mouldy slime and needed to be replaced. I made up new brine in the two required concentrations and re-packed the pickles into plastic buckets and put them in the fridge. There are still some left. Recently, I vac-packed them into smaller bags with the brine so they didn't dominate the entire fridge.
A while ago I sliced the half sours quite thickly and deep fried them in a tempura batter. I served them with spicy ranch dressing. It was damn tasty.
Perhaps their best showing was in a grilled sandwich made with homemade potato sourdough, pastrami, cheddar and a little siracha. Good enough to serve to the cast of Night court I reckon.