All about pickles
Americans love pickles. According to Pickle Packers International, on average, we eat about 9 pounds (or about 106 pickles) per person per year. They’re common with sandwiches, burgers, various salads and charcuterie boards.
Vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free, pickles are great for those with dietary restrictions. Low in calories, they contain ample amounts of water and fiber.
But just what is a pickle? Pickles are made by immersing fresh vegetables — most often cucumbers — in an acidic liquid until they are no longer considered raw. The acid can be vinegar, or it can be saltwater brine. Pickling preserves the vegetables and changes their flavor.
The most common vegetables preserved this way are cucumbers. But pickles can be made from other vegetables too: cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, asparagus, onions, radishes, beans and many more.
In English, there is only one word — pickle — which refers to cucumbers preserved in vinegar, or cucumbers preserved in salt. In Poland, there are two different words. Kiszone ogorki are cucumbers preserved with salt brine. These are not canned and are fermented, probiotic food. Konserwowe ogorki are cucumbers preserved in a vinegar-sugar solution, that are often canned, so all bacteria — harmful as well as beneficial organisms — are killed.
Today there are many types of pickled cucumbers, depending on how they’re flavored, how they’re pickled (brine versus vinegar) and how they’re cut. Sweet pickles hail from Britain; they’re packed in a sweet mixture of vinegar, sugar and spices. Variations are bread and butter, candied and sweet hot.
Dill pickles are the most popular pickle. These cucumbers are seasoned with dill during the brining process. Kosher dills are seasoned with garlic in addition to dill.
Dill pickles are made with a brine solution. Sometimes vinegar is added to the brine to make a more shelf-stable pickle. Sour or half-sour pickles are brined without vinegar and must be stored in the refrigerator.
Kosher dills have a unique history. Claudia Roden writes about them in The Book of Jewish Food. Ashkenazi Jews in central and eastern Europe — from Ukraine to Czechoslovakia — filled barrels with cucumbers, shredded cabbage or beets. These were fermented and stored in cool, dark cellars. They added a welcome and healthy tang to the bland winter staples, potatoes and bread.
When salt-preserved and untouched by heat or canning, pickles are a pro-biotic food. That means they contain ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host (World Health Organization).
Probiotic foods contain live bacteria that aid digestion and strengthen your immune system by changing the chemical balance in your intestines. They inhibit pathogens like e-coli, salmonella and candida (excess yeast), helping to keep you healthy.
The bacteria that ferment the food do so in an absence of oxygen — that is why the vegetables must be completely submerged in liquid. They create an acid environment that kills other bacteria that cause the vegetables to spoil. The acid environment created this way gives pickles their tart flavor. Herbs like dill, garlic, allspice, bay, mustard or cumin add even more flavor to your pickles.
Pickling vegetables in vinegar is another way of preserving them. Sugar is usually added to mitigate the tartness of the vinegar. These types of pickles are often canned in a hot water bath to kill any pathogens, but this also kills any beneficial bacteria.
Here are two recipes for dill pickles. The recipe for Vodak Pickles is a traditional Czech recipe passed down through generations of immigrants who settled in Hillsboro, Wisconsin in the late 1800s.
I got this recipe from Jim Tucker, who says, “Pre-COVID, Michele and I traveled through the regions of West and Central Bohemia where her ancestors came from and we found the pickles served were very similar to these Vodak pickles that her grandmother (Rose Wopat) and her Mom (LouAnn Douglas) made for their families for decades. I use a large pressure cooker (canner) and try to bring the water to nearly a boil, while retaining the green color one should expect from the cucumbers and trying to get most of the jars to seal as they cool.”
Tucker’s Vodak Pickles
5.5 cups water
3.5 cups vinegar
3.5 cups sugar
7 tsp pickling salt
(these first four ingredients make up the brine solution)
7 pounds sliced cucumbers
Dill — a sprig of dill in each one-quart jar.
3 heads dill equals 1 tablespoon dill seed
1 teaspoon dill seed equals a sprig of dill
3- to 5-inch sprig of fresh dill equals 1/4 teaspoon of dried dill weed.
Mix the brine: vinegar, water, salt, and sugar and cook until dissolved. This doesn’t have to boil, like in some other dill pickle recipes.
Place a sprig of dill (or equivalent from above) in each jar, followed by the sliced cucumbers. Cover the cucumbers with the brine, and place the lid and ring in place. Then place into the water bath or canner. Cover with cold water, and heat until the green color of the cucumbers has faded. No boiling is required. The trick is getting the jars to seal. If you time this right, you will end up with some extremely crispy pickles that will quickly get consumed. You will find that these are much less salty than traditional dill pickles.
If you find that you have pickle jars that did not seal, place these jars into the fridge the next morning. You will begin eating these first and likely finish the jar within two days.
Makes 5 quarts of pickles.
Kosher Dill Pickles
2 Tablespoons salt
1 quart water
Spices: whole garlic cloves, dill heads or dill seeds, bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice grains, mustard seeds.
Wash cucumbers well to remove soil. Cut 1/16 of an inch off the bottom to remove the blossom end, which can cause softening. To each quart jar, add 2 teaspoons dill seeds or pickling spice, 1 bay leaf, 2 cloves garlic, and 1 or 2 teaspoons each peppercorns and allspice. Pack cucumbers tightly in jars or crock.
Bring water with salt to boil, cook 3 minutes and cool. Pour over cucumbers, and weigh down so they are not exposed to air. Keep in room temperature and out of direct sunlight for 4 – 5 days, then refrigerate or store in a cool place. Cooler temperatures will cause them to cure slower but will yield a crisper product.
Check the container several times a week. The fermenting process may cause the brine to bubble and overflow the container. Also, scum or mold may form on top; if this happens, just skim it off. The pickles are ready when they are olive green in color.
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Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @yvonawrites.