Shtetl Fabulous

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.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookGoogle+Pin on Pinterestshare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponEmail to someone



  1. August 8

    Isn’t pickling salt designed to dissolve in cold water?

  2. August 8

    P.S. “Shtetl Fabulous” is some kind of genius.

  3. Andrew
    August 9

    Peter, you need to kirby your enthusiasm. Seriously, I’m a big fan of the home-fermented cucumbers (and cabbage too). I have a nice homemade pickle sitting here on my desk as I write this, which may or may not survive till lunch time. I take it you’ve got a well-worn copy of Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation somewhere in your house. When I first made pickles, my aunt reminded me how in “the olden days” on the Lower East Side, people chose their half-sour pickles, sold from barrels, as if they were home decorators…they had to be just the perfect shade of green. Shame how most of the store bought ones these days are just vinegar infused/injected without any of the flavor or health benefits of the naturally fermented ones. I know I don’t need to tell you this, but for anyone reading this who wants to try this at home, don’t forget to save those brined/pickled garlic cloves for cooking or eating when your pickles are done. The brine can be used in a number of ways as well. Those TSM fermentation pots are nice. I need to get another one.

  4. August 9

    How big of a batch do you do at a time? Any hints for keeping cucumbers so you can get a decent batch? I’ve got three batches in the basement at the moment, and the first is just ready. Might have to pilfer one for tonight’s homegrown BLTs. The plants are doing good at pumping out a half-gallon batch at a time, but sometimes the ripening process is unbalanced.

  5. Peter
    August 9

    Chris: I use fine sea salt and it dissolves quickly in warm water. Never used pickling salt or cheese salt; I imagine they’re super finely powdered.

    Andrew: My next ceramic project is to make a crock or two, since I never seem to have enough room for everything this time of year.

    • Andrew
      August 9

      I was actually surprised to see that you were using the TSM crock. I figured for sure you’d have whipped up one of your own with your clay-molding prowess. As much as they cost, you’d probably do well selling a few. And since they’re made in Poland, it’s in your genes! The water seal on the crocks is a nice feature to let the gas escape but keeping the bad organisms out, and it’s fun hearing the occasional burp as you ferment cabbage for the best sauerkraut ever. With kraut occupying my one lonely crock, I fermented my cucumbers in a large cylindrical glass bowl that was part of a sunpentown convection oven that I purchased to rig up a home coffee roaster. I weighed the cucumbers down with a heavy dinner plate topped by a water-filled one quart mason jar to keep them submerged. Then covered the whole thing with a tea towel secured by a large rubber band. Worked perfectly, the only downside (or upside depending on your viewpoint) being that the whole basement reeked of pickles for a while. The crock makes for an odor-free experience. But they are pricey, so for those who want to do a lot of fermentation, sometimes you have to get creative. That being said, I finally ordered another crock so I can do pickles and kraut and not piss off my wife with a smelly basement (not everyone likes their house to smell like a deli).

      • Peter
        August 9

        I will probably make some for sale when I have the time. I like the big bowl idea, but yes the smell can become an issue. We only have a crawl space under the house, so it’s less of a problem down there, but I’ve been using gallon jars to good effect. I’d kill for a good basement.

  6. Peter
    August 9

    Julia: I just keep them in the fridge; they last well until the vines have produced more.

  7. August 9

    Peter, you should boil the rocks. It’s part of the tradition and it’s so perfectly simple.

  8. Mo
    August 9

    So you put all that in the jar, weight them down inside the jar? Do you process your jars? This is all new to me…I’ve made pickles with vinegar but not this way.

  9. Peter
    August 9

    Zoomie: Well, I have the weights in the crock. In jars, I’ve actually been using smaller jars full of brine as weights.

    Mo: Yes. I wash them, but there’s no need to sterilize since the vegetables are covered in bacteria. Give it a try; just keep them cool while they ferment.

  10. August 9

    I love that. The I/E ratio. I feel pale! I think i need a tall chopped chicken liver sandwich on rye with that pickle.

  11. August 9

    Okay, I’ve got two measly pickling cukes in my fridge but I should have several more coming up soon (hard to accumulate them if you keep eating them) and I’ll make me a jar. And yes, please feel free to make and sell me a crock. Oh…I was just thinking I needed to treat myself to something from Etsy. Maybe it’s finally time to take the plunge and get some bowls!

    So brine, dill, garlic, cukes, in a jar or other handy container that is clean, weight them down and keep them somewhere cool for a few weeks? That’s it? Dang. Wish I’d seen this before I placed my CSA order, I could have added extra pickling cukes to it!

    Also, just so I’m clear (I’m probably starting to sound a bit stupid by now), you make these in a big jar and they just sit around, you never give the completed jars a water bath to seal them for future use? How long to they keep? Do you keep them at basement temp the whole time or do you stick em in the fridge? And I can’t help but notice the jar you took a picture of has pickles sticking out of the brine…

  12. August 9

    I may have to buy a proper crock if you make one. I’ll be keeping an eye on Etsy.

  13. Peter
    August 9

    Nicole: Wait half an hour before going in the pool.

    Mo: I think you’ve got it. Don’t cap it tightly; gases need to escape. Don’t process these; you want to keep the microbes alive and they don’t age well. Eat them. Over time they’ll get soft. The jar you mention is for fridge storage, so the juice doesn’t have to go to the very top. They fermented in that big brown crock while I made kimchi in a gallon jar.

    You might be well served by that book Andrew mentioned: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

    Rebecca: OK, I’ll get on it. They might not end up costing much less than the commercial ones, but your money will go to a good cause.

  14. August 11

    I hesitate to mention this, but for Mo, I will: We had good results using Alton Brown’s method, which is more detailed and uses the kind of stuff you should have around the house anyway.

    We made enough of these over a year or so that my son was giving jars of pickles to his teachers as gifts. Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

  15. August 12

    Pickling salt is fine and contains NO anti-caking agents. It’s just pure salt.

  16. August 12

    Great man, I make those too, only ferment mine for only 4 days before sticking them in the fridge. I also add oak leaves to mine which is a Russian way of doing it (and this is one of the Russian classics as well). I cover mine with a cloth and a rubber band and leave the on the counter for the duration of that time. I’ll post mine soon and we can compare!

  17. Peter
    August 12

    Chris: No weirder than I’d expect from your offspring.

    Melissa: Cool. I use fine sea salt for both pickles and cheese.

    Sofya: Oak leaves sound interesting. I put my jars somewhere cooler than the counter, though, especially if it’s hot. In the winter I ferment them on the floor of the kitchen.

  18. Olga
    August 12

    The oak leaves are added to keep them crunchy and crunchier for longer, so if you make a lot of pickles you should definitely give it a try.
    Another cool thing to add is black currant leaves, very nice flavor.

  19. Peter
    August 13

    Do you know what it is in th eleaves that keeps them crunchy? I’ll try that, since I have a bunch of (Russian) black currant bushes outside. I’m also going to wrap cheese in them.

  20. anonprepper
    January 15

    Grape leafs also keep them crunchy, supposedly it’s the tannins that are in the leafs that keep them crunchy.

Comments are closed.