I just put up a quick batch of garlic dill pickles after getting some kirby cucumbers at the farmers market from our CSA (Gazy Brothers Farm). This is a pretty straightforward naturally fermented pickle, using a 3% brine with aromats (a change from the 5% brine on Chef Pardus’s suggestion, via Ruhlman). I love this process, which I wrote about when I made sauerkraut with my biology class (and for the Super Bowl). The science of it is that you create a target environment that encourages the growth of lactic acid bacteria (which lower the pH by creating lactic acid through the fermentation of carbohydrates in your vegetables). That, along with the salinity of the brine keeps the pathogenic and spoilage bacteria away, and you end up with a great salty and sour pickle after about a week. In a vingear-based pickle (like Eric’s bread & butters) the same principles are at work, with the salt and acid working in concert for flavor and preservation, but it’s acetic acid (vinegar) that’s added directly instead of lactic acid produced by bacteria.
The easiest way to get the right amount of brine is to fill the container with your washed vegetables, then cover with water. Drain the water into a container on a scale in order to calculate how much salt you’ll need. For a liter of water (1000g), a 3% brine would be 30g of salt. For quick math in your head, for whatever mass of water you have in your container, move the decimal to the left two places (divide by 100), then multiply by 3: for 600g of water; (1% ) is 6g; so 3% is 18g of salt. Heat the water in the saucepan to dissolve the salt and to steep the aromats. I used 6 cloves of garlic (peeled and crushed with a knife), a handful of fresh dill, 10 black peppercorns, 1/2 tsp whole coriander, 1 bay leaf, and a pinch each of crushed red pepper and brown mustard seeds. This was a pretty small batch (1/2 L water and only 6 pickles). Let the brine cool to room temperature, pour over the cucumbers, making sure to cover them completely. If necessary, weight them down to make sure they stay submerged (exposure to the air gives advantage to aerobic spoilage bacteria), place a piece of plastic wrap right on the water, and let sit at cool room temperatures (below 70 degrees) for 5-7 days, or until you decide they’re sour enough. To store, strain the brine into a nonreactive saucepan and bring to the boil. Once cool, pour back over the pickles and stash in the refrigerator. These will not keep forever, but mine are usually gone before they have a chance to spoil; the salt, acid, and cold temperatures of the fridge are still working in your favor. This recipe/procedure is based off of Ruhlman’s post CSA Pickles: Revised Ratio! (July 28, 2010), although I’m planning to use the 3% brine for the whole fermentation process, rather than starting with 5%.
More resources on pickles:
Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie, David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook, and Michael Symon’s Live to Cook all have great sections and recipes on pickling, inlcuding naturally fermented and vinegar-based techniques.
Punk Domestics’ page on pickling has a wealth of information, recipes, and interesting posts from all over the country, with all kinds of vegetables.