Friday, 16 September 2011

Fermenting Cucumbers

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
It's late summer, and the garden produce is really rolling in. I only have a few more weeks, if I'm lucky, before the nights drop below freezing. So I'm busy harvesting then using various preserving methods to squirrel stuff away for later. For years, canning various flavors of pickles was standard operating procedure around here for dealing with the cucumber glut. And I still have plenty of jars full of sweet, dill, bread & butter pickles and relish.

Last year, I tried fermenting the cucumbers instead, and found a new favorite. I like sauerkraut - fermented cabbage. Fermented cucumbers, also called sour pickles, are just as good - plus easier and less time-consuming than heat-processing lots of jars. And now, as the heat of summer fades, it's cooler inside. The fermentation process works best between 55F and 75F (13 - 24C). Above that, the pickles ferment too fast and get soft. Lower temperatures just mean a longer fermentation time, and slower is better. I use a 2-gallon glass crock, but for those interested in trying this method a gallon glass jar works great.

Your cucumbers should be fresh, right out of the garden if possible, picked before the seeds inside start to toughen up. Size doesn't matter - bigger cucumbers just take longer to ferment (so eat the little ones first). If your cucumbers are a couple of days old, you can soak them in water for half a day to refresh them a bit. You might want to take your kitchen shears out with you when harvesting. Try to clip with a little 1/4 inch of stem attached instead of pulling them from the vines. Don't use damaged fruit, and wash away any remaining dirt or debris.

Slice away the tiniest little sliver from the blossom end. The blossom contains an enzyme that encourages the cucumber to continue to ripen. Removing it stops the process, and your pickles stay firmer and crunchier. Old recipe books say adding young grape leaves will make crunchier pickles. I have a couple of organically-grown grapevines, so I figured it couldn't hurt. I don't know if it made the pickles any crisper, but the leaves pickled along with the cucumbers and were so good I now add extra just be able to eat them on their own.

For a gallon of fermented pickles, you'll need about 4 pounds cucumbers (about 6-7 salad-sized ones). Put any or all of the optional ingredients (2 tablespoons dill seed or a couple of fresh heads of dill; a couple garlic cloves, a couple dried hot peppers, 2 teaspoons mustard seed, and/or a layer of 4" grape leaves) in the bottom of your container, and add the whole cucumbers. You can pack them in vertically if you're using the big ones. Stir 1/2 cup non-iodized salt into 8 cups water with 1/4 cup vinegar added. When the salt dissolves, pour the mixture over the cucumbers. Use a clean ceramic plate or glass jar to keep the cucumbers submerged an inch below the level of the brine. Cover with a piece of cloth or another plate, and put it somewhere cool where you can check it a couple of times a week. Skim scum and mold from the surface as needed.

As the cucumbers ferment, they'll lose their bright green color, turning translucent (that's not mold - it's white flakes of sediment, easily stirred up and then it settles out again). Complete fermentation can take from 4 - 8 weeks.

You can eat them at any time, but they are fully fermented when no white patches remain. If kept in a cool spot, the pickles will continue to get sourer. If you can't find a cool spot to keep the jar, refrigerate them for longer storage.

I'll keep my crock on the kitchen counter for 4 - 5 weeks, adding additional cucumbers as I continue to harvest, making additional brine solution as necessary to keep them submerged. After that, I'll move the crock down to the cooler cellar, to keep through the winter. Every week to 10 days an almost gel-like layer of scum forms on the top - rarely it would get a couple specks of blue-topped white mold on top of that. It's easy enough to just pinch that layer, pull it out, and toss it.

When I want another pickle, I'll fish one out, redistribute those left, and replace the plate. Inside the house, I keep a quart jar of brine in the refrigerator, where I keep the current pickle, cutting slices off as needed. No scum forms on the jar in the refrigerator. When the cellar starts warming up, in the spring, I just transfer the pickles left to a jar in the refrigerator to keep eating until I either run out or I can start a fresh batch. My reference source here.