When I was a kid, I asked Santa for a ChemLab one Christmas - back then, a toy laboratory in a tri-fold tin box. The best part, for me, was the microscope. But playing with chemical mixing and reactions was fun too. I still like experimenting with chemical reactions. Only nowadays, I have a whole kitchen for my laboratory (plus now, my results are edible - well, most of the time, anyway).
The end of August this year, I had a glut of cucumbers. For some reason, they did really well (especially the hybrid Sugar Crunch - earliest, prolific, and yummy; next best were from my saved Lemon Cucumber seeds - though later to start setting fruit, they're amazingly prolific, and the last ones picked will keep a few more weeks in a bowl on the counter, on into the fall; not so good - an open-pollinated one, Long Green). I feast on fresh cukes when I've got them, and quite often have planted enough to put up as well. Only thing is - Aries doesn't like pickles, so I'm the only one eating them. I already have enough sweet relish, dill chips, sweet pickles, and bread & butter pickles. I started researching other options.
My dill chips, from my Aunt Lillian's recipe, are tasty, but not crunchy enough. Pickles can add such a nice crunch to a sandwich. Hmmm - maybe pickling them whole would be better. These were pretty good-sized cukes though - two, maybe three, to a quart jar. Then, I started looking into fermenting instead of pickling. Ooo, something new to experiment with. I like sauerkraut; I've got a nice glass crock (extra cool for playing scientist, for observing those chemical changes).
I thought it especially interesting reading about the need to cut the merest little slice off the blossom end of the cucumbers. The blossom end produces an enzyme that hastens ripening of the fruit, and if left intact can contribute to softness in pickles. News to me - I'll definitely have to experiment more with that when I next make any other kind of pickles. Ideally, leaving a bit of the stem attached to the other end also makes for a better pickle.
Especially in the older recipes, layering grape leaves in with the cucumbers was said to contribute to crunchiness in the end product. I just happen to have a couple of organically-grown grapevines, so I picked and washed a bunch of palm-sized leaves. Everything ready, I made a layer of grape leaves, shiny-side up, on the bottom of the crock, then stacked in the whole cucumbers with fresh dill, garlic, and a couple of dried hot peppers. I topped the stack with more grape leaves and a ceramic plate, poured in the lightly salted (with only a little bit of vinegar) brine, and then left it to start fermenting (the recipe I used here).
After a couple of weeks, it was smelling pretty good. The fresh cukes were still rolling in, so I pulled out the plate and top layer of grape leaves, added another layer plus more brine, and replaced the leaves and plate to let it go on fermenting.
And now, it's five weeks later. About every third or fourth day, I use a stainless steel spoon to skim the thin layer of whitish scum off the top of the water. It stills smells yummy. Inside the crock, things are really interesting. The cucumbers have lost their shiny green color, and are starting to take on a more translucent look. At first glance, it looks like a white mold is forming on the top sides of everything.
But disturb the crock and it turns into a 20-pound snow globe. The white stuff swirls around, almost flaky in appearance - floating about, turning the brine milky, and then slowly settling again.
My research said fermentation takes about 4 weeks in a 70-degree environment - our average countertop temperature this time of year. When finished the pickles should have a uniformly translucent appearance, and a pleasantly sour taste. I cut one open, and there are just little bits of still-whitish flesh. It was sooooo good! I left it out on the cutting board this afternoon, and have already eaten half of it - one slice at a time.
A lot of the sources say the finished pickles will keep 4-6 months refrigerated, but should be heat-processed for longer storage. But they also say that if you maintain at least a couple inches of brine above the pickles, and skim the top scum off regularly, they'll keep fermenting, getting sourer and sourer. Fermentation slows down too, the lower the temperature. I don't want to cook the pickles (possibly lessening crunchiness), and don't have much refrigerator space, so my plan is to try keeping them in the crock through the winter. I pulled everything out of the crock, and cleaned and re-sterilized it. I filled a quart jar with a couple of the smaller pickles, to keep on the fast-track ferment here on the kitchen counter. I then re-packed the rest of the pickles back into the crock, mixing up a bit more of the brine to top it off.
We've been opening up the cellar nights now - the inside temperature is now down in the low 60's. I'm going to move the pickle crock down there, and keep a close eye on the scum situation (if left too long, mold then forms too - ruining the pickles and possibly poisoning me). But I'm thinking, the cellar temperature will continue to drop, fermentation will slow down, and I can safely eat yummy sour pickles all winter (or until they're all gone, anyway). Worst case scenario, they'll end up in the refrigerator by February.
**Edit added six months later: Now, towards the end of March, the pickles are still doing fine down in the cellar, where temps are still in the low 40'sF. They pickled all the way through, but since then I haven't noticed that they've gotten any sour-er.
Every week to 10 days an almost gel-like layer of scum forms on the top, occasionally with 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.
The pickles are still submerged a couple of inches below the surface, beneath the heavy china plate. When I want another pickle, I'll fish one out, redistribute those left, and replace the plate. Inside the house, I have 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.
A lucky bonus came from using the grape leaves. I don't know if they made the pickles any crisper, but they pickled along with the cucumbers. I'll usually eat one or two standing right there in the cellar. I have some recipes for making dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with a rice filling, and might try that if I have any left when it's time to empty the crock to move what's left to the refrigerator as the cellar warms up. They're good enough that I think I'll add even more grape leaves to next year's batch.