If you’ve ever made pickles at home, then you know that sometimes you find yourself face-to-face with a batch that lacks a satisfactory “crunch.” And a pickle without a hardy crunch is as disappointing as a mealy peach or a bunch of over-cooked asparagus — I’ll pass.
Making crave-worthy pickles takes a certain amount of trial and error; however, you can greatly increase your chances of making a stellar batch by learning how to select the very best cucumbers for pickling. Pickling cucumbers are often smaller than the traditional slicing cucumbers that are widely available at most grocery stores. Pickling cucumbers also have thinner skins. Thin skin is the single most important factor when selecting cucumbers because a thick, waxy skin will slow or prevent the brining process and can yield a bland, one-dimensional pickle. If you plan on buying your cucumbers at a local grocery store or farmers market, then try to find small, firm, thin-skinned cukes for the crunchiest bite.
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I asked Andrea Chesman, author of The Pickled Pantry, how to prevent soggy pickles and she reminded me to always cut off the blossom end of the cucumber, which contains enzymes that speed softening. If you don’t know which end is the blossom end, then cut off both ends. She also recommends keeping harvested cucumbers chilled until you have time to begin the fermentation process. (Chesman covers this topic in more detail in the Sage Advice department of Heirloom Gardener’s summer 2017 issue, which will be on newsstands nationwide from June 6 to September 4.)
A proactive way to prevent soggy pickles is to grow cucumber cultivars that have proven to be ideal pickling candidates for generations of home preservers. The cultivars listed below are open-pollinated heirlooms that have been successfully pickled and positively reviewed by thousands of home gardeners. My two favorite seed companies to source heirlooms from are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange.
www.RareSeeds.com: 'Boston Pickling'
‘Boston Pickling' cucumber dates back to the 1880s, and one grower reports that eight plants produced enough for nearly seven gallons of pickles. The smooth cucumbers are small in size (between 3 and 6 inch)es, which helps to keep them crisp when pickled.
www.RareSeeds.com: 'Chicago Pickling'
‘Chicago Pickling' cucumber is a prolific, disease-resistant heirloom originally bred for the Chicago market area and released in 1888. For the best quality, harvest these cucumbers before the fruit reaches 7-inches in length. This vining cucumber can grow more than 12 feet up a trellis and one grower reported that honeybees seem to love this cultivar over all others.
Seed Savers Exchange: 'Double-Yield'
‘Double-Yield' cucumber ripens early and is super productive. It was introduced in 1924 by Joseph Harris Seed Company of Coldwater, New York, who wrote “The remarkable thing about this new cucumber is its wonderful productiveness. For every pickle that’s cut off, two or three more are produced!” Pick fruits when small for the crunchiest pickles.
www.RareSeeds.com: 'Miniature White'
‘Miniature White' only grows to about 3-feet tall, so it’s a great option for apartment dwellers or small-space gardeners who may want to grow their cucumbers in pots. This cucumber can also be eaten fresh and sliced because it has none of the bitterness that’s often associated with white-fruited cucumbers.
www.RareSeeds.com: 'Parisian Pickling'
Seed Savers Exchange: 'Russian Pickling'
‘Russian Pickling' cucumber was donated to Seed Savers Exchange in 1991 by Daniel L Flyger from South Dakota. He reports that the seed was brought to his county by Schwartzmeer Deutsch (aka Black Sea Germans) in the 1870s. The early-maturing cultivar has sweet, crisp flesh and matures in 50 to 55 days.
Monticello: 'West India Burr Gherkin'
‘West India Burr Gherkin’ seed is available through the Monticello gardens. According to their website, the gherkin (mini cucumber that’s typically pickled whole) was a common crop in the Monticello vegetable garden during Thomas Jefferson’s day, and he even recommended the small, round, spiky fruit to his brother, Randolph. Monticello historians believe that the seed is likely the ‘West Indian Gherkin,’ which was brought to the Americas through the slave trade and introduced to the seed market in 1792.
After you become a pro at making refreshing, crisp pickles, you may start brainstorming other ways to preserve your garden bounty through fermentation. Fermented foods are beyond delicious; they’re also a great source of probiotics. To learn more about the health benefits of ferments and to receive dozens of unique recipes, check out The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course, which is hosted through The Herbal Academy. The course costs $119 and includes in-depth written discussions, video tutorials, charts, and recipes on every aspect of herbal fermentation — from beer and mead to kombucha, water kefir, and fermented foods.
Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.