The Pickle Project (or how to please the goddess of advice)
By ARI LEVAUX It all started with my friend Amy Alkon spouting Dietz & Watson brand kosher dill pickles, which she calls “the crowning glory of picklehood.”
Alkon is an award-winning science advice columnist and author, most recently of “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence.” (She’s also a Michi-gander native whose column has appeared in City Pulse for many years.) On Twitter (@amyalkon), she called her D&W “the best thing to eat for stress…when the writing goes a bit desperately”. His pickle habit quickly became an addiction. And like most addictions, it was expensive. Dietz & Watson pickles are “$5.67 for about $6,” she tweeted. “I could eat them in one frame!”
My first canning project was a batch of cucumber pickles, and I’m probably not the only one for whom pickles were a gateway to home food canning. Like most home economists, I had a background in cooking before I got into pickle making. Alkon, however, calls herself a “lazy culinary hedonist” and finds food preparation an irritating necessity that cuts into her writing time. As she says, “I don’t cook; I’m getting hot.”
Given Amy’s lack of interest in the culinary arts, I knew it was a long time coming when I offered to teach her how to make her beloved D&W pickles at home. But she was up for it.
This meant I had to get my hands on some D&W kosher dills, which turned out to be a sizeable order in Missoula, Montana, where I live. The fact that neither Amazon nor any other outlet would deliver them to me was a big clue as to what makes these pickles tick. Amy confirmed my suspicions that her pickles of choice are sold in the refrigerated section.
This style of pickles is often referred to as “refrigerator pickles.” Unlike canned pickles, pickles from the fridge can’t languish for months at room temperature on a pantry shelf because they aren’t heat-treated, which kills germs.
Because refrigerator pickles are not preserved, their salt and vinegar levels can be more flexible than their shelf stable cousins. If you want your fridge pickles to be sweeter, add more sugar. If you want them more acidic, add more vinegar. Thus, pickles from the refrigerator provide a superior taste experience compared to canned pickles. Not only is the flavor more customizable, but they’ll be crunchier because they’re uncooked.
The bad news is you can’t go to the farmers market and pick up a load of cucumbers and make a year’s supply of fridge pickles because where would you keep them?
“I’m going to buy a dorm fridge,” Alkon announced. “This will be my dedicated pickle-torium.”
Determined to get me her favorite pickles so I could debone them in my kitchen lab, she reached out to her Twitter followers and found someone to literally drop off Dietz & Watsons the next day.
A man named Zach, who was driving from Seattle to Indiana to take his son to college, had seen Alkon’s tweet. He picked up two containers from a supermarket in Spokane and drove to Montana, pulling onto Interstate 90 and into a parking lot where I was waiting.
As we talked, I realized that Zach was more than just a volunteer delivery boy hoping for a signed copy of Alkon’s book (which he certainly was), but a legit pickle expert. We decided to have an impromptu pickle-tasting session in the parking lot.
Alas, we both found the Dietz & Watson pickles disappointing. A good pickle should be salty, we agreed, but these had too much. We could barely taste the dill and there was no trace of sweetness. They were at least very crunchy, being fridge pickles, but we wanted more. Zach suggested I check out Grillo brand pickle spears, another type of fridge pickle. Although Grillos are also unavailable in Missoula, I researched them and they seemed promising. I based my version on Grillo’s ingredient list, including grape leaves, which the elders know help pickles stay crispy.
At this time of year, it is possible to find fresh dill crowns at the farmer’s market as the seeds begin to dry out. I was also lucky to ask the produce manager at the grocery store – sometimes the dill wreaths are on the back when not on display. When it comes to cucumbers, look for small to medium sized pickles with rough, prickly skin. Large, smooth slicing cucumbers won’t be as crispy as pickles made with pickling cucumbers.
I picked up a cucumber or two and some dill at the farmer’s market and needed supplies from the grocery store. Two days later I had my first batch of kosher dill. The pickles were perfect.
Since then, I have made several batches, tweaking the seasonings each time. Salt-averse picklers: Don’t reduce the salt too much because a certain amount is needed for the cucumbers to draw the vinegar inside, so they taste like pickles. And if you’re like Alkon and want the salt to be the dominant flavor, try reducing the dill and sugar before adding more salt. I don’t know if Amy will try to make these pickles herself. But if she does, may her pickle-torium stay jam-packed.
Kosher Dill Pickles
This recipe works for me, but feel free to tweak the ingredients, especially the sugar, dill, and vinegar mixture. Grape leaves do not influence flavor but help pickles retain their crispness.
8 cups white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
6 cups of water
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons of salt
8 tablespoons dill seeds
A handful of vine leaves
6 unpeeled garlic cloves
5 pounds of pickles
Add all ingredients except pickles to a stainless steel saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes, then cool to room temperature. When the brine has completely cooled, leave it in the pan and add the cucumbers or transfer the brine to a plastic, glass, stainless steel or ceramic container and add the cucumbers. Put the jar in the fridge (or pickletorium). After about two days they will start to taste like pickles. Keep them in your pickle-tori-um and enjoy them until they are gone. And then do more.