Why this recipe works: At my very first job, between scribbling down orders and scooping ice cream, I was often found in the walk-in fridge gobbling down a juicy dill pickle from a giant bucket (sorry, Friendly’s). Briny, garlicky, and crisp, a full-sour dill pickle satiated my wicked salt cravings—and still does. After all these years, I finally realized that if I just made my own, I could have a never-ending stash.
Sour Dill Pickles
Makes 10 to 12 pickles
Start today, enjoy in 10 to 21 days
First, I had to decide whether I wanted a quick-vinegar or fermented dill pickle. Quick pickles are steeped in a salty vinegar solution and are ready in as little as a few hours. They’re good in a pinch, but the sour bite is really just skin deep, as they rely on the vinegar for flavor. With fermented pickles, a saltwater brine is poured over whole cucumbers and they are left to sit. Natural fermentation takes over and the cucumber transforms—all the way to its very center—into a true sour pickle. (A little vinegar is added at the beginning, but it’s only enough to keep things food-safe until fermentation kicks in.) This type of pickle can take some time to cure, but the reward is a pickle with a genuine sour bite that’s not for wimps. To get the full flavor of a tangy deli-style kosher dill pickle, I was willing to wait for fermentation to do its thing. You should, too.
Be aware that if your garlic is very fresh, it will likely turn blue. Don’t worry; it’s just reacting to the acid. Note that when fermenting, cleanliness of both the ingredients and your utensils is critical.
—Yvonne Ruperti, Associate Editor, America’s Test Kitchen
The best brine: The first step is to make the saltwater brine. The amount of salt is critical: Salt keeps the bad bacteria at bay (my first batch turned moldy because the salt concentration was too low), but using too much can slow fermentation to a halt. With more than half a cup of kosher salt to 8 cups of water, my brine is fairly salty. I also add vinegar, just enough to keep it food-safe until fermentation kicks in. Dissolve the salt in half of the water over medium-high heat, then stir in the rest of the water and vinegar. Let the brine cool to room temp before pouring it over the cucumbers.
Choose the right cuke: Kirby, aka pickling, cucumbers are the best variety for this recipe (and any pickling recipe, hence their name). Make sure they're as fresh as possible, picking ones that are firm and green. Rinse them off in a colander to get rid of any sand. Depending on their size and your container's shape (use a 3- to 4‑quart sterilized jar or a pickle crock), the number you end up fermenting will vary, but it will likely be around 10 or 12.
Pack those pickles: Along with the pickles, I add a few extras–fresh dill, dill seeds, smashed garlic cloves, and whole peppercorns–to boost the flavor. Tightly pack your jar or crock with the cucumbers, alternating the dill, garlic, and spices along the way. Only fill the jar to about 2 inches from the top to leave room for the brine. Make sure to use clean tongs to limit transferring bacteria into the jar.
Submerge completely: To pour the brine over the cucumbers, I find it easiest to first transfer the brine from the saucepan to a liquid measuring cup. Fill the jar with brine until it's about an inch from the top. It's very important that the pickles and spices are covered in the brine by at least 1/2 inch. My recipe intentionally makes extra brine; reserve about 1 quart and store it in the fridge so that you can replenish the crock if any of the liquid evaporates during fermentation.
A weighty matter: If anything pops up above the brine, it runs the risk of getting moldy. I like to arrange a piece of parchment in the jar or crock, then weigh it down with a small bowl or plate (a saucer or bread-and-butter plate should be a good fit) to prevent any potential issues. This holds the pickles safely beneath the brine's surface and creates a seal that keeps the pickles from going bad.
Keep it clean: The next step is to cover the jar with a piece of cheesecloth that's been folded over a few times. This keeps out dust while letting gas escape; gas is produced as the pickles ferment. To keep the cheesecloth from falling into the liquid, I use a rubber band to secure the cloth in place.
Sour beginnings: Keeping the jar at room temperature and away from direct sunlight will help fermentation. Check it daily to make sure the brine is covering the pickles, topping it off if necessary. Skim off any scum that might collect on the brine's surface, and if the cheesecloth gets damp, replace it. After three days you'll notice the brine is starting to look cloudy and some bubbles may be rising up. After 10 days, the pickles should be turning a yellow-green color and the brine will be really cloudy. Take a pickle out and try it. It should have a nice sour flavor.
Superlative sours: My pickles took just 10 days to get the flavor that I wanted, but it could take longer. They can sit at room temperature for up to 21 days. When the flavor is where you want it, transfer them to the refrigerator. They'll keep on fermenting in there (at a much slower pace than they do at room temperature
Makes four 1‑pint jars
Make today, enjoy in 2 days
1. Toss cucumbers, onion, bell pepper, and salt together in large bowl. Cover with single layer of ice cubes and refrigerate for 3 hours. Discard ice, then rinse and drain vegetables well.
2. Bring vinegar, sugar, water, mustard seeds, turmeric, celery seeds, and cloves to boil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add rinsed vegetables, return to boil, and immediately remove from heat.
3. Using slotted spoon, transfer pickles to jars with tight-fitting lids. Pour hot brine over pickles, evenly distributing spices, let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for 2 days before eating. Pickles can be refrigerated for up to 2 months.
To Process for Long-Term Storage: Transfer pickles and brine, while still hot, to hot, sterilized 1‑pint jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at top, and process following Canning 101 steps on page 71. Processing times depend on your altitude: 10 minutes for up to 1,000 feet, 15 minutes for 1,001 to 3,000 feet, 20 minutes for 3,001 to 6,000 feet, and 25 minutes for above 6,000 feet. Store in cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
Why this recipe works: I’ll never forget the day I came home from lifeguarding one summer to see my mother elbow-deep in a bowl filled with 5 pounds of thinly sliced cucumbers, muttering about sugar, salt, and the sanity (or lack thereof) of my grandmother. Spurred on by the abundance of cucumbers in our garden, she had decided to tackle her mother’s recipe for making an enormous batch of bread-and-butter pickles.
At that point in my adolescence, I couldn’t fathom the idea of making pickles at home. Even if I could have, I was a full-fledged dill pickle devotee at that time, known to steal many a wedge from an unsuspecting family member’s hamburger platter. I turned up my nose at anything other than a lip-puckering spear. But my grandmother’s bread-and-butters opened up a whole new world of pickles to me. The cucumbers were accented with thinly sliced onions and red bell peppers, and seasoned with warm, savory spices (mustard and celery seeds, turmeric, and ground cloves). A strong hand with the sugar gave them a sweet backbone, but the vinegar-based brine brought them back in balance. Their sweet-salty flavor and remarkable crispness got me hooked. I remember eating the pickles every which way, including my mom’s specialty: cream cheese, ham, and pickle sandwiches served on English muffins. After that summer, it became the one and only cucumber pickle I craved.
When I sat down to remake the recipe in my own kitchen, I thought I’d want to give the whole recipe a makeover. But after some testing, I realized only a couple tweaks were needed. The original was near-perfect as written.
—Kate Williams, Test Cook, Books
Pick less than a peck: I knew I wanted to scale my grandmother's recipe to work with a more manageable 2 pounds of cucumbers; I use kirby, aka pickling, cucumbers (see page 104 for more info). The thinly sliced onion and red bell pepper in the original recipe were keepers, lending variety and color. Granulated sugar and water make up the bulk of the brine, but instead of using white vinegar like my grandmother, I call for cider vinegar, which adds a fruity sweetness. Then I flavor the whole caboodle with traditional B&B spices: mustard seeds, turmeric, celery seeds, and ground cloves.
Slice 'em thin: I like to thinly slice all of the vegetables for these pickles (anything to help pile lots of layers of pickles onto my sandwiches!), but I don't do it by hand. A mandoline comes in handy here. Not only does it give my knives a break, but it also ensures even slices and thus even pickling. Slice the cucumbers, onion, and red pepper all 1/8 inch thick.
Ice down: Next I toss all the sliced vegetables together in a bowl with 1/4 cup kosher salt. The salt draws water out of the vegetables, helping to leave them crisp and well-seasoned. I cover the salted vegetables with a layer of ice before sticking the bowl in the fridge to ensure they chill as quickly as possible. After three hours in the fridge, the vegetables will have let off much of their liquid, and the onions and peppers will have wilted ever so slightly. Drain and rinse the vegetables.
Boil and bubble: Next, stir the cider vinegar, sugar, water, mustard seeds, turmeric, celery seeds, and cloves together in a Dutch oven until the sugar dissolves, and bring the whole mixture to a boil. This is your brine. Next, carefully add the drained salted vegetables, bring the mixture once again to a boil, and then immediately remove it from the heat. This short cooking time is just enough to start the pickling process.
All jarred up: Divide the pickles and brine evenly among your glass jars (making sure an even amount of spices falls into each jar), let cool, and then transfer them to the fridge. The pickles will be ready to eat in a couple of days, and will keep for about two months, once opened, in the fridge. Most of the time I like to eat my bread-and-butters straight up out of the jar. They are also killer on burgers, grilled cheese, and, of course, my mom's specialty: cream cheese and ham sandwiches.