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With cucumbers, salt and time, you can make deli-style pickles at home

Cathy Barrow Special to The Washington Post
Many delis sell sour pickles, a fermentation project that you can take on at home if you have Kirby cucumbers, salt and a little time. [Contributed by Cathy Barrow]

The vegetables are coming on strong, the markets are overflowing and farm stands glow with the colors of summer produce. It's time to pickle.

A fermented pickle is the Other Pickle: not vinegar-based. Although fermentation is trendy and has been picking up speed for all its health benefits, I ferment foods because it makes them taste great. Fermentation uses microorganisms and "good," lactic-acid bacteria naturally occurring in the air to turn vegetables into crunchy, tangy, welcome treats.

Making fermented pickles couldn't be more straightforward, requiring only pristine produce, water and salt. A relatively short amount of time can perform the transformative magic.

Half- and full-sour pickles, such as the ones served at classic New York delicatessens, are typically fermented. They make a great addition to any summer picnic and take only three days to go from cucumber to amazing. When you apply the same process to the components of a slaw, such as carrots and the much-maligned kohlrabi, your fellow picnickers will be treated to a whole new kind of zesty side dish.

Select vegetables for fermentation with care. Look for specimens with no bruising, soft spots or mold. Recently harvested cucumbers make for a crisper and more flavorful pickle. Kirby cucumbers are coming in now, benefiting from hot weather and consistent rains. They are plump, firm and sprightly, bright green and ready to be pickled. Kirbys have fewer seeds than so-called salad cukes and seedless (English) varieties and a more substantial skin, making them perfect for pickling. They remain crisp while absorbing the flavor of the brine.

Cucumber vines will continue to flower and fruit throughout the summer, but the early crop is heavy and gives a greater opportunity to find uniformly sized specimens. Why is that important? Because I like to pickle cucumbers whole and slice them just before serving, so I spend time hunting down right-size specimens to fit in the jars. (When I do end up with mixed sizes, I'll plan to eat the smallest ones first, as they will brine the fastest, or I'll cut the whole batch into spears or thick chips before brining.)

As the summer goes on, humidity, too much or too little rain and a variety of pests can take down a cucumber vine. So pickle now for no regrets later.

Other things I've learned:

• Choose pristine produce. Vegetables with soft spots, bruises and other damage won't ferment at the same pace as specimens that are firm, fresh and perfectly ripe.

• Use filtered, non-chlorinated water. Chlorine can interfere with the fermentation and the flavor of the pickle.

• Pick the right salt. Use only kosher or sea salt; iodized (table) salt will turn ferments black and mushy.

• Weight for it. For a successful fermentation, the vegetables must remain completely submerged in the brine. I accomplish that in a few ways, including fitting another jar just inside the one filled with vegetables and brine; the fit should be snug enough not to allow air to escape yet just loose enough so that you can still remove the top jar. Fill that top jar with water, which will turn it into a weight that holds the vegetables down.

• Vary the flavor profiles. I always make a few straight-up sours with nothing but salt and water. In other jars, I might add dill seed (dried) or fresh dill flowers; garlic scapes or whole, peeled garlic cloves; even sliced jalapeno or habanero peppers. Be bold and adventurous.

• Avoid a mushy pickle. Every cucumber carries an enzyme that kills crunch. Cut off a slim piece of the blossom end. If you can't figure out which end that is, take a slice off both ends and call it a day. Some people add fresh (washed) grape leaves, oak leaves, horseradish leaves or leaves from a sour cherry tree, as the tannins therein will boost crunch.

• Watch the magic. Once filled and brined, the jars sit on the counter for a few days. It's a fascinating transformation. The water turns cloudy as lactobacillus, a healthy, white, fluffy mold, forms. Small, lazy bubbles burble up. The pickles change color, too.

If you have preserving jars, they're handy to use. But any glass jar with a screw-on cap or a crock made specifically for fermenting will do.

When you use a crock, make sure to use the same kind of weighting technique to keep the vegetables submerged. If your crock did not come with a weight, make one yourself by filling a zip-top bag with more of the salty brine. (Should the bag leak, the brine in your crock will not suffer.)

About those bubbles: Be sure to loosen the jar caps once a day — this is called "burping" — to release CO2 and ensure there won't be a spillover. 

Deli-Style Fermented Sour Pickles

These old-fashioned sours are crisp, flavorful and full of pucker. Select only small, straight Kirby pickling cucumbers so they fit harmoniously in a jar and can be brined whole. The cucumbers need to soak for 30 minutes in ice water. The pickles need at least 3 days' fermentation time, or more as needed (see below). The fermented pickles can be refrigerated for up to 1 month. From Cathy Barrow.

12 small or medium Kirby (pickling) cucumbers

8 cups filtered, non-chlorinated water

1/4 cup kosher or sea salt

12 garlic scapes or 9 large cloves fresh spring garlic (optional)

3 fresh dill seed heads or 3 teaspoons dried dill seed (optional)

1 jalapeno pepper, cut into 9 thin slices (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns (optional)

Fill a large bowl with ice water. Add the cucumbers, swishing them around to dislodge any dirt and to plump them before brining. Soak for 30 minutes, then remove them and scrub away any remaining soil.

Combine the 8 cups of water and the salt in a medium pot over high heat; bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. This will be the base brine; remove from the heat and cool completely.

If you are using any of the optional flavoring components (garlic scapes, garlic, fresh dill seed heads or dried dill seed, jalapeno and/or black peppercorns), divide them among the three jars.

Trim off and discard 1/8-inch from both ends of each cucumber. Pack 3 into the jar, standing up, then place another cucumber across the others, essentially pinning them down. This method holds the cucumbers under the brine.

Pour the brine over the cucumbers, covering them completely. Loosely cap the jars; set them inside a pan or on a dish to catch any spillover. Place the jars out of the sun on the counter for 3 days. Every day, loosen the caps and "burp" the jars, then replace the cap to continue the fermentation. The water will become cloudy, and lazy bubbles might be evident; this is a good thing.

After 3 days, slice off a piece of one pickle from each jar and taste it. Is it sour enough for you? If not, allow the pickles to continue to ferment, tasting regularly. (A week will do the trick, but the pickles can ferment for weeks longer.) Once the pickles taste good to you, tighten the caps; place them in the refrigerator (for up to 1 month). Makes 3 quarts.

— Cathy Barrow

Fermented Spicy Gingered Carrot-Kohlrabi Slaw

This slaw is sweet and salty, spicy and bubbly — and just plain delicious. Use it as a condiment for grilled meat and fish, but try it layered on a sandwich or topping your taco or banh mi, too. You'll need 1 wide-mouth quart jar, plus 1 standard 8-ounce jar, with clean screw-on caps for each. (The smaller jar will be used as a weight for keeping the fermenting vegetables submerged, which is crucial.) The vegetables need 3 days' fermentation time, and up to 1 week for a more sour-tasting slaw. The fermented slaw can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

1 pound carrots, scrubbed well, then grated or cut into julienne (thin matchsticks)

8 ounces kohlrabi, peeled and grated or cut into julienne

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger root

1 Thai (bird's-eye) chili pepper, pierced with the tip of a knife (optional)

Combine the carrots, kohlrabi and salt in a medium bowl (not plastic). Use your clean hands to work the salt through the vegetables. Let sit for 30 minutes; a brine will develop. Knead in the ginger.

Transfer the vegetables and brine to the larger jar. Press down firmly with your fist, or with a clean stainless-steel spoon, to encourage the brine to cover the vegetables by about 1 inch. Drop in the chili pepper, if using.

(If there is insufficient brine, boil 1 quart of water with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, cool thoroughly and pour in the amount of brine needed to completely cover the vegetables.)

Fill the smaller jar with water, pie weights or dried beans; cap tightly. Place this weighted jar inside the larger jar to keep the vegetables submerged.

Check the vegetables every day to make sure they remain submerged. It's important to "burp" the jar once a day by simply removing the smaller weighted jar, then replacing it.

Taste the fermented slaw after 3 days. If it is sour enough for your taste, place it in the refrigerator; that will halt the fermentation process. If you would like a more sour slaw, continue to ferment, checking the flavor every day, for up to 1 week. After the slaw is fermented to your liking, seal tightly and refrigerate for up to 1 month. Makes 3 cups.

— Cathy Barrow, mrswheelbarrow.com