Its cucumber season, and I’m harvesting a steady supply of pickling cucumbers, which means its time for fermenting dill pickles!
Also known as lacto-fermented, “real pickles”, or sour pickles, these are pickles that rely on naturally occurring lactobacilus bacteria to ferment, or pickle, the cucumbers. The benefits of eating fermented foods are well known. They nourish our digestive system with living cultures, which help break down food and help the body absorb the food’s nutrients. Fermented dill pickles are not the same as vinegar or refrigerator pickles. Vinegar pickles, or pickles that you would be canning, use vinegar to flavor the cucumbers, and heat sterilizes the food, killing any beneficial bacteria. While tasty, they do not have probiotic benefits.
On my homestead, I don’t bother making any canned pickles from my cucumbers, but instead ferment them all- making several jars that store in the fridge. I find its easier to ferment than to haul out the canning pot and having to deal with sticky, hot vinegar! It’s easy to scale up or down the ingredients depending on how many cucumbers you have- the steps are the same if you have a half dozen, or 2 dozen. Pickles have been known to be one of the more challenging vegetables to ferment, but follow these easy steps to make your own batch (or two, or 5) of nutritious fermented dill pickles!
You will need a clean glass jar, a lid, and an 3-piece airlock valve with a rubber stopper that fits the lid. I usually use cheap ones that I pickup at the Beverage People homebrew store, but I also regularly use a cool metal airlock from Krautsource or a lid and valve set from FARMcurious.
How to Ferment Dill Pickles:
Step 1: gather & wash the cucumbers
Harvest or purchase fresh pickling cucumbers from a local farm. Pick ones that are small, up to 4″ long. Don’t bother with grocery store cucumbers, they will likely be dried out and result in hallow pickles. Ideally, harvest them the same day you will be fermenting. Wash well. At this point, its helpful to find a jar that will hold your cucumbers, and see how they fit, so you know how much brine to make. I usually ferment around 8-10 cucumbers at a time, in a half-gallon mason jar. If you have more, you’ll need a larger jar (or multiple jars); less- a smaller jar. The pickles should be below the shoulders of the jar. You’ll need to make brine to cover the cucumbers, so make note of how much you’ll need to fill the jar.
Place the washed cucumbers to a bowl of ice water while you finish the remaining steps.
Step 2: make the brine
This is the salt water solution that the cucumbers will be covered by. These steps are for a half-sour dill pickle, and you want a 3.5% brine solution. This comes out to be about 2 tablespoons of salt per quart (4 cups) of water. Make enough brine so they will completely submerge your cucumbers. If you are doing 8 or so pickles, in a half gallon jar, you’ll probably need 4 cups of brine. Add the salt to a bowl or a jar, then add boiling or very hot water. Stir to dissolve, then wait until completely cold. I put mine in the fridge while I prep everything else.
Step 3: gather your spices
This can easily be customized based on your taste preferences, but the standard players are dill, peppercorns and garlic. Bay leaf and mustard are other common additions. Play around, add more or less of what you like! If you like it spicy, add horseradish or a dried chili pepper. The grape leaves may seem like an odd ingredient, but the tannins in the leaves help keep the pickles crispy. I have read that oak leaves or a tablespoon of tea leaves will also work, but I haven’t tried it.
For an 8 pickle batch, measure or eye-ball out:
- 2 teaspoons peppercorns
- 2 dill flower heads OR 2 Tablespoons dill seed
- 5-6 cloves of whole garlic, peeled
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 1 Tablespoons mustard seeds (optional)
- handful of unsprayed grape leaves, rinsed
Step 4: prep the cucumbers
Take your nice cold cucumbers from the bowl of ice water, and cut a 1/4″ off of the blossom end. There is an enzyme in this area that results in mushy cucumbers, so it needs to be removed. If you can’t tell which end is the blossom end, just cut a slice off both ends.
Step 5: layer the jar and let ferment
Put your grape leaves at the bottom of your jar, then the garlic and spices. Pack the cucumbers in, and pour the brine over the cucumbers. If your cucumbers don’t reach to the shoulder of the jar, and are floating at the surface, use a smaller mason jar filled with water or a plastic bag filled with water to weigh down the cucs to submerge them. Spices will float to the surface, and that’s ok, but you want the cucumbers under.
Add your airlock, then set to ferment! If your house is anything like mine, and you don’t have AC, its likely you’re fermenting over 77 degrees. In this case, your pickles will be done in 3-5 days. Ideally, you’d be fermenting at a cooler temperature, and would take 7-10 days. As they ferment, the skin color changes from bright green to an olive green, interiors change from white to translucent. The picture below shows a batch at 5 days, and a brand new batch. Don’t be alarmed if you see the water go cloudy or if you get mold at the top.
When your time is up, pour or spoon out any mold, and then store in the fridge or other spot that stays below 60 degrees. Give the pickle a rinse before eating, and enjoy!!! Eat at least a quarter cup of pickles a day, or other fermented foods, for the full probiotic benefits. Happy fermentation!