A friend of mine grew up in New York surrounded by kosher delis and appetizing shops. One of his favorite childhood memories was walking down to the corner store, where they kept large wooden barrels filled with pickles. His father would give him a boost so he could reach deep down into the bottom of the barrel to retrieve what he called “armpit pickles,” so named because you’d have to reach into the brine up to your armpit to get the best, most flavorful pickles. Though the name might not sound appealing, my friend looks back on armpit pickles as one of his fondest childhood food memories.
Pickling got its start about 4,000 years ago, long before delis began popping up on the East Coast. Pickling began as a way of preserving food. To create a pickle, fresh vegetables or fruits are immersed in an acidic liquid or saltwater brine until they are no longer considered raw or susceptible to spoilage. In the case of pickled cucumbers, saltwater brine is a common choice, which results in lacto-fermentation. Lactic microbial organisms, much like the kind that cause milk to curdle, develop. These organisms turn the naturally occurring sugars of the foods into lactic acid. In turn, the environment becomes acidic quickly, so that it is no longer possible for any spoiling bacteria to multiply. Cucumber pickles can also be made with a salt and vinegar brine, a popular choice for home cooks.
Kosher dills have their own unique history. In Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, she explains that pickled vegetables were a dietary staple for Jews living in Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. The sharp flavor of pickles paired nicely with the bland bread-and-potato diet of these cold weather countries. For several generations, it was a fall custom for Ashkenazim to fill barrels with cucumbers, beets and shredded cabbage (sauerkraut). They were left to ferment in a warm place for several weeks, then relocated to cool, dark cellars. The pickles would last through the long cold winter until spring, when new crops of fresh produce were available.
When a heavy influx of eastern European Jews arrived in New York City during the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants introduced kosher pickles to America. The process of “koshering” pickles required a rabbi who would supervise the entire production, ensuring that each step was done correctly and that the equipment was used exclusively for pickle making. Cucumbers were washed, then piled in large wooden barrels along with dill, garlic, spices, kosher salt and clean water. They were left to ferment for a few weeks to several months; shorter fermenting time produced brighter green “half sours,” while longer fermentation resulted in “full sours.” Pickles were sold on pushcarts in the immigrant tenement district of New York City. Over time, a multitude of Jewish owned shops began selling pickles straight out of the barrel from their storefronts. Eventually, pickling became a profitable business within the Jewish community.
Pickles are deeply ingrained in Jewish food culture, as emblematic of the Ashkenazi Jewish diet as matzo ball soup and brisket. Sadly, nowadays it’s much more difficult to find a classic kosher dill. Most of the small-scale pickle businesses have died off, replaced by mass-marketed pickles sold in grocery stores. If you’re searching for real Jewish pickles, your best bet is to visit a kosher deli. The first thing that should arrive on your table is a dish of pickles—a combination of full sour and half sour cucumbers, and sometimes a few other vegetables. In a true old-school deli, one should never have to ask for pickles. Their sharp, salty flavor and crunch is the ultimate counterpoint to a fatty corned beef or pastrami sandwich. Oy, I’m making myself hungry.
Most folks don’t have the time or patience to produce old-fashioned lacto-fermented kosher dills. This Quick Pickle recipe is a super easy method for quickly producing yummy pickles. The prep only takes about 10 minutes. My own blend of pickling spices, including chili pepper flakes for heat, adds terrific flavor. Keep them in the fridge for a couple of days, and voila! Quick pickles.
8 garlic cloves, sliced
2 handfuls fresh dill
2 bay leaves
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp dill seeds
½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
½ tsp celery seed
¼ tsp fennel seed
1 ¾ lbs. Kirby or Persian cucumbers (small pickling cucumbers, no wax on skin)
4 cups water
½ cup white vinegar
3 tbsp kosher salt
You will also need: Two 1-quart mason jars or one ½ gallon jar, funnel, whisk, saucepan
Total Time: 48 hours 10 minutes
Servings: 10-12 pickles
Place the sliced garlic in a small saucepan of water and bring to a boil. Boil the garlic for 1 minute, then drain immediately. This blanching process will keep the garlic from turning blue in the pickle jar. Place the garlic, fresh dill, bay leaves and other spices into the pickling jar or jars. If using two jars, divide the ingredients evenly between them, half in each. The red pepper flakes are optional, and will add a little kick to your pickles—if you don’t like spice, feel free to omit. Slice off the tip ends of each cucumber, then place them into the jars, half in each jar. It’s okay if they’re tightly packed, they will shrink up a bit as they pickle.
In a saucepan, bring the water, white vinegar, and kosher salt to a boil, whisking till the salt is fully dissolved. Boil the mixture for about 1 minute, then remove from heat. Pour the hot brine through a funnel into each jar, submerging the cucumbers completely in liquid. Let the jars cool completely to room temperature (this will take a few hours). Secure the lids and place pickles in the refrigerator. Your first pickle will be ready to eat in 48 hours; they’ll become more pickled and flavorful as they age. Pickles will keep for up to 2 months.
For crunchier pickles, before pickling you can place the cucumbers in a bowl and cover them with ice water. Soak them in the refrigerator in ice water for 4-5 hours. Drain and proceed with recipe.
Tori Avey is an award-winning food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of two cooking websites: The Shiksa in the Kitchen (www.theshiksa.com) and The History Kitchen (www.thehistorykitchen.com). She is the resident food historian for PBS Food and Parade.com. Follow Tori on Facebook by searching “The Shiksa” and on Twitter @theshiksa.