When is a pickle?
Okay. I know this is a baking forum, but consider: Rye bread cries for pastrami, and pastrami sandwiches cry for pickles. In fact, the respondents to my recent blog on Jewish Sour Rye Bread and Eric's blog on home-made pastrami have more or less demanded I share my mother's recipe for the best ever garlic pickles.
But, first, you have to hear a story about them, you should be warned.
I don't make pickles often. Typically, several years go by between picklings, so there are things I forget.
A few years ago … about 25 years, actually … I put up a case of my mother's garlic pickles. (See the recipe, below.) My wife and I disagreed about the process, which is a normal step in the pickle-making procedure, but I am in charge of pickling in our household, so I did it as I remembered my mother doing it.
Well, after the pickles were in the jars and three days had passed, we took the jars out of the box to tighten the lids. The brine in the jars was fizzy with gas, and the contents were extremely cloudy. My wife, whose first career was as a clinical microbiologist, wanted me to throw them out; they clearly had bacterial contamination and were unsafe to eat. My memory was that my mother's pickle jars always got cloudy. This was normal. They hadn't killed anyone yet. I was sure they were just fine.
We continued this “discussion” for several days. Then, in exasperation, I called the University of California, Davis Agricultural Extension Service, after getting my wife to agree they would be a reliable source of health safety information regarding home preserved vegetables.
I spoke with the nice young women to whom I was transferred who identified herself as a consultant on home canning. I described the condition of my pickles. She asked for my recipe, and I gave it to her. There was a long pause. She asked, “No vinegar?” I confirmed that the pickles were made without vinegar. She told me that vinegar was absolutely required. Acidification of the brine was essential to prevent growth of bacteria, including Clostridia botulinum. Another long pause. “Sir, I believe you have a very dangerous product there,” she announced, with considerable emotion.
My wife, of course, reminded me she had “told you so!” But, I was unconvinced. I told the nice Cooperative Extension Service Canning Consultant I was just positive my mother's pickles always turned cloudy and gave off gas, and they hadn't killed anyone yet. I was sure they were fine. She said she was still sure I had a lethal “product,” but she would talk to the Cooperative Extension Service Pickle Consultant when he returned from vacation in 2 weeks and get back to me.
Two weeks later, as good as her word, the Cooperative Extension Service Canning Consultant called me back. She had talked with the Cooperative Extension Service Pickle Consultant, and she had learned something new which she shared with me: “You have not made pickles,” she announced. “Pickles are made with vinegar. What you have made is fermented cucumbers.” The Pickle Consultant had told her to tell me the way to be sure they were safe to eat was to look for carbon dioxide gas generated by the fermentative process and a cloudy precipitate in the brine, which was made of dead yeast bodies.
After waiting a week after I had eaten a few, to be sure the pickles didn't kill me or make me sick, my wife and children joined me in enjoying the delicious fermented cucumbers.
Phyllis Snyder's Garlic Not-Pickles
Peeled garlic cloves
Celery cut into 1/2 x 3 inch sticks
Dried hot red peppers
Fresh dill weed
Brine made with 1 part un-iodized salt stirred until dissolved in 21 parts water.
Glass canning jars and lids
Large pot to sterilize jars and lids
Tongs to handle hot jars and lids
Clean kitchen towels to drain sterilized jars and lids
Wash jars and lids in hot soapy water. Rinse thoroughly.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place jars and lids in the water and boil for 7 minutes.
Remove jars and lids from water and drain on kitchen towels until they are room temperature.
Scrub pickling cucumbers well. Drain in colander.
Pack each jar tightly with a layer of cucumbers, upright.
Over this layer, pour 1 tsp pickling spice, 1 or 2 garlic cloves, 2 dill sprigs (stems and flowers) and 1 pepper. (These quantities are for quart jars. If you are using pint jars, use half these quantities for each jar.)
Pack the rest of the jar tightly with cucumbers.
Insert 2 or more celery sticks in among the cucumbers. (These supposedly help the pickles stay crisp. Anyway, they are good to eat too.)
Fill the jar with the brine to cover the jar contents completely.
Screw the lids onto the jars loosely.
Leave the jars in a cool place for at least 3 days. (If you want “half-pickles,” refrigerate the jars immediately at this point.) There will be significant carbon dioxide gas generate which will appear as tiny bubbles in the brine, and the brine will become cloudy with a white sediment which will eventually settle to the bottom of the jars.
Tighten the jar lids and store them. The pickles can now be eaten, but will keep for a few years.