Cucumber Pickles, the Right Way

Pickles without vinegar have a short shelf life, but they are The Best

Overhead shot of a rustic square wooden basket filled with cucumbers and a bunch of fresh dill tied with a piece of twine.

We take cucumbers for granted; they’re year-round staples with little character that you chop up and put into salads, make Sichuan-style, throw into smoothies. Some people still eat cucumber sandwiches; I know because I’m among them.

That’s all fine. But you’re not going to delight in a store-bought hothouse cucumber in January.

This is the time for daily cucumber eating, and for real enjoyment, whether they’re sprinkled with salt, grated into sour cream or yogurt, made into soup.

Still: When cucumbers are “in” desperate measures are required; that’s what seasonal eating is about. (Soon, we will be needing desperate measures around tomatoes.) Even if you’re not a gardener or a CSA member, cukes are everywhere.

This year, for the first in many, I thought about making what I consider to be “real” pickles, the kind you put up in jars and eat in January and think of summer, the kind that in my mind a real pantry is full of, and it took me a full day to reject that notion. Not only is canning a hassle of the first order, but I don’t even like those kinds of pickles. I don’t like pickling spice especially, but really what I can’t stand is food soaked in vinegar. (I am not sure anyone really does, and that’s why “real” pickles have sugar, too.) Preserving is a thing, obviously, it serves a purpose, but if it’s not necessary and you don’t like the taste, what’s the point?

Not only is canning a hassle of the first order, but I don’t like those kinds of pickles.

What I like are vinegar-free, salty-garlicky half-sours, which is not surprising since that’s what I grew up with. Other people like them too: Some friends were over the other night (this happens, with appropriate distancing), and they were like, “These are amazing. How do you do this?”

Put aside for a moment that people like anything you cook for them — what’s true is that it’s not easy to get pickles like these because they’re best when homemade and they don’t keep forever, so industrial food processing can’t deal with them. They’re pickle-barrel pickles and, as it happens, they’re among the easiest things in the world to make.

When asked “How do you do this?” I say: “Dissolve a third of a cup of salt in a cup of hot water. Put that in a bowl with ice cubes to cool it down. Add a few cloves of garlic, crushed, and a couple of pounds of cukes, cut up. (Or not, or just halved, if small.) Cover with water and a plate if necessary to submerge the cukes. Let sit at room temperature until ready — sometimes as little as a couple of hours, sometimes overnight. Refrigerate and eat. Add more cukes to the brine until it tastes too weak, and then add more salt or start again.”

Or I say “Look in How to Cook Everything.” (Or, to you, I say, “See below.”)

Note that you can replenish these — add cucumbers, add salt, add garlic, from time to time, to your crock, or your plastic container — or you can make a fresh batch every few days. But what you can’t do is not eat them, because they’re only good for a week or a little longer. Which is okay: You can eat, personally, two or three whole cucumbers a day if you make them this way, and many people will.

Kosher Pickles, the Right Way

Makes: About 60 pickle quarters or 30 halves
Time: 1 to 2 days, largely unattended

These remain my favorite pickles, and everyone I’ve ever made them for loves them too, which is good news since they only keep for about a week.

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 pounds Kirby cucumbers, rinsed (scrub if spiny) and halved or quartered lengthwise
  • At least 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 large bunch fresh dill, preferably with flowers, 2 tablespoons dried dill and 1 teaspoon dill seeds, or 1 tablespoon coriander seeds

Instructions

  1. Combine the salt and boiling water in a large bowl; stir to dissolve the salt. Add a handful of ice cubes to cool the mixture, then add the cucumbers, garlic, and dill.
  2. Add cold water to cover. Use a plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the bowl and a small weight to keep the cucumbers submerged. Set aside at room temperature.
  3. Begin sampling the cucumbers after 4 hours if you’ve quartered them, 8 hours if you’ve halved them. In either case, it will probably take from 12 to 24 or even 48 hours for them to taste pickled enough to suit your taste.
  4. When they are ready, transfer them to an airtight container and refrigerate them in the brine. The pickles will continue to ferment as they sit, more quickly at room temperature, more slowly in the refrigerator. They will keep well for up to a week.

Recipe from How to Cook Everything

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at markbittman.com.

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