In a pickle: Choosing between American and Israeli brined cucumbers
What's the difference between American and Israeli pickles? One's spicy and sour, while the other is a bit more mild.
For some American tourists, the first encounter with an Israeli pickle provokes quite a surprise. While the mild and crunchy kosher dill pickle is popular in the American Jewish and non-Jewish cuisine, it does not prepare you for its strong-flavored, spicy Israeli brother.
Jews in both countries rejoice in their pickles. One is served with any deli sandwiches or hamburgers around the country, and the other can be found in any falafel stand or as a part of a meze table.
But what a difference between the two.
“I know what you’re going to write,” says my husband, while munching on a spicy pickle I made a couple of weeks earlier. “You’re going to say the Israeli ones are much better.” He is still longing for his late grandmother’s Hungarian quick pickles, ready in an hour and basically raw. She used to make hers by slicing the cucumbers very thinly, mixing with salt and letting them stand in a colander to get their liquid out. Then she would mix it with sliced onion, vinegar, sugar and salt and a little water, let it stand for an hour and serve. A very refreshing version.
Yes, I do prefer the Israeli spicy pickles I grew up with, but in the years I’ve been living in America I gradually learned to appreciate dill pickles. You can see why I was surprised to learn both are pickled in almost same brine: water, salt, fresh dill, garlic cloves and hot peppers. Some add spices like black peppercorn, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and others, some add a little vinegar to top the pickle jar, but the basics are the same, and it's no wonder. This brine is the same one that was used in Eastern Europe for the last hundreds of years. The results, however, are very different.
What is the difference then? The American cucumber pickle is usually served “half-sour”, meaning the cucumbers are not yet fully fermented, hence their crispiness and mild sour flavor. The Israeli pickle is always full-sour. Another difference is the cucumbers themselves. While the Americans pickle the Kirby cucumber, a very thick variety with rough skin, the Israelis use Middle Eastern cucumbers, which are thin, smooth skinned, and the smaller they are the better. The Israelis also use more salt in their brine.
For both types, now is a good time to pickle. Cucumbers are at their peak and are widely available, and since they’re new and fresh, they’re crispy – which is essential for pickling. So go ahead, make two large jars, one of each. You can enjoy them all year.
Israeli cucumber pickles
The cucumbers for pickling have to be fresh and very crispy, otherwise they’re not worth the work and the anticipation.
I’ve found that the newly available mini Persian cucumber, sometimes called cutecumber, work really well for pickling in the Israeli style. They stay crisp and are just the right size for a snack. They’re available in some Costco branches and other specialty markets.
For kosher dill pickles simply substitute the Iranian cucumbers with Kirby cucumbers, reduce the kosher salt to 2 tablespoons and stop the fermenting process after 2 to 3 days by storing the pickles in the fridge (instead of the 5 to 7 days in the recipe).
2 lb. mini Iranian cucumbers (Cutecumbers)
or the smallest Iranian cucumbers you can find
2 fresh Thai hot peppers, or any other hot pepper
3 garlic cloves
5 dill springs
2 bay leaves
5 tablespoons kosher salt
¼ cup cider vinegar
1. Sterilize a 1½ quart jar by filling it with boiling water and then it them out.
2. Arrange the cucumbers tightly in the jar. Place the hot peppers, garlic cloves, dill springs and bay leaves between the cucumbers. If you want your pickles to be very spicy you can cut one of the hot peppers lengthwise, otherwise, leave them whole.
3. Put the salt in a large 1½ quart container, add 1 cup of boiling water and mix until the salt is dissolved. Add 4 more cups of water at room temperature and mix.
4. Slowly pour the salted water into the jar with the cucumbers (you will probably have some extra left). Stop just before you reach the top, and finish with the cider vinegar. The brine should cover the cucumbers completely. Seal the jar and store in a warm place.
5. In five to seven days the pickles will be ready. Taste one to decide whether they’re ready or need a few more days of pickling. Once the pickles are to your liking move them to the fridge.
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman