Last month a friend and I attended what turned out to be a spectacular free presentation on the history of the traditional kosher dill pickle, as they were made and sold out of barrels in the Jewish neighborhoods of the lower east side of New York City during the Jewish immigration wave of the early 20th century.
Rabbi Marcus (of www.rabbipickle.com) tells the story of how he befriended an 90+ year old former lower east side pickle maker named Moe, who wanted to pass on his traditional technique for making kosher dills to the kids of the congregation. Well as the Rabbi explains in the workshop, not only did the kids show up, but the parents did too. He soon realized that this was no longer just a kids activity, and he started to expand his presentations. (Note to mods, I am in no way associated with the Traveling Pickle Factory- I am just an enthusiastic participant).
So as the story goes, sadly Moe passed on a few years ago, but his pickle recipe lives on through Rabbi Marcus and his pickle making disciples. If he comes to your area, I can't recommend his workshop highly enough.
A brief review and photos:
First, let's get a few things out of the way.
- Making Moe's traditional pickles is dead easy. It just takes some time.
- THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER: The salt to water brine ratio. You have to get this right, because this dictates how the pickles will ferment, and how they will taste. (Too little salt and they will not properly ferment. Too much salt and they will become inedible.) All the other ingredients (dill, spice, garlic, etc.) are to taste-- that's the artistry of the pickle. The brine is the science. If you don't get the science right, the art fails automatically.
- I like vinegar. You like vinegar. VINEGAR DOES NOT BELONG IN MOE'S TRADITIONAL KOSHER DILL METHOD! All of the sour flavor in traditional kosher dills is developed strictly by the fermentation of the cucumbers in brine. The addition of vinegar (as well as cooking pickles using canning methods) are relatively modern modifications to traditional recipes initiated by the food processing industry to extend shelf life. But hey, if you really like vinegar, go ahead and try it. But that's not how Moe did it :)
- Whether the pickles turn out to be new pickles, half sours, or full sours depends only on one factor-- time. The longer the cucumbers sit in the brine, the more sour they will become. If you leave them in the brine too long beyond full sour, they will become unappealingly soft in the middle. The window of time to eat a full sour at peak crispiness is only a couple of weeks. This is the reason it's virtually impossible to buy truly fresh traditionally made kosher dill pickles at the supermarket- even the fresh, uncooked refrigerated versions like Claussen contain vinegar and other preservative agents. (This is easily verified if you look at the ingredient label, as I did)
- Rabbi Marcus acknowledged that kirbys are of course the traditional pickling cucumber. However, he advised that as pickle novices we begin with Persian cucumbers. Unlike kirbys, Persian cucumbers give off very little water in the fermentation process and will not throw off the water to salt ratio as much as kirbys can. Once you've made a few batches with Persians with the measurements listed below (and have tasted and gotten used to the proper salt content in a brine), try it with kirbys. You'll eventually be able to judge by taste when the brine is salty enough. My first attempt at making pickles with kirbys turned out great- I added a little additional salt to compensate for the extra water the kirbys would give off.
So without further ado, gather the necessary ingredients and apparatus.
1 32-oz plastic deli container with lid (you'll see why plastic is important below)
16 oz spring water, room temperature
2 tbsp Diamond Kosher Salt (this brand is important-- not all kosher salt is the same shape and volume will measure out differently, and larger crystals may have a harder time dissolving. If you can't find Diamond Kosher salt, you should know that I weighed mine out at about 20g)
(This part is to taste, so modify Moe's recipe as you see fit)
Approx 2 tbsp pickling spice (more on this later-- not all pickling spice is the same)
If your pickling spice does not contain small whole dried red peppers, add a couple to your mix- 1 to 2 for a mild one, and several more for a less traditional spicy pickle.
2-3 medium cloves of garlic
Several Persian cucumbers (try to find ones that are not too long and will fit comfortably in the 32oz deli container. If they are too long to fit, don't worry-- cut them in half. They will pickle just as well.)
1 sprig fresh dill
1. Add water and salt to plastic deli container. Place lid on tightly and shake vigorously to dissolve salt.
2. Add pickling spice, replace lid and shake vigorously.
3. Add garlic cloves.
4. Inspect the cucumbers. Make sure that stems have been fully trimmed, as these can over ferment and cause the pickles to too easily soften. Pack pickles vertically in the container. The idea is to pack them tightly down into the container, so that they will resist floating to the top. You want to keep them fully submerged in the brine, and they will not want to cooperate. Pickle tips that are exposed above the brine level will not ferment at the same rate as the submerged portion.
5. Lay the dill frond ON TOP of the brine! The dill is not a part of the brine and will infuse its essence as the pickles ferment. This is not to say that you should worry if it submerges on its own (it will, eventually).
6. Loosely place the lid on top-- DO NOT SEAL IT DOWN TIGHTLY. As the cucumbers ferment, they will give off gas which will cause a sealed lid to bulge and possibly pop off unexpectedly. You may wish to poke small holes in the plastic lid to help with ventilation.
7. Leave the cucumbers out on your counter top (or in a window) for one day (I left mine out for two, and it helped to speed up the fermentation though I wouldn't leave it out for much longer). The warmer temperature will help to activate the fermentation process. Remember, placing the pickles in the fridge does not stop the fermentation-- it just slows it down.
8. Place pickles in the refrigerator. You may see bits of white scum float to the top as a byproduct of fermentation. I didn't bother to skim mine as there really was very little, and the results were great. But feel free to skim yours if you like. Rabbi Marcus didn't mention anything about skimming.
And now, the results. Please note that these timetables are specific to my experience in Los Angeles summertime weather-- actual time will vary depending on your climate, room temperature and the temperature of your refrigerator.
In my experience, I have new pickles after 3 days, half sours after about a week and a half, and full sours after three weeks.
And that's Moe's method, in an admittedly overly detailed, ungainly nutshell.
One final note on pickling spice. Moe told Rabbi Marcus that no professional pickle maker makes his own pickling spice-- they all buy it in vast bulk quantities the same general suppliers. As a result, the Rabbi basically told us to go to any store and buy some. This turned out to be a little more of a problem than I anticipated. The pickling spice handed out at the workshop yielded perfect pickles. (I don't know who he purchases from.) But pickling spice mixtures are indeed different, and as I found out after buying a quantity of Penzey's pickling spice, cloves really don't belong in a kosher dill brine. (While their spices are incredibly fresh, Penzey's is a midwestern company, and as such I really shouldn't have expected them to have a proper NY kosher dill pickle blend-- theirs is more suited for a sweet bread and butter pickle.)
I'm still trying to figure out what the perfect pickling spice combination for a kosher dill is. In the blend we used at the workshop, I was able to identify crumbled bay leaves, yellow mustard seeds, whole dried red chile peppers (you get a really lovely, spicy dill if you add several of these) and dried dill seed. However, there were other spices I simply was not able to identify).
Go forth and make Moe's pickles, new disciples.