My son was bewildered by the cucumber “pickles” he was served all through his freshman year at his small college on Long Island, New York. “They aren’t sour at all,” he complained last summer. “There’s no taste of fermentation, no vinegar. I think they’re just cucumbers in salt water!”
I was puzzled, too. New Yorkers I know love to brag about their city’s traditional fermented pickles. How could a Long Island college serve unfermented cucumbers in salt water and call them pickles?
I forgot about this discussion until a few weeks later, when I got an email message from a woman named Sheila. Sheila told me about a small restaurant chain in Rhode Island, named Gregg’s, that for twenty years has served something “that’s not quite a pickle”—a cucumber that’s salty and dilly but not noticeably tart. Sheila’s husband wanted her to make some of these near-pickles, so in The Providence Journal she found a recipe, submitted by a reader, for “Taste Like Gregg’s Pickles.”
The recipe starts out like one for a small batch of traditionally brined pickles: You combine cucumbers, salt, spices, garlic, and water in a two-quart jar. But then you leave the jar out at room temperature for only an hour before refrigerating it for a week. At the end of the week the cucumbers aren’t fermented, but they’re ready to eat.
Ready to eat? Could they be pickled at all, after just a week in the fridge?
Gregg’s wouldn’t talk about its recipe, so I consulted Mike, the sales guy at Pickle Guys, a business started by former employees of the famous Guss’ Pickles when, in 2002, Guss’ left its old site on Essex Street, on the once mostly Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. Pickle Guys—which makes truly kosher pickles, under the supervision of a rabbi—sells a product like Gregg’s, Mike said, as “new pickles.” Mike explained that new pickles “are pretty much the least pickled, more like a salty cucumber, pickled anywhere from one to ten days. After that they will become a half-sour pickle.” Pickle Guys sells a lot of new pickles, some of them heavily seasoned with chile.
I’d already started my own batch of new pickles, adapted from the “Taste Like Gregg’s” recipe. Here is my version of—
East Coast “New Pickles”
2 quarts 3- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers, blossom ends trimmed
8 garlic cloves
1½ tablespoon mixed pickling spices
¼ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
2 tablespoons pickling salt
4 cups water
Pack the jar tightly with the cucumbers, interspersing among them the garlic, spices, and pepper flakes. Stir the salt into the water until the water clears. Cover the cucumbers with the brine. Tightly cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator for at least a day and preferably a week.
After their first few days in the refrigerator, my son and I started tasting the new pickles. I found I actually liked these garlicky, salty, dilly cukes, despite their lack of acidity. My son liked them, too, much more than the ones he’d been served at college. They were a refreshing change from either fermented or vinegar dills. Over time they got stronger in flavor, but even after two months in the refrigerator the cucumbers showed no signs of fermentation—no graying of the skins, no bubbling or clouding of the brine. They neither soured nor spoiled before we ate them all.
While gardeners throughout the rest of the country drown in cucumbers, I wait for the first of mine to grow past cornichon stage. Never before this weirdly cool summer have I felt such a hunger for cucumbers. In a week or so, when I start bringing in cukes by the armload, I think I’ll make some new pickles. I doubt they’ll get as old as a week before we devour them all.