I’m not sure when I had my first hit, but I know that by age five I was hooked. My kindergarten class took a field trip to Findlay Market, a historic farmers market nestled in the hills of downtown Cincinnati, and we had been instructed to bring one dollar to spend in wise consumerism. There was plenty to choose from: colorful baskets of smooth-skinned and deep-hued fruit, crisp stacks of leafy greens, tall piles of tubers. Findlay Market is one of those places that connects you to a simpler past; it was first opened in 1855 and is named after a general who skirmished with Native Americans. Today, throngs of people mill about, eyeing or prodding the wares as vendors whip customers’ selections onto spring scales with impressive speed. Now, the thought of wide-eyed five-year olds wandering about in such a crowded public place gives me the willies, but I guess we were an urban public school and times were different back then.
I imagine the assignment was to see how many apples, pears, or berries we could buy with a dollar, but I found my prize in one of the storefronts alongside the market. In the window of a dusty deli, something glowing caught my eye – enormous emeralds! No, a giant glass jar of whole dill cucumbers, submerged in a brown-green brine, their bumpy skins glowing enticingly in the half-light. I could have sworn they sparkled to get my attention. I went in, pointed to the jar and surrendered my dollar. A whole pickle! All for me! It was crispy yet juicy and as sour as I imagined. I pecked at that kosher pickle like a sparrow at a loaf of bread, savoring each tiny bite. After about 60 cents worth, I started to feel a little ill but regretted nothing.
I’m convinced that pickle-lovers are born, not made. I know this because I’ve met many others, like my former law-firm coworker Mahan (pro tip: in a macho corporate environment, people only have last names). I’m not sure how it came up, but I discovered that he has pickling bona fides - he and his law school buddies developed a dill pickle recipe so good that it stoked bidding wars in school auctions. I demanded a tutorial, so he let me apprentice to the secret recipe, and the results were amazing. The recipe let us make the pickles as sour, garlicky, and spicy as we wanted. Just like moonshine can be stronger than the authorities allow, our pickles were probably illegally flavorful. After a few of those, that was it. I was hooked on making the perfect pickles.
I’d like to say that my quest to make my own pickles was due to some benign curiosity or diversion, but really it was to ensure a quality high. There are a surprising number of terrible pickles out there: limp and sugary giardiniera in supermarket jars, rubbery dills from the deli, bland cukes from well-meaning street vendors. Others are delectable, but at a price: a few bites of Szechuan pickled vegetables for $8.95 at Han Dynasty?? Without a reliable (affordable) pickle supply, you have no choice but to make your own. And then you find that the recipes are just as variable. There’s a ton of olive oil in this giardiniera recipe from the New York Times ... And fridge pickles (aka quick pickles) are quick, sure, because they get their sourness from bathing in acid rather than from lacto-fermentation (read more about the difference here). But IMHO most quick pickles taste like straight up vinegar. Blegh.
So, I set out to make my own Szechuan pickled vegetables, a recent obsession and relatively hard to find (especially if you don’t live in New York). The best I’ve ever had are at my uncles’ Chinese restaurant in Ohio - crisp, clean, and layered with delicate flavors. So I went straight to the source: I asked my older uncle how he made them. I expected to be told some juicy pickling secrets, but his explanation was quick and simple: add cloves of garlic and Szechuan peppercorn into a jar along with leaves of cabbage, cover with brine, set out at room temperature for a few days, and, when the flavor is good, refrigerate. Too easy. Where was the magic?? I had a million questions until he poured out a spoonful of the brine for me to taste; whereas mine just tasted like salt water, his – the collected brinings of many pickle batches – had that same delicate savory flavor as his pickles. It was magic brine. I was given a bottle of the brine to take home to New York. He told me that if I needed more to submerge the veggies, I should just mix more at the same concentration. Desperate for more certainty, I asked, exactly what percent salt was in the brine? He looked at me like I was a little dense (a favorite look of his) and said, “You just tasted it, didn’t you? Like that.”
I forgot that pickling, like any cooking, in the hands of an expert is more art than science. Anyone who has asked a parent or grandparent for their famous recipe and gotten in response a wandering narrative pebbled with “oh, as much as you like” or “until it tastes good” knows this annoyance. As a trained scientist, I wanted a percentage for the brine, preferably to three significant figures. But my uncle is in tune with most of the pickling world. I read the entirety of Sandor Ellix Katz’s Art of Fermentation, perhaps the most modern and popular reference, and still had a ton of questions. So do most people. I’d say 95% of the posts in the book’s Facebook group are people posting pictures of dubious looking ferments and asking if they should eat it (see this post for my answer to that).
So, I had no choice but to go home and science-lab it myself. I looked up some literature online, and it seems that a good range for safe lacto-fermentation is a salt brine between 1 and 10 percent. It also seems that the most familiar pickles (sauerkraut, half-sour and full-sour dills) have a brine somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. So I knew that my uncle’s brine was somewhere in there, but my tongue had no idea where. I took out my food scale and added salt to a half-liter of water, a gram at a time, until it tasted roughly as salty. I'd put my best guess at between 2-3%, but my pickles develop slower than my uncle’s, so it’s likely that his brine is even less saline to encourage faster growth; it may just taste super umami after repeated pickle brewings.
Ultimately, there are recipes out there that are totally good enough. I recommend starting with the spices and procedure in Madame Huang’s excellent recipe. I modify it by bumping the brine down to 2.5% brine and using readily-available equipment: wide-mouth mason jars with the Easy Fermenter lids (they allow carbon dioxide to escape as the pickles ferment without letting spoiling-inducing oxygen back in). I like to pickle cabbage (my mom advises cutting out the core and tough stems and slicing the remaining leaves into wedges) and add cauliflower florets or cubes of daikon radish for variety (I didn’t like how celery or carrots turned out, and anything colorful like radishes stains the brine). They start to have that tingly fermented taste at one week and are straight-up addictive by two weeks.
I haven’t achieved the perfect Szechuan pickle yet, but each batch is getting more flavorful. Maybe someday too I’ll have a giant vat of magic brine, just like my uncle. He had the knowing look of an enabler as he decanted it for me. Apparently other customers, craving more, had also asked for his secret brine. We addicts are all of the same cloth, willing to go to great lengths (including carefully swaddling my precious jar inside my checked luggage) to assure a steady supply of good pickles.
Back in my apartment, I’ll open the fridge every once in a while even if if there aren’t any pickles left and just gaze upon my brine, palest yellow, teeming with probiotics. I close the door, content; all I need to know is that it’s there.