Here's a picture of some stuff you'll need:
That's not a very good picture, you can't really make out what all that stuff is. You can see a large glass jar, that's probably important, and there's a big jug that says 5% salt and some other stuff. We'll get into that at some point. Or maybe now, I guess understanding that jug is more important than the other stuff. Fermented pickles really aren't more than "the art of dunking stuff in salt water."
So this is a jug of salt water. It's five percent salt by weight, which is a percent and a proof saltier than the ocean (on average). So now you know that, which isn't very useful. What is useful is how to get that salty, salty five percent figure. I weighed an empty jug on my scale, then weighed an unopened jug. A gallon is supposed to weigh 128 ounces. Mine weighed a little more than that for some reason, a lofty 6.1 ounces extra generously granted me by the water manufacturer.
128*.05=6.4, or in my case 134.1*.05=6.705
Precision is important, so I just pretended I didn't have the extra water and weighed out six and a half ounces of salt. A blend of Celtic salt I smoked myself, Celtic salt that I didn't smoke myself (and no one else smoked either) and kosher salt. The smoked salt is in there because I had it, and it makes my pickles more pretentious than your pickles, and I like to look down my nose at people.
If you want to look down your nose at me and make an even more pretentious pickle, it might be useful to look back at the salinity of the ocean. You can use a solution with as little as three and a half percent salt to make your pickles. However, doing this doesn't count unless you are using only the purest ocean water.
With all of that out of the way, lets take another look at those other ingredients:
In the back and on the left you'll see "pickling spice." It is comprised of the ingredients on the right minus the celery seed and with the addition of cinnamon (in the form of crushed sticks) and coriander. The proportions aren't really important, but if for some reason you can't find one of the most ubiquitous and affordable spice mixes ever brought to the american market, they are roughly 1 part cinnamon, two or three parts everything else. I don't actually like this mix, and every brand and jackass home pickler's got their own variation with this extra spice or that extra spice, but it is a good starting point. I use some of this, then adjust the balance to my liking. I suggest you do the same. In this batch I will be adding a bit of all the spices you see with a hefty emphasis on the dill. I want a lot of garlic flavor, but I'll get that from the garlic. I used those two whole heads, but I can always add a third later if it isn't garlicky enough. This is likely to happen, because nothing is ever garlicky enough. My garlic is but young and only a scant few plants for now though, so I must ration it carefully until I have enough to grow a mighty field that encroaches into neighbors yards of its own accord and will thrive long after I have gone, protecting the area from Rhode Islanders who have wandered too far from their crypts.
I also think celery seed makes a wonderful addition to the standard pickle profile, and you should too. But not too much of this, just a pinch. In fact, you shouldn't really even notice it. It just rounds out something called the back end in the flavor profile, which is a term people like me use to make other people feel inferior for not tasting with enough discipline to make food a dry, analytical experience instead of a pleasurable one. When you've got all your spices together they should look like this:
I forgot to mention I also like a lot of mustard seed. Garlic, mustard, and dill, and slightly less black pepper than any one of those, with cucumbers in salt water would make a decent pickle by itself if you ask me. And if you're reading this, then odds are you did ask me, so there. There's that. It's just an opinion, and not one of my more important ones. Here's one of my more important ones: I hid some powdered garlic under those bay leaves. It was freshly ground, since I am still a civilized person after all, but you still mustn't ever do this. Only use whole or cracked spices. The reason is simple and largely aesthetic but still an important one. If you substitute too many of your ingredients with powders they settle on the bottom of the jar in a weird thick sludge, and you can't hide it because shaking the jar up to disperse the sludge just makes the brine murky. You can use a pinch of that or a pinch of this if you must, but set a jar of pickles made with whole spices next to a jar of pickles made with the same spices but as powders out at your next event and see which gets eaten first. For that matter, see which one you want to eat.
I suppose you're wondering why those are in a pot, since these pickles are fermented so nothing ever actually has to be heated. I like to simmer the spices for a bit in just a little water, maybe a cup or so with a pinch of salt to help maintain the balance, because I feel like it helps to infuse more flavor, especially earlier on. This heating step isn't actually necessary. There is absolutely no reason you can't just toss all that into the bottom of your jar, stuff it full of cucumbers, and dump the salt water in till it's covered and call it a day. You're welcome to do that, but that's not how I do it and this is about me, so I set that to simmer.
I notice you're looking at the ingredients again. I guess I forgot to mention to crack the bit of extra allspice and the hefty dose of black pepper in the mortar and pestle. I thought it was implied, and it's also an optional step, like so much in pickling, like so much in life.
Or is it the peppers? I wanted this batch to be a bit spicy, so I used some of my hungarian wax peppers, but I suspect they are actually sweet bananas because none of them have taken on any heat. I added a lot more of them than pictured, but you don't need to know about that. The only thing anyone needs to know about adding peppers to any kind of pickles, even the non fermented kind, is that if left intact and unpunctured they will rot from the inside out. Pierce them top, bottom, and sides to allow liquid to seep in. You could also slice them from head to toe or into rings or whatever your fiery little heart desires, just as long as you remove that waxy, impermeable skin as an obstacle.
Probably wondering why the grape and oak leaf. This is my preferred insurance against my pickles losing their crisp. There are a number of other ways to do this, I think the virtue of the leaves is in their availability. If you're making pickles in season, then these leaves will be within walking distance of your home, free for the taking. They have worked for me in the past, I expect them to keep working for me in the future. I also use more than needed, but I think it makes it more fun. The reason you need them is because cucumbers (and many other pickleable things) naturally want to go soft. Using fresh and young pickles-to-be helps slow this down, but only a little. It does not prevent it. It's usually the fault of an enzyme present in the vegetable (or fruit) trying to break it down as just another way to make sure the seeds get out. A lot of people will tell you to just cut off the blossom end of the cucumber. I have not tried this, but have every reason to believe it works. I just prefer my pickles intact. If you don't care, or the weather is unfavorable and you are otherwise all set to pickle, slice just about a nickels width past the blossom from each cucumber before putting them in the brine, and let me know how it works out. This is the blossom end:
This is not the blossom end:
If you didn't know that, then you should pretend you knew that.
There are other ways to keep pickles crisp. Calcium chloride does the trick (but use a less salty brine, maybe four percent; calcium chloride has a very salty taste that will affect the finished product.) I've read that unrefined sea salt contains trace minerals that will perform in a similar way, cross linking with cell walls to reinforce their structure or whatever. Tannin, or anything with a lot of tannin in it will deactivate the enzymes that digest the would be pickles. Tannin is found in tea leaves, coffee beans, hops, wine (but don't use wine, alcohol will screw up the bacterial balance); cloves, tarragon, cumin, thyme, vanilla, and cinnamon (though not in strong enough concentrations to make a difference unless you use way, way too much of them); and plant leaves such as from horseradish, mesquite, oak, and grapes.
The only risk with using tannin is too much of it will make your pickles astringent. For this very reason, avoid using tannin for any pickles that will be heated, as that will leach more tannin out much faster. Fermented pickles never go above room temperature, so it's no big deal here. Just know that oak leaves, red oak leaves in particular (the leaf in our picture is from a white oak. The easiest way to tell the difference is that red oak has pointed leaf lobes while white oak leaves have rounded lobes) have much, much more tannin than the other items listed. I've not had any trouble with grape leaves making pickles astringent, but I haven't used oak leaves before. I will report my findings in due time. Oh, and if you live in the western or south eastern united states familiarize yourself with poison oak before you go gallivanting around plucking leaves to soak with your future snack foods, it's something you should know anyways and I don't want to hear about it if you didn't listen to me here and end up poisoning yourself.
So how do you use the leaves? I like to stuff the grape leaves along the bottom and sides of the jar, intact and after only a brief rinse. Then I start cramming cucumbers and whatever else in there. Here's a picture:
You could also roll one or two up, or shred them or rip them and just toss them in there however, or leave them out entirely. This is more fun though. Keep stuffing things in there, you want everything really packed up tight and crammed as much as it can be, with little or no room to spare. Never mind that thing that looks a bit like a severed finger, keep packing! We've got to fit more! Always more!
Alright, we got the garlic in (both heads peeled, one head crushed), the dried peppers are in (you made sure the brine could get in them too, right?) the hungarian wax peppers that are probably mislabeled sweet banana peppers because some fuckwad ripped me off and there's no heat and I'm still bitter about it so if the oak leaves make these pickles astringent guess whose getting them Freddy you ass, I'm looking at you Shoe!
I also stuffed like half a red onion in there because who gives a fuck, down in the brine they all pickle. Everything pickles.
Shit, are the spices still simmering? That's been like way too long. They should have been taken off the heat a while ago and left to cool. Great.
What else can we cram in there?
[some carrots and beet later]
All that's left is to dump in the spices with their liquid, then add the brine until everything is submerged, and try to work out the air bubbles. I am lucky enough to have that huge vlassic jar, and my pickles were packed in tight enough that nothing could get above the curve at the top of the jar, so everything just stayed happily submerged on its own. This won't always be the case. Odds are you're going to have to weigh those suckers down. My favorite method is to find a rock just smaller than the containers opening, wash it nicely, then place it on top. Other methods include a resealable bag (like ziploc) filled with water, and definitely include some smaller rocks in there. Or if you are using food storage containers that stack (think tupperware) put one on top with a rock in it! Rocks! Aren't they magnificent?
Now put that jar somewhere. Or leave it where it is, it's not my problem. I suggest it stay out of the fridge, freezer, microwave, or oven. Safe places include as a centerpiece for your dining room table, in a cabinet somewhere, on top of your television, light or dark doesn't matter. People tell you that matters, but those people are wrong. Light and dark are mortal issues, and the pickles care not for mortal affairs.
They care a bit about temperature though, they like the same temperatures we do.
Did you know if you suddenly filled the oceans with enough cucumbers to match the cucumber to water ratio in my pickle jar you'd wipe out nearly all life on earth? We'd all become pickles! Every one of us could live forever in the briny deep, forever souring in the pitch of those dark dreams!
It takes about ten days to make a decent pickle. You'll need to wait. I suggest waiting longer. You'll also occasionally need to skim things from the top and splash a little extra salt water in if it gets low. Most of what you will need to skim is called kahm yeast. It's harmless and white and looks like this:
Don't even worry about it, just skim it off. There are far, far more dangerous things out there. Tiny, microscopic things that will murder you because they exist on a scale so vast we can barely comprehend it, our consciousness means nothing to them, they are legion. You are unlikely to find them inhabiting your pickles. Odds are nothing dangerous will ever occur with your pickles as long as you don't seal them air tight while they are actively fermenting (they produce gas and will explode) and as long as your salinity was between three and a half to five percent. Really, the biggest risk is that you do something silly like stuff too many oak leaves in there and they come out astringent (I'll let you know if this happens) or you get too crazy with your recipe and don't like the flavor. If you go to eat them and they don't smell good, proceed with caution. If their texture isn't crisp be warned. If they don't taste good, get rid of them. Don't be afraid to try again. Trying is not something the pickle can do, the pickle only is, the trying is your task.
I already said ten days, right? You can try them a little earlier, or much later. The flavor just gets stronger, more sour, but in my experience never too sour. If you want them outrageously sour add something like citric acid once you've tasted them and decided they've fermented enough. Storing them in the fridge will slow fermentation, upping the acid content or removing some of the brine and replacing with alcohol (whiskey sour pickles, anyone?) will stop fermentation. You really shouldn't keep them at room temperature forever. I suggest twenty days.
Twenty days is a long time.
To help you pass that time, here is a cow that is also a ship, wearing pantaloons and shoes that buckle:
That should give you something to contemplate for a while. I know it will haunt me till the end of my days.