Pickles -- what did I do wrong?
March 27, 2014 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I made pickles recently with this recipe, which had all the ingredients I thought would go into a good kosher dill -- garlic, dill, salt -- but they came out tasting like "bread and butter" sweet pickles, even though there's nothing sweet in the recipe. The pickles are only a few days old, but I'm familiar with the taste of both "old" and "new" kosher dills, and these were neither. What's the problem with this recipe, and how can I make a real kosher dill (without setting up a home canning operation?)
posted by Ralston McTodd to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably the carrots, which have a lot of sugar in them. (Carrots are actually used as a common sweetener in other recipes such as tomato sauce or soup.) I'd try the recipe again without the carrots.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did you use apple cider vinegar instead of white? Otherwise, you might try it again without onion (especially if you used yellow or sweet onions), or carrots as suggested above. I make quick pickles like this all the time and I've never ended up with accidental sweetness when using white vinegar.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:49 AM on March 27, 2014

I'd have to look up the recipe when I get home, but I'm almost entirely sure It's something like 1:1 vinegar/water rather than 1:2, with sugar added to cut the vinegar.

On preview: yeah, give it a shot without the carrots as well.
posted by griphus at 9:49 AM on March 27, 2014

Response by poster: I actually didn't use carrots (or anything except cucumbers), and I used white vinegar. (My favorite supermarket dill, Bubbe's, doesn't use vinegar at all -- could that be it?)

Could the problem have been the cucumbers themselves? I don't think I used the exact kind that the recipe called for.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 9:55 AM on March 27, 2014

Best answer: Classic dill pickles often do a bit of fermentation at room temperature. Without that, they might be sour, like vinegar, and salty like the brine, but they won't have that ineffable "dill pickle" flavor. I've only ever done cucumber dills; I don't know how the other vegetables would affect things. However, I haven't found that it matters what kind of cukes you use. The big (large diameter) "salad cucumbers" tend to have a watery seedy area in the center that isn't so tasty, which is why "pickling cukes" are preferred, but the flavor result isn't very different.
posted by aimedwander at 9:58 AM on March 27, 2014

Best answer: It's the celery seed and mustard seed -- those are the standard flavorings in B&B pickles.

The kosher dills you're familiar with are likely fermented and not "pickled," so the flavor is always going to be different if you use vinegar.

Here's a kosher dill recipe from Sandor Katz, the self-proclaimed but undisputed king of fermenting.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:59 AM on March 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: White vinegar can come in different strengths, too. It's usually 5% acidity, but more than once I've grabbed a bottle that was only 3 or 4%--sometimes this is specially labeled as salad vinegar, but, as I've found out, sometimes it's not. If you used a vinegar that wasn't strong enough, that might have contributed to a sweeter taste.

That said, my understanding is that traditionally, kosher dills are made with a saltwater brine that ferments a bit. The only time I've had homemade pickles that were really amazing, they'd been lacto-fermented, like in this recipe. That said, doing it at home is tricky--my attempts have been decidedly mixed, with a couple of jars that were inedible and a couple that were great.
posted by MeghanC at 10:00 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Aha, it looks like it's the fermentation that I'm missing. Given the logistics of finding chlorine-free water and horseradish leaves, not to mention a possibly temperamental fermentation process, I guess I'll probably continue to buy pickles at the supermarket.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 10:06 AM on March 27, 2014

Seconding the "celery and mustard seed" bit.

The kosher dills you're familiar with are likely fermented and not "pickled," so the flavor is always going to be different if you use vinegar.

Not necessarily - I've gotten "dill-pickle"-like flavor from the pickling-with-vinegar method. Maybe not like the long-slow-fermenting-in-a-crock flavor, but closer than what you're getting. Check out this recipe instead.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:07 AM on March 27, 2014

Don't be scared off by the fermenting recipe, it's actually really flexible, a lot of "right ways to do it". When a batch doesn't turn out perfectly, it's usually edible anyway. And it's fun (in my opinion, anyway). Just don't take it too seriously. It probably helps that my cucumber vines give me no more than 3-4 cukes ready at once, so I work in small batches, and if things don't go perfectly there's not much loss.

One glass mixing bowl filled with layers of sliced cucumbers, sliced garlic, and fresh dill, with a dinner plate that fits on top. Boil up a brine solution (regular tap water), cool it enough that it won't cook anything, pour it over. It smells fantastic that day, and by the next morning, you have tasty salty cucumber salad, which progresses to mild pickles by day 2-3, and serious pickles by day 5. By this point I've eaten so much of the batch that it fits into a 1-qt jar in the fridge. If on day 3, you can tell that they're getting mushy, that means something beyond my ken has gone wrong, and you must eat them immediately before it all goes downhill. According to pickle-lore, "mushy" is often correlated with not trimming off the blossom ends of the cucumbers, and is reportedly fixed by adding grape, cherry, or horseradish leaves to the crock, but the mushiest batch I ever made was the one I put grape leaves into.
posted by aimedwander at 10:21 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Given the logistics of finding chlorine-free water and horseradish leaves

If you're worried about chlorine in the water, it's actually really easy to remove.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:23 AM on March 27, 2014

I'd guess the "few sprigs of dill" is the main issue. The Kosher dill pickle recipes I use call for a whole head of dill which is going to include dill seeds - and a lot more dill flavor.

Some of the dill recipes call for some minor amount of mixed pickling spices to give some underlying flavor but the dill flavor that comes from the head is the strongest flavor. A few sprigs isn't enough to be the base flavor and overpower the celery seed.
posted by Beti at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about chlorine in the water, it's actually really easy to remove.

Right. And just to clarify something from that page - Brita filters have a carbon filtration phase, so you should be able to get your water sufficiently de-chlorinated by running it through a Brita, 2 or 3 times if necessary. YMMV, but it should work.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:41 AM on March 27, 2014

I know EXACTLY what you're talking about. I tried my hand at making my own kosher dills once and was sorely disappointed when there was a sweetness to them that I couldn't understand. It's the vinegar. For whatever reason it gave me a sweet smell-taste as if I was eating bread and butter pickles. I don't think everyone tastes that same sweetness. Just us (un)lucky few.

What I realized is that real kosher dills don't use vinegar at all and do need to ferment. I tried my hand at one more batch (no vinegar, just salt + seasoning + fermentation) and it was much closer to what I was looking for. I only needed to adjust the seasoning, but never got around to perfecting a recipe.

Good luck!
posted by tealeaf522 at 10:44 AM on March 27, 2014

Different kosher salts have different flake sizes/structures and can have more or less salt per tablespoon. If the recipe was developed using Morton's kosher salt and you used Diamond Crystal, you'd end up with almost 40% less salt in the final brine. That could lead to a comparatively "sweet" flavor in combination with white vinegar.
posted by WasabiFlux at 10:44 AM on March 27, 2014

To supplement that Stackexchange info, while chlorine has a degradation period of about 24-hours, chloramine's is 3-4 days. If your water treatment people use chloramine, you just have to let it sit longer.
posted by bonehead at 10:50 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about chlorination in your water, you can buy gallon jugs of distilled water in most grocery stores.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:17 PM on March 27, 2014

If you didn't use kosher or pickling salt, that might account for some of the sweetness, too. Dextrose is added to table salt as an anti-caking agent.
posted by annsunny at 2:00 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

We (in Hungary) make fermented dills all the time, although its a seasonal thing. Can't make them in winter. In winter we get vinegar pickles.

It will probably take a few attempts before you get it just right, but basically cucumbers have lactic acid in them, which will interact with natural bacteria and ferment into a sour brine after a couple of days. In Hungary most people stuff a crust of stale bread in the neck of the jar (I don't) to kickstart the yeast fermentation.

My recipes usually include garlic, dill, spices (always fiddling with these) and a brine made from kosher salt and water which I test by taste My brine is roughly one heaping large Chinese soup spoon of kosher salt to about a liter / quart of water (way to salty to consider in soup, not quite so salty that I can't down a spoonful of it.)

Do not forget to include about five bay leaves or a slice of horseradish root (more horseradish if you want your pickles to taste Transylvanian) both of which contain tannic acid, which prevents the cukes from turning all soft and mushy. Pack the cukes in a big jar with dill and spices and pour in the brine, leave uncovered a day or two (or cover with a cheesecloth) and after about two or three days the brine will start turning slightly cloudy: fermentation. Half sours result after about four days, full sours in a week or ten days. I usually pack the neck of the jar with the smallest cukes so i can fish them out to taste them at intervals.

These don't keep a long time, especially the half sours. If storing them in the fridge dilute the brine with some water. And expect to fiddle with the recipe for a long time before you can do it by instinct.
posted by zaelic at 4:10 AM on March 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Glad to see this question, since I've been experimenting once I realized I was spending a small fortune on Ba-Temptes. I'm still working on a perfect half-sour fermented pickle recipe, but I'll place some links in addition to the Salvador Katz link above. Tannins do keep the cukes crisp; other sources of tannins include grape, oak and raspberry leaves and most conveniently black tea bags (trust me, you don't taste the tea). Do NOT use what's offered in the grocery stores as pickling spice -- that will for certain give your efforts the bread and butter flavor. Allspice, coriander and mustard seeds are all appropriate, but I'd recommend against grinding them -- use them whole.

Chlorine-free water is easily available with the suggestions above; I just buy gallons of distilled water.


Do not: use vinegar, do not allow sunlight or excessive heat (over 75-80 degrees) to hit your jars while they are fermenting

Do: use the freshest Kirby-type cukes you can find, soak them in ice water, keep everything very clean, keep the cukes completely submerged while they ferment and do temper/cut the brine by 20-45% with distilled water before refrigerating the finished jars
posted by vers at 10:40 AM on March 30, 2014

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