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French Cornichons

I think I have finally entered the secret brotherhood of homemade cornichon and gherkin makers. My specific goal was not sweet gherkins (which are the right size but way too sweet) or just small versions of a dill pickle but what I wanted is the intensely sour french cornichon that graces my favourite protein delivery system: the charcuterie plate.

The hardcore, pure acid required recipe that I started looking for back in February is, not surprisingly, from Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail cookbook.  It doesn’t explicitly call for them the idea of needing black, elbow-length laboratory gloves to make pickles appealed to my  inner Alton Brown.  Problem is that I don’t have the first idea where I could find pure acetic acid and also, after some quick math, I’m not sure there’s any point.

As well as cucumbers, sugar, salt and spices Henderson’s recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of acetic acid and 5 cups of water so I wondered how does this amount of acid and water differ from vinegar?  This quick reference chart is a bit unclear on exactly how many milliliters are in a cup but the wikipedia page offers a fuller explanation.  It seems a metric cup has 250 ml in it while a US customary cup (based on half a pint) has 237 ml.  Fergus Henderson is British but my copy of his book was printed in the States but he does say that he acquired the recipe from a New Zealand friend (where they use the metric cup).  Confused, I’ll do the math for both.  All sources are clear that a tablespoon contains about 15 ml.  Anyway, the math is either:

  • (3 X 15) / (5 X 250) = 45 / 1250 = .036 ; or
  • (3 X 15) / (5 X 237) = 45 / 1185 = .038

That’s 3.6 to 3.8% acid by volume.  Vinegar is usually 6% (or sometimes 5%) acid so we’re just being asked to make under-strength vinegar.  Also, the recipe calls for nearly a cup of sugar to every pound of cucumbers so clearly this is not the super-sour cornichon of my dreams.  (And that would have been obvious if I had remembered that he titled the recipe “Pickled Gherkins”.)

With some specifically calibrated Google searches I found a number of recipes for French cornichons.  The first one on this page is what I used but this one and this one also look interesting.  Grape leaves are called for in some recipes because the tannins they release are helpful in keeping the pickles crisp but I have used the easier to identify (unless you live in a vineyard) oak leaves with delicious (and safe) results.  Also, with the acidic and salty nature of this brine I understand why some recipes are particular about calling for a jar with a non-metal lid to prevent rust.

My Mathilde hybrid cucumber would only get slightly bigger than this before I picked them.

Over the six months while I was (very occasionally) searching for the best cornichon recipe I knew in the back of my mind that there would be an even bigger problem.  As Foodie and the Everyman wrote about last summer it is almost impossible to buy the correctly-sized cucumbers (between one and two inches in length is preferred) in southern Ontario. The obvious solution? Grow my own.

The cucumber plants having just been transferred into the garden

This year’s seed purveyor choice, William Dam Seeds, offers eight varieties of pickling cucumber seeds–one, the KY hybrid, is actually Asian melon that looks like a cucumber and pickles well.  Unfortunately, a seed shortage made the Cool Breeze Hybrid (a “prized European gherkin type”) unavailable so I went with the suggested substitute the Mathilde hybrid.  Other than the fact that it has smaller cucumbers for longer the Mathilde’s selling point is that because it is pathenocarpic it can be grown under cover.   Again there is a helpful wikipedia page on the topic but what this means is that the row cover can be used to exclude predatory insects without worrying about also excluding bees because this cucumber does not need them for pollination.

This green insect is (I assume) the sort of thing the row cover was designed to keep out

I planted a row that is about two and a half feet by twelve feet with four of these cucumber plants.  What if you don’t have a garden or don’t want to devote this much space to this crop?  I don’t see any reason they wouldn’t work in large planters like the ones I use for zucchini, you’d just have to be a bit creative about securing the row cover in a sort of shower cap setup.  In either case the idea is to weight the edges to the ground while leaving enough slack in the middle for the plants to grow.

The recipe I used calls for six pounds of cucumbers but I only had about a pound and a half at this point.  Because this pickles for a month or more I don’t see any harm in adding a future crop to the mix before later dividing into smaller containers.

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  1. Tim (wine_discovery) told me I should check out your article and he was right! I am a pickle gourmand (notice i’m not a gourmet!) and my absolute fave is a very sour dill pickle. With the recipe you give the link to, you could also end up with half-sours which we enjoyed when we lived in Boston but they don’t seem too popular around here. Fantastic with a Reuben sandwich! Anyway enjoyed your article very much and I will be back to check out your other articles. I used to do canning all the time with my mother, and I love the smells of vinegar and spices that permeate the whole house during canning season!

  2. [...] I mentioned in an early post I collected three of my favourites (French Cornichons, Cottage Garden Pickle, and Serviceberry Jam) and Sarah after some very rigorous editing made the [...]

  3. Eloise Reinhart says:

    This year we wanted to pickle/can burr gherkins. Bought the West Indian gherkin and when we went to can then (dill pickle) they came out soft. My husbands once mother-in-law now deceased (first wife who has also passed on) used to grow and dill. We were thinking that the West Indian gherkin was the thing, but as he looks at them, he feels they aren’t the same species. Do you know of another round shaped – looks like handgranade with spikes – gherkin that is out there that when you pickle won’t get soft but holds the crisp? Or, do we possibly have the correct one and just leaving out a step. Help -

  4. Eloise Reinhart says:

    Another thought in going to another webside – Landreth Seed Company, are the Mexican Sour Gherkin – but they look like tiny watermelons and hubby remembers there being spikes on them. Hmmmmmmmmmm – this is frustrating!

  5. Eloise Reinhart says:

    another thing is the burr round spiky gherkin hubby remembers was less seedy and very meety around the skin…as the west india one is very seedy and no meet. any ideas out there. please respond… and thanks

  6. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Eloise,

    I should start by saying that I think your questions are beyond my expertise. Hopefully this wikipedia article can be a helpful starting point for you:

    It looks–as if quite often the case with food–”gherkin” can mean both a specific plant and its fruit (cucumis anguria) and also a method of preparing various different small vegetables from the cucumis family. It sounds like you’re dealing the with the former while my knowledge mainly focuses on the latter.

  7. [...] or maybe I should shout House! when I eventually came across this site Food With Legs  where I learnt about Tannins and using Grape Leaves to help keep the crunchiness. And by sheer [...]

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