Sweet pickles are the Bobby Petrino of the pickle world. Everyone loves to hate them. But the lackluster examples at the supermarket belie the sweet pickle’s potential — homemade fermented sweet pickles that would never cheat on their wives, hire their mistresses, or wreck their motorcycles.
These are full old school grandma sweet pickles. They’re perfect in tuna, chicken, and egg salad, or of course on a cheese plate. I love them on a burger, too. And you can hit them with a stick blender for homemade relish.
This is a roughly two week process. You’ll need:
- 3 gallon crock or other vessel
- 2 boxes of kosher salt
- 12-14 pounds of pickling cucumbers (smaller is usually better, big ones don’t do right)
- 2 tbsp of alum
- 10lbs sugar
- 1 gallon of vinegar, maybe a little more
- A container of McCormick pickling spice
First thing: get some cucumbers. The farmers will often have a box special of pickling cucumbers — again, smaller is better. Then fill the crock about 60% with water, and dump in salt and stir until an egg will float in it. Seriously, it’ll take a lot of salt.
Then put all the cucumbers in. Don’t wash them! Pack it full, they’ll shrink a bit through this process. Then put a plate on top (and maybe a weight) to hold them all down in the brine. Keep in mind that the crock, the salt water, and the cucumbers will be heavy. Unless you’re pretty strong, keeping it on the counter near your sink is probably a good idea, though unfortunately it will take up a lot of space.
And then wait a week. They can probably sit 10 days if you needed them to. It will look gross. You will think it’s been ruined, but it is not. Take off the plate and drain off the brine. Rinse them really well, and slice them up. They have to be cut in some fashion, whole cucumbers will shrivel up and not be good. Wash out the nasty vessel, and put the slices in it.
Now is the time for the fermented slices to be bathed in two different brines, first alum and then vinegar. Make a brine with 1 tbsp alum per gallon of water (you’ll need about 1-1.5 gallons) and pour it over the slices until they’re covered. Let them sit for 12 hours. Alum will make them crisp, so less or more time will of course make them less or more crisp. Drain and rinse well, and cover them with vinegar, and let it sit another 12 hours.
Here is the final stage. Drain the vinegar (but don’t rinse) and pour the slices into a temporary vessel. Pour the entire box of pickling spices into a cheesecloth or old sock and tie it up. Layer slices in the bottom of the crock, and put bigass handfuls of sugar between each layer. Stir it around with your hand as you go. Drop in your sockful of spices about halfway through. This should eat up 8-10lbs of sugar. Don’t short it, the sugar makes the liquid. It will look dry and not right, and you’ll be worried about it, but this is normal. Stir it around as best you can every day. It’s okay if you can’t do a thorough mixing job, just make sure the ones on top don’t spend all their time on top. Let it sit for 5 days.
And then they’re done, and ready to transfer to jars for storage. These are not canned, so we keep them in the fridge, where they’ll stay good for at least a couple of years. I imagine they’re fairly bulletproof even outside the fridge, at least for a while. You can do an honest canning if you like, but it does take some of the crunch and piquancy away from them.
This process looks intimidating at first, but it’s easier than it is at first glance. The only iffy period are the alum and vinegar brines. We make sure that period falls on a weekend so there’s plenty of time to tend them. It also needs a couple of really big vessels, and borrowing one might not be a bad idea if you don’t have a couple on hand. The pickles are really quite nice. People will be just as impressed that you made them from scratch as they are by the taste.