My grandfather was an engineer. As such, he liked to describe the world with equations, and to apply those principles and laws that govern the behavior of materials to human society as well. Sometimes they made for a good fit: one of his favorite social formulas was I/E, that the ratio of a person’s intelligence to their ego was the principal determining variable in their success. I think about that one regularly.
He was a brilliant engineer, but also a largely self-taught immigrant from a very poor hamlet in Poland whose father, my great-grandfather–who died when I was ten–was a Rabbi, a scribe (he repaired Torahs) and a brick maker. That knowledge of kilns turned out to be inheritable; my grandfather was a great ceramic engineer, my Mother was a potter, and here I am making my own plates out of clay. As a cook, he knew his limits and hewed closely to them so that his results rarely varied from excellent; he was the grill and smoker man, and he made the pickles. Beyond that, he didn’t cook. He did garden enthusiastically, but other than the cucumbers, the bounty was entirely my grandmother’s domain. The cucumbers, though, were his. And his passion for turning them into hands down the best dill pickles I have ever eaten was a formative influence on my culinary development.
I didn’t know it at the time, though. I loved the pickles, no doubt, and remember bringing jars to college Freshman year; my half of our little dorm fridge was filled with jars of pickles (my roommate’s had 12-packs of Busch. We’re not still in touch). Once I moved up here to the country and put in the garden, all of this nascent desire and knowledge came bubbling to the surface in my brain. I remembered lessons my mom taught me in the garden, principally about composting and mulching, and most of all about the pure sweet pleasure of “helping” her pick (eat) peas and such. Those touchstones of flavor never leave us, and that’s why Milo is out there with me every day picking and tasting everything. That’s also why his job is taking out the kitchen scraps and dumping them in the compost every day, just as it was mine.
And so as soon as I began growing cucumbers and cabbages and other fermentable vegetables as if by magic I heard his voice in my head saying “I use a five percent brine.” I wish you could hear his voice say it; watch Barry Levinson’s Baltimore Trilogy for a sense of it, or for those of you who enjoy the meta, watch Coming to America and see Eddie Murphy tell my grandfather’s actual favorite joke over the closing credits in a voice that is approximately that of my grandfather:
The first time my brother and I saw that movie we were dumbstruck. Absolutely speechless with astonishment. He even looks a fair amount like my grandfather did before he grew the beard.
So, that five percent brine. That adds up to 50 grams of salt per liter of water. Impossible to get wrong, unless you don’t have a scale, and if you read this blog at all you know that a scale is one of the very few non-negotiable kitchen tools that I require of you. I must say that over the course of a few years, I have reduced the salinity of my pickling brine to 4% (so 40g/l) because I like it better. The principle remains the same: salt water kills many adverse organisms and allows the lactobacilli to thrive. They metabolize sugars in the food into lactic acid, making that delectable sourness we know and love. As long as the container is kept at cellar temperatures (50-65˚F) then there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong. Too hot, though, and it will rot. Also, it’s important to keep the food submerged below the brine; anything sticking up will get moldy. My grandfather boiled rocks and used them as weights, while I have a pickling crock with special semicircular weights that hold the food down under the liquid. You can also fill ziptop bags with extra brine, seal them, and and put them on top, which works as well.
When I make the brine, I measure out my salt and water and then pour about half a liter of water into a sauce pan, along with all the salt. I heat and stir it until the salt is dissolved, then pour it back into the bowl with the rest of the (cold) water; this makes for a cool brine and obviates the need for the step so often called for in recipes where one has to heat all the water and then cool it back down again before proceeding. Use unchlorinated water for best results.
Besides the brine, proper pickles have three ingredients: cucumbers, dill, and garlic. I cram as many medium-sized cukes into the vessel as I can manage, tucking in peeled and halved cloves of garlic and big sprigs of dill as I go, then fill it up with brine and weight it down. The ratio is not so important; use a bunch of both seasonings and you’ll be fine. It’s good to catch your cucumbers before they get too big, though, since they are harder to fit efficiently into the finite cylindrical volume of your jug and the older they are the bigger their softer, seedy insides become.
Leave them for a week or two or four and then pull them out and try one. Close your eyes and let the centuries of accumulated wisdom of starving peasants wash over you in luxurious splendor, forever obliterating the memory of those strangely bland and fluorescent deli pickles. And then make a sandwich. You look pale; you should eat a little something with that pickle.
ETA: Since writing this post, I’ve also begun adding a few oak and currant leaves to the crock, right on top below the weights. Their tannins help crisp up the cucumber skins, and the resulting pickles stay crunchy for ages, deep into the winter, down the the last spear.