I blame McDonald's for the fact that my kids don't like gherkins. I've tried to persuade them that the putty-coloured flap of sea-slug that is burrowed in a McDonald's rat-burger could hardly be described as a gherkin, but they've been put off for life. I love gherkins - specially little snappy cornichons - but I find the shop ones here in South Africa so acidic that they strip the skin from my tongue.
How difficult could they be to make, I thought, when I spotted a pile of little gherkin cucumbers at my greengrocer's. Easy peasy, is the answer. These were ready to eat three days after I bottled them, but I have no idea how long they will keep - I will let you know in a few weeks' time. (See note about storage at end of this post.)
I turned, for a recipe, to my all-time favourite recipe book, Lady Fettiplace's Receipt Book by Hilary Spurling. (More about this wonderful book later, but, in nutshell, these are the passed-down-over-generations recipes of a lady of the manor living at the time of Shakespeare, and they are astonishingly modern in their refinement and sophistication. Lady Fettiplace's hand-written recipe for 'white bisket bread', for example, is the earliest documented meringue recipe.)
In her brine for the recipe To Keep Hartichocks All the Yeare (which she uses for both pickled artichokes and 'cowcumbers') Lady Fettiplace uses water, verjuice, fennel and hyssop. A wonderful verjuice is produced here in South Africa by The Verjuice Company, but I didn't have any to hand, so I used half good white wine vinegar and half ordinary white spirit vinegar.
The book's author, Hilary Spurling, recommends cider vinegar in place of verjuice, but adds that white wine vinegar is probably better as it won't affect the colour of the brine. In any event, do use a a white wine vinegar that has a slight sweetness to it. White balsamic vinegar would be fantastic, if you can afford it.
You can add all sorts of spices and flavourings to these gherkins: here's the recipe as I made it.
Easy Peasy Home-Made Gherkins with Garlic and Chillies
1.2 kg fresh, crunchy pickling cucumbers
700 ml water
350 ml white wine vinegar
350 ml white spirit vinegar
5 t (20 ml) coarse sea salt (Kosher salt is perfect; see notes)
1 T (15 ml) black peppercorns
1 t (5 ml) fennel or dill seeds
dried bay leaves
dried red chillies
sprigs of fresh dill
whole garlic cloves, peeled
First sterilise some jars. Use pickling jars with loose lids and screw-on rings (see notes) or sturdy glass jars with metal lids lined on the inside with plastic. I sterilise jars by boiling them and their lids in a large pot for 10 minutes. I fish them out with the end of a wooden spoon, and put them (the jars only, not the lids) in an oven heated to 140°C for ten minutes to dry out, before placing them upside-down on several sheets of newspaper.
Wash the cucumbers and drain well. Put the water, the two vinegars, the salt, the peppercorns and the fennel or dill seeds into a large enamel (or Teflon-coated) pot, bring to the boil and boil hard for 5 minutes. Add the cucumbers in three batches - about one batch per minute - and quickly bring the brine and cucumbers back to the boil. As soon as the brine boils again, scoop the cucumbers out of the liquid, using a slotted spoon, and tightly pack them, vertically, into the warm, dry, sterilised jars. Keep the brine boiling briskly. Add a few peppercorns and fennel seeds from the pot - plus bay leaves, red chillies, whole peeled cloves of garlic, and whatever flavourings you'd like to add - to the jars. Use a clean chopstick to push chillies down into jar, or they'll bob to the top. Using a soup ladle, pour the boiling brine over the cucumbers, and fill to within 2 mm of the brim of each jar. Screw on the lids tightly. After fifteen minutes, tighten the lids again to form a tight seal. Store in the fridge. Ready after three to four days.
Makes 4 large (about 500 ml) jars.
- Metal utensils will react with the vinegar, so use a wooden or plastic spoon and an enamel or Teflon-lined pot
- Use fresh, snappy, crunchy pickling cucumbers for this preserve. The crunchier your cucumbers are, the snappier your gherkins will be. I haven't tried this, but I read that you can make pickling cucumbers even crunchier by soaking them for two hours in an ice-cold bath of water and ice cubes.
- You can buy sturdy glass pickling jars (which come with metal, plastic-lined disc lids, and rings) in most supermarkets. Or, if you live in Johannesburg or Stellenbosch, you can get these directly from Consol shops.
-A recent study showed that fermented dill pickles can contain listeria so, to be on the safe side, keep your gherkins in the fridge. And read this.
- Don't use idiodized table salt, which may cloud your brine.
POSTSCRIPT: These gherkins lasted very well in the fridge. I opened and ate them after 6 weeks, and they were crunchy and snappy. The last jar was opened a week ago (end of June) and they were still flavoursome, although losing some of their crunch. The jars containing chillies were by far the best.