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by meg

I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with canned pickles. While I love them in theory--the taste of late summer in a jar--they usually fall far short of the crisp, briny platonic ideal, becoming increasingly soggy and insipid over time.

This summer, to preserve a bit of the season without robbing it of its just-picked crispness, we started making half-sour pickles. Our first attempt at half-sours a couple years ago was ill-fated. We wrongly assumed that fermenting whole pickles would take quite a while, so we packed a crock full and didn't check them for about ten days, at which point they were far too soft.

This summer's pickle trials, however, have been resoundingly successful. Armed with the knowledge that fermentation can progress very quickly, especially in the summertime, we've taken to testing our half-sours after two to three days. Our most recent batches of pickles have only needed about five days at room temperature before they're ready to go into the fridge, where fermentation slows considerably.

Traditionally, half-sour pickles use a fairly light brine of about 3.5% salt by weight. This translates to about 2 tablespoons salt per quart of water. We made a brine with 1/2 gallon water and 5 tablespoons kosher salt. If you're using canning and pickling salt or sea salt, use slightly less--about 4 tablespoons for 1/2 gallon of water.

We also like to use grape leaves in our pickles. Grape, oak, or sour cherry leaves are often used in old pickling recipes because they contain tannins that prevent the pickles from going soft. Enzymes from the blossom end of the cucumber can cause pickles to soften undesirably during fermentation. Grape leaves are a way of counteracting this. However, you can also just cut off the blossom end of the cucumbers if you prefer or don't have access to grape leaves.

Finally, we've started fermenting in mason jars using airlock lids. We find this to be a great system for a few reasons. One, you can actually see what's going on in the jar--bubbles from fermentation, how the liquid looks, etc. Two, when fermentation is complete, all you have to do is swap out the airlock lid with a normal mason jar lid and put it in the fridge. Three, the curve of the jars helps keep the pickles below the brine. For this to work, you have to wedge them in tightly, but its a nice system nonetheless.

Use smallish pickling cucumbers for this ferment--they should be about 4 inches long (smaller is okay, but because they will ferment faster, be sure to check on them sooner). Try to use cucumbers that are all about the same size. If you have some smaller and some larger cucumbers, pack the smaller ones in at the top of the jar so you eat those first.

The most important thing to remember with pickles like this is that times given are just a guideline. Your pickles may take longer than mine did (we don't have air conditioning, so our ferments happen in a warmer environment). Be sure to taste the cucumbers as they ferment. When you like the way they taste, they're ready. You may prefer them to be quite sour, in which case you'll be fermenting them for a longer period of time. If you like them less sour and a bit firmer, you won't need to ferment as long. It's all about preference.

Other articles you might enjoy: Brine-Fermented Sauerkraut, Fermented "Louisiana-Style" Hot Sauce, Kombucha

Fermented Half-Sour Pickles
Makes 4 pounds of pickles

Clean and trim off any blossoms (or trim off the blossom end) from:
     4 pounds small to medium pickling cucumbers (about 4 inches long)
Stir together to dissolve the salt:
     1/2 gallon cool water
     5 tablespoons (90g) kosher salt

Place in the bottom of each of two sterilized, 1/2-gallon mason jars or in the bottom of a crock:
     Peeled cloves from 1 head garlic (2 heads of garlic total)
     4 to 5 grape leaves (8 to 10 total)
     4 to 5 dill sprigs (8 to 10 total)
     1 teaspoon black peppercorns (2 teaspoons total)

Wedge the cucumbers into the jars tightly, starting with larger cucumbers and filling in with smaller ones. Wedge small cucumbers in at the top so that the curve of the jars will hold them under the brine.
Fill the jars with enough brine to cover the cucumbers completely. If using airlock lids, fill the airlock with water, and screw on the lid. If using a crock, use a plate or a doubled zip-top plastic bag filled with water to keep the cucumbers under the brine, then cover the crock either with a lid or a piece of cloth tied tightly to keep out dust and flies.
Check the progress of the fermentation daily. The brine will start to get cloudy and smell slightly sour, and the cucumbers will begin to soften. You can taste the cucumbers as they ferment to see how sour you want them. Remember that in warmer weather fermentation tends to happen faster than in cooler weather. Half sour pickles may be done in as few as 5 days, or they may take weeks. 
When fermentation is done (or the pickles are as sour as you want them), replace the airlock lids with normal lids, and transfer the jars to the refrigerator. If you used a crock, transfer the pickles to jars, cover with brine, and refrigerate. 

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