Half-Sours — Serious Deli-style Kosher Dill Pickles
Ever been to a real deli? Like the Stage in New York. Hymies or Murray’s in the Philly ‘burbs. Wolfies at 26th and Collins in Miami Beach. Not to sound too chauvenistic, there are great kosher delis in most large American cities on the east coast, and probably in the near Midwest (Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston…). I used to absolutely love Jack and Marion’s in Boston and the Fairlawn Deli in Akron. I know you have one. We even have Mort’s Delicatessen here in Lancaster, and it’s not bad. Andy at Mort’s grew up on Hymie’s Merion Delicatessen so his roots are legitimate. He’s created a pretty good place.
Then, and only then, do you know what a real pickle tastes like.
There are pickles in jars out there that are acceptable as deli pickles, but they just don’t approximate the taste (or the experience) of pulling a pickle out of a wooden barrel and eating it then and there.
Real deli pickles are fermented in the brine in large barrels with lots of garlic and pickling spices and dill (never, EVER vinegar). I used to grab a pickle from the Epicure’s barrel on the way into work, just to start my day. Nothing like garlic for breakfast!
But then, I grew up on half-sour deli pickles. My mom made them in the kitchen–always had a big jarful in the fridge at the ready. They never got fully pickled, the way store-bought pickles are. They were only ever half done; ergo “half-sour.” That’s the way we always got them at the deli. The day after the barrel arrived was the best time to get them. They’d get softer and softer the longer they sat, but we really liked them best when they still resembled cucumbers and had a lot of the crunch.
Some of you prefer the full-done kosher dills, and that’s okay too. You can make them yourself and get them done right to where you like them.
The secret to my mother’s approach–and most really good deli pickles–is fresh cucumbers. She’d only make them when she could get fresh pickles from the farmer’s market. She never got her pickle cucumbers at the grocery store. They’ve GOT to be fresh-picked to be right. Fortunately, here in Lancaster we can get fresh Kirby cucumbers in the summer. Thanks to John and Ethel Stoner for that.
So here’s the pickle deal:
Get a clear glass gallon jar with a wide mouth. You could use a plastic jar, but they are rarely clear, so it’s hard to watch the pickles–that’s how you know when they’re ready. It’s a sight thing. Have a hank of cheesecloth–enough to cover the mouth of the jar with two or three layers–and some string or rubber band to secure the cheesecloth. Now you’re ready to begin.
Get enough large Kirby cucumbers to fill the jar, so that they’re packed pretty tight. I can’t tell you how much or how many–it depends on the size of the cukes. Bigger is better, and get enough. Better to have too many. They’re good eating as cucumbers, too.
Other ingredients to have on hand:
- Diamond Crystal kosher salt. I’m pretty specific on this brand, but Morton’s kosher salt will do in a pinch. Don’t use table salt.
- Fresh garlic cloves. I use six to eight cloves, depending on their size. I like mine garlicky. Use anywhere from two to ten.
- A bunch of fresh dill.
- 3 bay leaves
- 3-4 dried red hot peppers (the kind you can get at an Asian market) or dried red pepper flakes
- Mustard seeds
- Coriander seeds
- Whole black peppercorns
How to do this:
Sterilize the jar: fill it full of boiling water, allow the jar to sit 30 minutes filled with the boiling water, then empty the jar, allow it to cool naturally. While it’s cooling, wash your hands with antibacterial soap and rinse well.
While the jar is cooling, wash the pickles well. But don’t scrub them; rub them down with your hands under cold running water. Rinse well, place them in a large bowl and run cold water over the bowl for 10 minutes. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!!! This is a good time to eliminate any soft cucumbers. Make sure you use only the firm ones. And nip off the ends of each cuke; just a little nip–this will help keep the pickles crisper longer.
Place two sprigs of the dill in the bottom of the jar; smash two to four of the garlic cloves (leave the skins on) and place them on the dill. Pack the cukes tightly into the jar, being careful not to bruise them. But a tight pack is crucial. When the jar is half full, add two or more smashed garlic cloves, a tablespoon each of mustard and coriander seeds, peppercorns, three bay leaves broken into pieces, three or four dried red peppers (or a teaspoon of red pepper flakes), then fill the jar with more cucumbers until the jar is just about full. Pack them tight.
Then mix two quarts of cold water with four tablespoons kosher salt. Mix well to dissolve all the salt. Pour the water over the cukes until the jar is full. Do it in the kitchen sink. The cukes will want to float. Keep pushing them down while you fill the jar with water. Maybe even try to get one more cucumber in the jar.
Place the remaining garlic (smashed, of course) and then the dill on top. It’s vital to keep the cucumbers completely submerged. Make sure there is enough dill at the top of the jar to hold the cukes under water. Reserve the remaining salt water in a jar in the fridge.
Cover the jar with cheesecloth and wrap it around the sides of the jar top. Tie it in place so that it is tight on top of the open jar mouth. Set on the counter away from direct sunlight and allow to ferment, adding a bit more brine if necessary to keep the pickles under water. After three days, the pickles should be half sour and ready to taste. If there is foam on top of the jar, scoop it off, refill the jar with a little more salt water. If there is foam under the dill, remove and rinse it, and reposition it before adding more brine.
After three days, place the jar in the refrigerator. The pickles will continue to “cook” in the fridge, but the process will slow down considerably under refrigeration. You can keep them on the counter, but they will be full sour pickles in about a week. That may be okay too, but I love mine half sour.
Enjoy real homemade half-sour (or whole-sour) pickles right at home.
Oh, and by the way, this works really well using firm green unripe Roma tomatoes, too. Pickled green tomatoes are a really wonderful treat.