Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
It's a delicate balance in my garden that I do not yet have under control. Each year I prepare for cucumbers and pickles by trying to figure out how many cucumber plants I should plant. The goal is always to have a constant supply of fresh cukes for slicing and eating throughout the summer. They are delicious, but really, how many cucumbers can you eat? In reality one plant would be enough for our family. The problem is that I also make a lot of pickles and this means that you need a large amount of cucumbers ripening at the same time so that you can follow a pickle recipe. Also, if you are going to can pickles, then you want to use cukes that were picked that morning and not ones that have been sitting in the fridge in order to get the freshest and crispest pickles. Many canning recipes for pickles call for 32 pounds at a time, which means I definitely need more than one cucumber plant in the garden. This year I decided on four. Four cucumber plants give me that large amount of cukes at once to preserve and plenty of fresh eating on top of that. Of course, I don't can pickles every day, so that means a large excess of cucumbers each week. My solution? Feed 'em to the pigs!! Luckily pigs will eat just about anything and so it's a great way to get rid of excess produce from the garden.
This past week the cucumbers really came in. I picked at least two bushels one morning from those 4 plants! That meant a busy day of pickling. You can pickle just about any vegetable and this used to be the preferred way of preserving food. Once a food is pickled, the liquid that it sits in is inhospitable to bacteria growth, so they can last a long time. Diets used to consist of pickled food daily, but now our tastes have sort of grown away from this and pickles have become a rare condiment food. The strange thing is that what we consider to be pickles really aren't pickles at all. People used to ferment food in order to make pickles. Now we use vinegar, which is a totally different method. Lacto-fermented food is a naturally occurring process that vegetables go through when they sit out. We have come to think that this means vegetables will rot and make us sick. I must admit, after I tried making my first batch of lacto-fermented pickles I was a bit nervous to take the first bite! If you dissolve salt in water and make a brine and then submerse vegetables in it and leave them at room temperature, then the vegetables will ferment. The result is that the vegetables change color, get softer, and produce lactic acid which gives them a slightly sour tangy flavor - much like a pickle - and keeps bacteria from growing. Another result is that lactobacilli grows which is a good bacteria that increases the digestibility of the food, makes the food more nutritious, and adds enzymes in to our guts that are probiotic. Lacto-fermented foods may be an acquired taste to us now, but it is well worth the effort because they offer many health benefits. Contrast this to a typical canning recipe where your sour pickle taste comes from pouring a vinegar syrup over cucumbers and then letting them marinate and you can see why the health benefits are different. Of course, I believe that pickles made this way are still a healthy food because vinegar in itself is good for our digestion and pickles are a low calorie snack, but it's a different food than traditional pickles. For more on lacto-fermented vegetables read Wild Fermentation.
With this in mind, I make many different types of pickles during the growing season. On a continuous basis I make fermented cucumber pickles that are sometimes referred to as half-sours. These are my favorite! Unfortunately, they don't last longer than a month or so and therefore are something that we eat during the summer and early fall only. I try to make a batch a week so that we always have them. I also make many batches of pickles that I water-bath can which will last for a year and is something that we eat in the winter and early spring. There are tons of canning recipes for pickles and they mostly fall into two categories - ones that take a few days vs. ones that you make in one sitting. The ones that you make in one sitting generally mean that you make a vinegar/sugar syrup and pour it over the cukes. These are quick pickles and in my opinion the least healthy, but delicious! I prefer to use recipes that involve soaking the cucumbers in a salt brine for a day or more, then rinsing the cukes in fresh water before adding the pickling syrup. I believe these make crispier pickles and for some reason I think they might contain some of the lacto-fermented properties although I have no proof of that! For this I have a large ceramic crock that I soak cucumbers in before canning them. One of the great things about making pickles is that there are endless combinations of spices to use. Each year I try a new recipe as well as my trusted oldies. You can make sweet pickles, dill pickles, garlic pickles, and many other combinations including adding things like cinnamon and turmeric for some very unique flavors.
On the day that the pickles really came in I ended up making 3 large glass containers of half-sours, 14 pints of 48 Hour Sour pickles which sit in a brine for a day, 6 pints of Sweet Pickle Chips, and 8 pints of Sunshine pickles, which was my new recipe for the year (they are delicious!) And this was just one harvest and one day of canning! By the end of the summer our shelves will be full of pickles! I hope that you try some pickle recipes this year and if you are not ready for canning just yet, then try the fermented recipe below. You can make it with just a few cukes and everybody seems to love them. Enjoy!
Half-Sours (Fermented Cucumber Pickles)
Wash enough cucumbers to fill a quart sized mason jar and cut off the blossom end, which can contain an enzyme that softens your pickles.
Cut the cucumbers into any shape you like (rounds, spears, etc.)
Pack the cucumbers into a quart sized mason jar.
To the jar, add 1 crushed clove of garlic, 1 dill head or sprig of fresh dill, 1/8 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp mustard seed, 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper, and 1 bay leaf.
In a separate bowl, dissolve 1 1/2 Tbsp of pickling salt in 3 cups of water. Pour the brine over your cucumbers. Make sure that all cucumbers are submerged under the brine. They will float, so use a ziplock bag filled with more brine to weigh them down and cover the opening of the mason jar.
Put the jar on a plate in case it bubbles over and let it sit on the counter for at least 3 days. After 3 days you can taste them and whenever they get to a taste that you really like, then remove the ziplock bag, cap the jar, and move them to the fridge which will slow the fermenting process and allow the pickles to last for about a month. Expect the liquid to become cloudy and even bubble, but if any scum or mold grows, then skim it off the top.
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