How to Make Fermented Pickles
I grew up eating pickles all the time, but I was in my late 20s when I tried my first fermented dill pickle. From that moment onward nothing else would do. Here's how I make them.
Since many gardens start to yield up their first cucumbers in July, I thought it would make sense to write an article about how to make lacto-fermented dill pickles - which are often called “kosher dill pickles”. Let’s start with the ingredients. This recipe is makes enough to fill a 2 quart jar.
One sterilized 2 qt mason jar
Enough pickling cucumbers to to fill the jar
1 quart water
3 tbsp pickling salt (salt that is not iodized)
3 grape leaves (or 6 bay leaves)
2 or 3 whole dill plants (with seed heads)
3 garlic cloves
What is lacto-fermentation?
Most vegetables have a type of bacteria in them called “lactobacillus”. Lacto-fermentation is a way to provide the ideal environment for that bacteria to thrive, and by doing so, the lactobacillus prevent bad pathogens from living in that environment. By virtue of that process, the lactobacillus increase the acidity of the environment in a way that preserves the pickles for a long time. During this process, the cucumbers gain new, desirable flavor compounds and probiotics.
How it works
Everything goes into the jar and because it is a salty, anaerobic (no oxygen) environment, the lactobacillus are happy and they get to work digesting sugars in the cucumbers and excreting acid. They do this until most of the sugars are used up, and at this point the brine’s acidity has changed from neutral a neutral pH of 7, to an acidic pH of about 4.5. This salty, acidic solution is inhospitable to most pathogens, especially when kept at lower temperatures.Remember, this is not “canning”, so the rules are not as strict. Canning involves sterilizing everything, pressurizing the jar and sealing it. By contrast, with fermentation, the stuff inside the jar is “alive”, but by virtue of being alive, the stuff in the jar keeps the food safe to eat. The process also makes the pickles very crunchy and very very delicious!
You need pickling cucumbers and pickling salt
Pickling cucumbers are called pickling cucumbers because they are the best cucumbers for pickling. I’m not sure why this is the case, but trust me - it makes a difference. It’s also important to pick the cucumbers when they are between 3” and 4”. If they are left to grow larger than that they do not pickle as well. Likewise, do not use ordinary table salt because it is usually iodized and this will mess up the fermentation process. Use coarse pickling salt or Kosher salt, or some other salt that is not iodized. Coarse pickling salt is typically the cheapest, and it works just fine - so that’s what I use.
What’s the deal with the grape leaves?
Grape leaves have tannins that maintain the crunchiness of the cucumbers. No grape leaves - no crunch. There are many alternatives, but I have never tried any of them expect bay leaves - so that’s why I’ve only suggested those two. Here’s a list of alternatives from another website. Please comment and let me know if you have had had success with any of them.
How to do it
Sterilize the jar. The easiest way to do this is to run it through the dishwasher, and this is perfectly fine for fermentation.
Wash the cucumbers. There is no need to scrub them, and no need to remove the spines. The spines disintegrate during the fermentation process. Just fill the sink with water, add the cukes, and let them sit for about 5 minutes, then remove the cukes and inspect them for foreign debris. To be extra sure, repeat the process.
Remove the blossom end of the cucumbers. To be extra sure the right end has been removed, just remove both ends. This is important because there’s an enzyme in the blossom end that can mess up the whole batch and make them mushy.
Pour boiling water in a container, add the salt, and stir until the salt has completely dissolved.
Peel the garlic, cut each clove in half and place them in the bottom of the jar. Add the dill (leaves and seed heads) to the jar and push them down to the bottom. It’s important to pick the dill before the seed heads develop any kind of “fluff” so that there isn’t stuff floating in the jar. Now put the grape leaves in the bottom of the jar. By putting all this stuff in the bottom of the jar with the leaves on top, the likelihood of things floating to the top is greatly reduced.
Carefully place all the pickles in the jar as tightly as possible without bruising them. This is trickier than it might seem, so go slowly and think it through. Also, choose a cucumber for the very top that is longer than the opening. If cut in half and properly placed across the neck, it will hold everything down below the neck, and keep everything under the water - this is very important because lactobacillus need an anaerobic environment to do their work. If anything “floats” or is sticking out above the surface of the water, it will most likely get nasty and gross over time. There’s fanciful weights and other devices that can be bought to keep everything down as well, but I’ve always found the cut in half pickle (aka “sacrifickle”) to be the best.
Pour the salt water solution into the jar all the way to the neck. Don’t worry about it being too hot and killing the lactobacillus - in the time it takes to do everything it will have cooled down somewhat, and as soon as it’s poured into the jar, the temperature reduces quickly. Perhaps some lactobacillus are killed, but most of them make it, and there’s enough left to multiply and do everything that’s needed to make nice pickles.
Inspect the top of the jar for “floaters” (little bits of stuff), and remove them with a spoon, then place a lid on top of the jar.
Leave the jar on the kitchen counter for a week, and be sure to put a something over it to keep out the light (light kills lactobacillus). If a standard mason jar is being used, the jar needs to be “burped” at least once a day. The fermentation process creates gas, and that gas needs to be released. “Burping” simply refers to quickly loosening and then re-tightening the lid. There are lid devices that can be bought that keep the outside air out while simultaneously releasing the gasses. There are also special fermentation jars that do this as well. I have found that one-piece plastic lids for mason jars, tightened snugly but not as tight as possible, do a perfectly fine job of letting out gasses when they build up. The water will become cloudy during this process. That’s a good thing - it’s working!
After the jars have been on the counter for a week, put them in the fridge, or in a cold room or root cellar. They need to be kept in a cool, dark place. Most sources say to keep them below 10c. Regardless of what kind of lid has been used for the fermentation, once the jars are cool, replace that lid with a sterile standard two-piece mar jar lid, and get it on nice and tight. They can keep for 6 months or longer when stored in this way.
A little “mother” never hurts
Pickling juice from previous batches of fermented pickles is called the “mother”. If you have some kicking around, it can be helpful to add about 1/4 cup of it to the top of the jar because it immediately increases the acidity of the solution, and it add more bacteria to get things happening - but this step is absolutely not necessary - there is always enough lactobacillus naturally in the cucumbers to make everything work.
For the best flavor let the pickles sit in the fridge for at least 2 weeks before eating them. Over time, if properly stored, the flavor continues to improve. Some people like fermented pickles more than others - and I have no idea what that is the case. For me, it was love at first bite. I hope you have a similar experience. Happy pickling!
Here’s a video where I show how to make them:
Here’s a video with a few extra tips about making them: