When you’re making fermented pickles, you must usually weight the food, because until it is well acidified it can easily spoil on exposure to air. Vegetables or fruits fermenting in a crock or plastic bucket are typically weighted with a water-filled jar placed over a plate. The best crocks, in my opinion, come with stoneware weights made to fit, so no plate is needed.
But when you’re fermenting only a small quantity—say, a pint of garlic cloves or a quart of turnip chunks—you need a weight that fits a small jar. For pickling in jars up to a gallon in size, I often recommend freezer-weight polyethylene zipper bags, such as the Zip-loc brand, filled with brine. (Plain water works as well, unless the bag happens to spring a leak or spill out the top when it’s not fully zippered). A brine-filled freezer bag not only makes a good weight; if it’s properly filled and set in the jar it also seals out yeast and mold. These bags contain no phthalates or BPA; they don’t “outgas” any chemicals; and neither acid nor salt degrades the plastic.
But the bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable and ever more dear resource—and that’s reason enough for many home picklers to avoid them. So I sometimes suggest, as an alternative to brine bags, rocks—hard, smooth, well-scrubbed rocks. If you want to ensure the cleanliness of the rocks from your garden or neighborhood creek, you can boil them before using them. Mentioning rocks, though, seems to immediately transform me in others’ eyes. I can almost feel my arms lengthening, my jar and forehead thickening, dense hair growing all over my body.
What sort of weight, then, can we trust through our senses and experience to always wash up pure and clean and civilized? It must be glass, I concluded. So last summer I went looking for small glass weights for pickling. And where else would I start my search but the dollar store?
And there I found just what I wanted. For a dollar I bought two glass candleholders, heavy, thick glass discs that just fit inside a standard wide-mouth mason jar. At first I regretted the hollow, intended for a candle, in the center of each disc, but then I noticed that the hollow made a good gripping point for my fingers.
I had a chance to put one of my weights to use the other day after my friend Ruth presented me with a few lemons from her hothouse. When I get my hands on unwaxed lemons, I usually pickle them whole. Ruth’s lemons were too big to fit neatly in a standard wide-mouth jar, so I put them into a globe-shaped Weck jar. Although the Weck jar has a much wider mouth than the standard mason jar, the candleholder is broad enough to keep the lemons well submerged in their brine.
In case you’ve never brined whole lemons, here’s how to do it: Mix a brine of 1 tablespoon salt to each cup of water. Put the lemons in a jar, cover them well with the brine, and weight them. Cap the jar loosely, or cover it with a cloth. Leave the jar on your kitchen counter for about three weeks.
Russian cooks slice these lemons thin and serve them with fish and game. I like them best in a Moroccan-style chicken stew with spices and home-cured green olives.