Homemade half-sours and chow-chow come out of the basement
Published: August 25, 2010
The back basement of the house I grew up in was a mysterious place full of actual cobwebs and quivering shadows cast by the single dangling light bulb. During childhood dinnertimes, I was frequently sent to navigate this ominous landscape, because the far cellar wall was lined with shelves, and on these shelves sat row upon orderly row of quart Mason jars. These good soldiers gleamed in the dim light, filled with colorful bounty from our summer garden that my mother and grandmother had worked hard to preserve in a steam-filled kitchen, toiling over a rumbling canning kettle at the height of summer. A muted rainbow of crimson tomatoes, olive-drab dilly beans, and silky golden crescents of sliced peaches awaited the intrepid cellar-crosser.
Tantalizing as the jars were, I preferred what was to be found on the floor down underneath: pickling crocks. As in, five-gallon stoneware containers designed for home fermentation of vegetables in brine. You couldn’t steal a taste of, say, damson plum preserves without being betrayed by the popped-up jar lid and its tell-tale broken seal. Nothing stopping a kid, however, from lifting one of the heavy crock lids and nipping a pinch of sauerkraut or, even better, a half-sour pickle.
One reason the crocks were more alluring to childhood me is that their contents seemed produced almost by magic. Canning was obviously a sweaty, labor-intensive process: peeling, chopping, and otherwise prepping the produce; blanching or cooking and seasoning it; sterilizing and sealing the jars; and finally the lengthy boiling water bath. Crock pickling, however, required merely mixing the vegetables with salt and spices, sometimes adding a little water, and waiting.
Both approaches can be referred to as pickling, and before the age of refrigeration, they were widely used for preserving perishable foods; pickles used to accompany meals the way we now munch on side salads. These days, the most common kind of pickles are vegetables (and sometimes fruits) in vinegar; for decades, our cultural notion of “pickles” has been flaccid grocery store gherkins. The recent uptick in the popularity of home canning, however, has brought on a pickling renaissance, and now the term can mean exotic combinations like mangosteen-green tomato chutney as well as classic pickles such as chow-chow (mixed sweet-and-sour vegetables, popular in the South) and piccalilli (a spicy-hot relish).
Fermentation is a less common but far older practice. In his book Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz writes that “Humans have been fermenting longer than we’ve been writing words or cultivating the soil.” Technically, pickling vegetables in salt or brine is called lacto-fermentation—fermentation being a controlled production of lactic acid—and the technique is catching on among hard-core DIY enthusiasts. Treating vegetables with salt retards the bacteria that cause spoilage until the lactic acid-producing bacteria (from the order Lactobacillales, the same ones that turn milk into cheese or yogurt) have a chance to proliferate. Once these bacilli take over, the lactic acid they produce acts as a naturally occurring preservative (so long as they are kept relatively cool, as by storing them in a spooky but chilly basement). If you’ve ever eaten a half-sour cuke from an old-fashioned delicatessen or Korean kimchi—or, for that matter, yogurt—you’ve enjoyed lacto-fermented food. These preparations contain live probiotic cultures which are killed by vinegar and/or high-temperature cooking.
Science aside, preserved products used to be something of an afterthought, but now small-batch artisanal confitures are commanding their own dedicated farmer’s market stalls where creative concoctions like watermelon rind with star anise or spicy okra pickled with black mustard seeds go for fairly steep money.
Even the most timid non-cook, however, can manage basic pickles. The great thing about either approach, vinegar-based or brined, is that both are dead easy (remember: cavemen could do it), requiring only the most basic materials and simplest of techniques. You can make pickles in micro-batches and keep them on your countertop or in the fridge—no canning required. And once you’ve tried basic sweet cucumber pickles and seen how incredibly, deliciously easy they are to make, the sky’s the limit for all kinds of tasty homemade pickled treats.
My Mom’s Bread-and-Butter Pickles
3 large cucumbers, not peeled, sliced thin (try to buy unwaxed cucumbers, as fresh as possible, from the farmers market)
2 onions, sliced thin
2 tablespoons salt
1 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon mixed pickling spice (sold in grocery stores)
(OR 1/2 teaspoon whole mustard seed and 1/2 teaspoon celery seed)
1) Mix sliced cukes and onions with salt; let stand one hour.
2) Combine vinegar, sugar and spices; heat to boiling, then simmer three minutes.
3) Rinse vegetables in cold water, then pack into sterilized glass jars. (Any kind will do, so long as they have lids that screw on securely. You can sterilize them either by running them through the dishwasher and filling while they’re still hot, or washing well and then pouring boiling water into them.) Pour vinegar solution over them, put on the lid, then leave in the back of the fridge for at least two weeks for flavors to meld. After this they’re ready to eat; will keep for at least three months in fridge. Makes three pint jars.