[Current as of January 2020.] It took me until my 30s to actually like sour pickles. Turns out they’re also pretty easy and fun to make. And it’s always more enjoyable to eat them when you made them yourself. In particular, these notes are about lacto-fermented pickles.
You’ll need need three things: cucumbers, brine, and flavorings.
I prefer to pickle whole cucumbers (rather than spears or slices), so I use small cucumbers. Kirby cucumbers are canonical, but I most easily find lebanese (AKA persian) cucumbers, so that’s what I use.
4 cups of room temperature water
3 tbsp salt
1 package of fresh dill
about 6 cloves of garlic
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
The first step is to bathe the cucumbers in ice cold water, for maybe an hour. It’s supposed to keep the cucumbers firm and crunchy.
Then, put the flavorings in your fermentation vessel, then the cucumbers, then add enough brine to cover the cucumbers. You don’t want the cucumbers to be exposed to the air.
Leave your pickles in a dark, cool-ish place to ferment. Depending on how sour you want them, you may want to leave them for longer or shorter. I find that after 2-3 weeks, they get pretty sour, which is what I like. It also depends on how long you can resist cracking them open.
Once they’re done (or you can’t wait anymore), put them in the fridge. They’re ready to go. I don’t know how long they keep, but since they’re fermented, that should be a while; you’ll have eaten all of them before then.
Some recipes recommend skimming the scum that forms at the top of the jar daily during fermentation. I’m lazy, so I don’t, and my pickles have been fine. They tend to have some flaky-like deposits on them (that wash off easily), which is maybe related, but that hasn’t made them less tasty (and hasn’t made me sick).
I sometimes get cucumbers that have a hollowed center after fermentation, or that are just flaccid. They taste just as good. Quick research suggests that it may be caused by using cucumbers that were picked too long ago. But short of growing them yourself, or getting them from a farmer’s market, there’s not much one can do about that.
Mason jars are the canonical fermentation vessel (for small-scale pickling anyway). I use 1 gallon jars, so I can make decent-sized batches. Mason jars also have standard sizes and mouth widths, which is nice when shopping for accessories (though be careful to get standard jars).
Fermentation releases gas, which will need to escape. At the same time, you don’t want oxygen to come in. I use lids with a hole for an airlock, which works pretty well. I got a kit from Year of Plenty that also has fermentation weights (more below), which I’ve been happy with. Once your pickles are ready and stored in the fridge, you’ll want to switch to a regular lid, if only to not have the airlock in the way. Alternatively, you can just not seal your jar completely, but that’s not ideal.
You want your cucumbers to be completely covered by the brine. But cucumbers float. You also don’t want to completely fill your container with brine either, so there’s some headroom for the gas. So you’ll want some sort of weight to hold the cucumbers down. I use glass pickling weights (from the aforementioned kit) which work pretty well. They’re just the right width for the opening of a mason jar, but since 1 gallon jars have a much wider body, the weight can slide a bit to the side if you’re not careful.
I tend to get greedy and cram as many cucumbers as I can in my jars. So there’s often not much headroom for gas, which can lead to some of the brine getting in the airlock and (if you’re not paying attention) spilling through it. For that reason, I put my jar in a plastic bucket, to contain spills.