Dill-icious - Recap

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A mysterious figure wears a large metal pot on its head. A blue glow spills onto the figure’s chest from inside the impromptu helm. The figure raises gloved hands and begins to speak. Although the voice is mechanical and sinister, it is clearly Alton, and he is speaking... to a pickle. He beseeches the vegetable to complete its transformation, for together they can out and end to mushy mouth feel and insipid flavors. It can achieve its destiny to become... Good Eats!

Alton pulls aside a rug and opens the trapdoor beneath; a sign on the back side of the trap indicates pickles below, with a helpful arrow for clarity. Alton descends the ladder and comments that he and the viewer have walked the pickled path before. But those were fresh packed (processed) pickles. They count on a stiff dose of acid and a jolt of heat to start the fermentation. They’re good eats, but for honest dill pickles (and their many sub varieties) a cook must learn to manage time, brine, and... bacteria.

Alton’s first step is to locate the best cucumbers for the job. At Whole Foods, he examines a display of cucumis sativus – the common cucumber, cousin to gourds and melons and originally from India. Later a favorite of the Mesopotamians and the Romans, who even devised radical advancements in agriculture to ensure a steady supply for Tiberius’ table (the emperor ate them every day). But those cucumbers contained a kind of natural pesticide (a large faux fly lands on Alton’s cucumber) called cucurbitasin. (The faux fly emits a strangled gasp and falls off.) Because of this bitter chemical most Europeans didn’t like the vegetable, but over the centuries, selective breeding has produced vegetables with little of this chemical.

Any dwarf variety of cucumber may be pickled. Alton offers some tips on what to look for. The cucumber should be firm with rounded ends. Alton likes to see a small stem on the ends. The color should be dark to mottled green; avoid vegetables that are yellow. Small spines or warts are okay.

Alton cleans three pounds of 3” to 5” cucumbers under warm water and trims off the stems. They contain an enzyme that can soften the cucumber. Because he’ll forgo the hot acid bath, he’ll need to manage the microorganisms carefully. For beer or bread he’d rely on yeast (yeast puppets appear) to convert carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and alcohol. For pickles, bacteria will do the job, breaking apart sugars and producing small amounts of carbon dioxide and alcohol – but mostly lactic acid. This acid discourages bacteria that cause spoilage, and so acts as a preservative.

Alton’s primary control agent is salt – he selects a box of canning and pickling salt. This acts as a kind of “traffic cop” that regulates which bacteria get into the pickles and to some degree what they produce when they get there. For food in small pieces one might pour salt directly onto the food – Alton offers sauerkraut as an example, and when he does a mysterious German appears behind him, proclaiming that he doesn’t like Alton or his culinary carnival. (Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” begins to play softly.) Alton grabs the salt and some spices as he escapes the scary German.

Now it’s time to brine. Alton measures pickling salt by weight and adds this to filtered water. Why filtered? The chlorine in tap water will kill the microorganisms he needs to ferment his pickles. Those who haven’t got filters can use bottled water. While the salt dissolves (with some help from a benevolent bacterium), Alton considers the fermentation vessel.

From a drawer, Alton produces his grandmother’s old crock, with what appears to be an ill-fitting lid perforated by holes. This is by design; the lid fits inside the crock to keep the food submerged. The holes permit gasses to escape. Such crocks are difficult to find now, but aren’t strictly necessary. Crocks offer benefits for fermentation: they keep light out and they are non-reactive – they do not donate flavor nor extract it. They’re good insulators, so they maintain a stable temperature.

Salt and water define the fermentation process, but particular styles can shape the results. By far the most popular pickle style is the dill pickle. Alton uses two forms of dill for his – a quantity of dill seed, and a large bunch of dill fronds. Why is dill so popular? One reason might be that it is common where pickling is also common, in northern Europe. Another reason might be the volatile oils it contains that act like natural antibiotics (a nasty looking bacteria hand puppet tries to chomp Alton’s dill fronds, emits a buzzing gasp and falls away).

Since Alton wants kosher dill pickles, he adds some crushed garlic. And for a little heat, he adds black peppercorns and red pepper flakes. Then he lays the crock on its side and begins stacking the cucumbers inside like lumber. When he rights the crock, they will stand vertically and each will get the proper share of flavor.

Alton returns to find the bacterium he left stirring his brine is just an empty puppet. Proof, perhaps, that one should not leave a bacterium to do a biped’s job. But it finished the brine, so Alton pours that over his cucumbers until they float to about two inches from the top of the crock. He adds some more brine to a zip top bag. This bag will act as a lid to keep the cucumbers properly submerged. Using brine means if the bag leaks, it won’t dilute the pickling liquid in the crock. Alton discards a small amount of leftover brine.

Temperature is a big factor. It should be no higher than 75º, and ideally should hover around 68º - 70º. Much higher and fermentation will slow to a crawl – perhaps offering other organisms a chance to join the party. Any place that can maintain the correct temperature is fine – a basement, a garage (Alton uses a garage in the winter!), or even a cooler with periodic additions of ice (to the cooler, not the pickling brine). In three days, check for the telltale sign of fermentation – bubbles.

Leuconostoc mesenteroides joins the party first. It flourishes in a wide array of conditions but does not add much flavor. However, it does soften up the targets. Other species then appear, chiefly from the Lactobacillus genus. They make the lactic acid responsible for the complex flavor of these pickles – lactic acid has a smoother and more complex flavor than the acetic acid that flavors vinegar cured pickles.

From this point the successful pickle maker will regard his crock as a kind of virtual pet. He need not walk or scratch it, but he must tend it every day, or at worst every few days. That involves skimming off any scum that forms. Alton demonstrates, lifting the brine bag where most of the scum adheres, and dunking it in fresh water to clean it. Then he uses a spoon to remove any white scum from the surface of the liquid and the pickles. This is not mold (usually) but is a byproduct of fermentation. He finishes with the crock by wiping the edge. This will remove a few herbs and that’s unavoidable. He checks the bag and wiping off anything that the water didn’t remove, and returns it to the crock. And, he warns viewers, don’t use tap water to clean the back. Use filtered or bottled because chlorine kills the fermentation microorganisms.

Depending on the particular bacteria involved, fermentation takes six to ten days. When the bubbling stops, fermentation is largely complete. Now, the cook has some choices. If he puts the pickles in the refrigerator now, replacing the bag with a loose cover, the cold will slow fermentation over the next three days or so (it’s still necessary to remove scum during that period). This yields a Hungarian dill pickle. Put in a jar and covered with strained fermentation liquid, it will keep in the fridge for as long as two months (but Alton doubts it will last that long).

The cook might also leave the pickles in their crock for three or four more weeks, checking occasionally for scum. This yields an honest to goodness sour dill that can turn one’s mouth inside out. In days of yore, people sealed such pickles in crocks or barrels and left them that way, but Alton cannot advise modern cooks to do that, because his lawyers, Itchy and Twitchy, won’t permit it. Cooks who aren’t well versed in the canning arts should stick to the fridge. Alton scrambles up the steps and forces Itchy and Twitchy back into the cellar, sealing them in with the trap door and the rug over it.

Those who don’t want to try home fermentation can cut cucumbers into spears and cover them with the same brine, then leave them in the refrigerator for three to four days. They’ll turn into the same sort of pickle many delis serve with their sandwiches.

Alton next ponders what to do with the final product of the pickling. There’s out of hand eating, slicing for sandwiches, cubing for potato salad, baking on pizza, and even mixing into ice cream (if one has a pregnant wife). But then, with a slightly maddened look, he offers a suggestion to those paid up on their insurance and lacking a sense of personal responsibility: a lamp. Alton connects a pickle to a large electrical transformer. When he kills the lights and fires up the voltage, a flickering orange glow comes from inside the fermented vegetable! Then the lights come back up and the power fails as Itchy and Twitchy reappear. They’ve got papers, and they confiscate Alton’s clever toy on the grounds it is far too dangerous. That leaves a disappointed Alton briefly at a loss, until he decides to think like Elvis!

Elvis would probably have fried a dill pickle, because (says Alton) nothing quite brings out the “pickleness” like deep frying. It begins with a cast iron Dutch oven in the 4-5 quart range that Alton fills about halfway with peanut oil. He turns the heat to medium high; he’s looking for a temperature in the 390º F – 400º F range. While that heats he collects five nice specimens of pickle and splits them into spears, then lays them on a paper towel and rolls them gently up. The goal is to remove the surface moisture without crushing the spear.

Alton’s tried a lot of combinations: breadcrumbs, beer, crumbled crackers, skim milk, eggs, Panko breadcrumbs, sake, rice flour... But the answer lies in thinking of fried chicken: Alton’s final choice is cornmeal and buttermilk. He seasons his cornmeal with a little kosher salt, but this is optional.

He starts by dipping a pickle and then tossing it into the dredge, where he uses a fork to cover it. Then back into the buttermilk and back to the dredge for a second coating – carefully, or you’ll develop club fingers. This works best if done with four or five pickles at a time. Alton moves the coated pickle to the hot oil with a pair of forks acting as a kind of sling, and fries it for two minutes. Even if the temperature of the oil drops, resist the urge to increase the heat, warns Alton, lest it go over 400º F. That would not be good. When the pickles finish frying Alton removes them to a rack to drain and cool for five minutes or so, then pairs them with horseradish for a delicious experience.

Outside, Alton’s selling pickles for a dollar. He’s become more popular since he started making his own pickles since his friends and neighbors know that nothing refreshes on a hot day better than a cool dill pickle. But across the street, Irving the Ice Cream man has duped their children into preferring ice cream! Alton ponders what to do about this and when inspiration strikes, heads back to the kitchen.

A recipe from rural Mississippi will help fix Irving! It starts with a gallon of pickles, which Alton drains, reserving the liquid. Alton splits each pickle to help it absorb the juice he’s about to make. To that liquid he adds a couple of packets of a popular cherry drink mix. He won’t say what kind, but a tall red glass with a face on it bursts through a “brick” wall to suggest the brand. Alton asks the glass if he should really be a pitcher, and it replies that a glass is much cheaper to make. Then Alton adds a pound of sugar and stirs until that dissolves. He returns the pickles to the jar and covers them with this juice, then waits for a week before selling, er, serving them. Sure enough, these cherry pickles lure all the children away from Irving, who angrily proclaims that “this is far from over” as he wheels away his cart. Alton notes that perhaps revenge is a dish best served... pickled.