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.
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.
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.
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.