Cloudy with a Chance of Pickles

Half-sour dill pickles, to be exact.

Fermented halfsies, to be even exacter.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on the lacto-magic that happens here; I can only testify that it works. After years of trying to replicate “Kosher dills” using the vinegar-brine method—and ending up, every time, with tasty but mushy spears—I finally gave in, brought the crock down off the shelf, and let the bacteria do the work.

Crock Tears
My poor fermentation crock had been dormant since the winter’s last batch of sauerkraut.

I had tried making fermented dills once before and had only okay results; the pickles had more snap than I’d ever achieved with a hot brine, but they still didn’t meet the green-gold standard I had in my head.

Since then I’d read that you can boost your odds of a crisp end product by (1) using sea salt instead of kosher or even pickling salt (apparently, the extra calcium and magnesium shore up the cell-wall pectins and retard deterioration; and (2) adding tannins in the form of grape, cherry, or oak leaves.

Leaves
Cherry and grape leaves add beneficial tannin, which keeps notoriously watery cucumbers from breaking down too quickly during the ferment.

Lucky me: I have both a cherry tree and grape vines in my garden, last Tuesday’s CSA sharebox contained a nice-sized bag of Kirby cucumbers, and, thanks to a judicious swap-box transaction (sorry, collards), I also had a fistful of dill.

For more on the science of why lacto-fermentation works (and sometimes doesn’t), check out gurus Sandor Ellix Katz (of wildfermentation.com) and Amanda Feifer (of Philly-based phickle.com), invaluable resources, both.

Cloudy
A cloudy brine is a happy brine. Hungry lactobacillus is hard at work!
Half-Sour Dill Pickles

Adapted from Sandor Katz’s big, orange bible, The Art of Fermentation. Makes roughly two quarts of pickles, depending on how big your Kirbys are.

Fixings
You can pretty much add whatever you want; I went for garlic, hot pepper, mustard seed, and, of course, lots of dill.
  • 8-12 pickling cucumbers, ideally all about the same size
  • 6 dill heads, plus flowers and greens (I snipped the seed heads and flowers from the plant growing on my deck, and then added nearly all of the bunch of dill from the CSA)
  • 1 head of garlic, separated into cloves, with each clove peeled and lightly smashed
  • 2 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1/2 tsp pink peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 dried cayenne, broken into large chunks
  • 6 cups filtered water
  • 3 tbsp sea salt
  • large handful of grape, cherry, and/or oak leaves, well washed

Wash the cukes and inspect them carefully. Pull any with dark or soft spots out of the mix (you don’t have to throw them out; just don’t preserve them). With a sharp knife, take a tiny slice off the blossom end of each cucumber, since any little decaying bits of flower can introduce a bad bacteria that’ll get in the way of the good bacteria’s ability to do its job.

Ice bath
Brrrrrr. Cold cukes stay firmer during fermentation.

Get the cucumbers good and cold. I soaked mine for about two hours in an ice bath, adding more ice as it melted.

Meanwhile, make up a 3.5% brine (dissolve roughly 2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water). I ended up needing 6 cups to cover everything.

Add all the spices and the leaves to your fermentation crock. Place the cukes in carefully so you don’t bruise them, then cover with brine. Insert a set of fermentation weights (or a small plate) in the crock to keep the vegetables fully submerged (you’re trying to keep oxygen out of the equation). Add a bit of water to the rim lock, and put the lid in place for a sure seal.*

Wait.

How long?

That depends.

On what?

On the ambient temperature (fermentation speeds up at higher temps), on the size of the veggies in question (bigger pickles take longer), and on the actual strength of your brine (more salt means a slower ferment).

Snappy
These smaller guys went for 4-1/2 days. I let a handful of slightly larger ones go a bit longer.

Last Thursday, when I started the batch, we were smack in the middle of what my pal Dave called The Solar Vortex, with daily high temps well into the 90s, so my A/C was on around the clock. Katz counsels you to start taste-testing after just a few days if temps are above 77°F/25°C. We keep our house around 75º, so I began sampling after 3-1/2 days. I loaded the smaller cukes into one quart jar after 4-1/2 days, decanting enough brine to cover them in the jar—and let the bigger ones go an extra 24 hours.

You’ll know they’re ready when their external color has faded from bright, kelly green to a golden olive, and when their inside texture looks like, well, a pickle. But mostly you’ll know they’re ready when they taste good to you.

Store your fermented pickles in the fridge. Lacto-fermentation is greatly slowed by the cold, but those good bugs are still alive and working, so if you want crisp pickles, you should enjoy these within a couple months.


*Note that it’s pretty easy to do this without a fancy, stoneware fermentation crock, too. You can use a big, widemouth jar (with a smaller jar for the submersion weight), or a wide glass or stoneware bowl or food-grade plastic container (with a small plate or saucer as the weight). With either of those, you’ll really want to make sure that all the cukes stay submerged and out of oxygen’s way, and you’ll also probably want to cover the the whole shebang with cheesecloth or a towel to keep any fruitflies at bay. Amanda has more on the crockless technique here

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nice breakdown on lacto-fermentation! I have wanted to experiment with this process, and you answered a lot of my questions. I still don’t know if this is the season for me to experiment, but I am definitely coming back to this post as a resource. Doing some quick pickles over the weekend. Thanks! 😉

    1. Susan says:

      I think that’s the real beauty of working in small batches — that you can truly experiment with new techniques and new flavors without committing to giant buckets of time and volume. Stick six little Kirby’s in a quart jar with some spices, add salt water, sink everything below the surface, wrap it up, and walk away for 3 days. If it’s gross, throw it out, make a note, and do better next time. Science!

  2. pavanneh says:

    What a great post. I have been wondering how this works. 😀

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