A half-sour is a pickle that is fermented in a brine at room temperature, and not processed; that is, it has not been boiled/pressure-cooked for canning, and so it must be stored in the refrigerator. “Half-sour,” however, is not a great way to describe the flavor of this pickle. Even though it’s made without any vinegar, it is quite sour, and, to me, one of the purest joys of summer. The magic of salt and water and cucumbers is a wonder to behold, and one that you should not pass up. These pickles are crisp, and salty, and sour, and juicy; and the brine itself is, after fermenting, a beverage begging for its own worthy vessel.
I’ve tried making these in a variety of containers, from crocks to glass jars, and I really prefer using the 1-quart plastic tubs used to transport take-out Vietnamese soup from our neighborhood pho restaurant. The problem with room-temperature fermentation is that contact with air tends to allow unpleasant molds to bloom in the fermenting product. Various pickling resources describe different techniques for keeping the air away, but I find that these plastic tubs do the best job.
I discovered the utility of the tubs quite by accident while trying them out as fermenting containers on a whim. The lids had already been pierced by the restaurant to allow steam to escape from the hot soup, and it turned out that these piercings were perfect for allowing some of the expanding gas from the fermentation to escape, while excluding the outside air.
The cucumbers you want for this recipe are Kirbys: short, thick, green to greenish yellow, with bumps or spikes scattered across the skin. Don’t use the waxed, smooth-skinned cukes you find at the grocery store; the farmers’ market is probably the place to find your cukes. And by buying from a local farmers’ market, you get the added benefits of reducing your carbon footprint and supporting local agriculture. Keep up the good work!
Spicy Dill Half-Sours
makes 4 quarts
2 dozen small (4- to 5-inch) pickling cucumbers (about 3 pounds)
4 jalapeño peppers, stemmed & halved
6 ounces fresh dill
8 teaspoons black peppercorns, crushed
8 cloves garlic, peeled & halved
4 one-quart plastic soup tubs, lids pierced twice with a small skewer
In a large bowl, cover cucumbers with cold water & ice cubes; allow to soak for 2-3 hours. Scrub cucumbers well, remove from water, and cut 1/8 inch off of the blossom ends. Divide cucumbers, jalapeños, dill, peppercorns, & garlic among tubs. Depending on the size & number of your cukes, this may take some clever packing skills.
Make 3.5% brine by stirring 1/4 cup pickling salt into 2 quarts water until clear. Divide brine among tubs, filling right up to the brim. Snap lids onto containers quickly. A little brine should squirt up through the holes and pool in the lids; leave it there. Place tubs in a rimmed baking dish or pan and put the dish in an area of your house that will stay between 70º and 80º F. Put remaining brine in a handy covered container nearby.
After a day or two, the cucumbers will begin to ferment, and brine/gas will be forced up through the holes in the lids of the tubs. You want to keep the cucumbers as completely submerged as possible, so if you notice air pockets under the tub lids, you will need to remove the lids, add more brine, and replace the lids quickly, as before. Also, if a large amount of white or yellow mold starts to cake under any of the lids, you will want to remove the lids, wash off the mold, add more brine, and replace. After four days, you should do this even if there is no mold.
After 6 days, remove one of the cucumbers and taste it. If your fermenting room is on the warm side, the pickles may be sour and ready. I do the fermenting in my kitchen, and in the summer, the temperature in there stays around 76 degrees. My pickles are sour to my satisfaction after 8 days.
Shake the tubs to dislodge the bottom sediment and transfer the ingredients of the tubs to clean jars. Refrigerate for 3 days (and keep refrigerated until they’re gone). Pickles are best in the first 2-3 months, but I’ve eaten them after a year, and they’re still pretty good.