Thursday, August 4, 2011

In a (Fermented) Pickle

I love pickles. They're crisp, they're tangy, and they're easy to make.  Up 'til now, I have primarily spent my pickling time making quick dills, sweet pickles, and other pickled vegetables like beets (recipes to follow at some point).  I have been intimidated by what I consider to be the ultimate pickle.  That is, the fermented dill.  This type of pickle is different in that it is not preserved in a vinegar solution, but is instead, submerged in a salt brine for a period of time.  Think bubbling, white scum, and what often looks like a science experiment gone wrong.  The result, however, is a crisp, sour, slightly salty pickle which is the epitome of what a pickle should taste like.  I will be honest and admit that I wasn't sure my pickles would get to this oh-so-sought-after point.  Let me walk you the drama that has been my fermented pickle making experience for the past month. 

First let me say that since I had never fermented pickles before, I did a smaller batch than my recipe called for.  I wish, at this point, that I had done the entire recipe, since they are so great!  I started with 5 pounds of small pickling cucumbers which I thoroughly washed.  I then removed about 1/4 inch from the blossom end of the cucumber.  It is believed that the blossom end contains an enzyme which leads to softening of your pickles over time.  I found it easier just to quickly remove 1/4 inch from each end so that I did not have to examine each cucumber carefully.  I then layered my trimmed, washed cucumbers in a large glass jar with 2 bunches of fresh dill and 1/3 cup pickling spice.  You could use anything large enough to hold your cucumbers as long as it is food-grade and nonreactive.

I then combined 3/4 cup kosher salt (you can also use pickling or canning salt, but do not use table salt), 1 cup white vinegar, and 16 cups water in a large nonreactive pot.  I brought this mixture to a boil to dissolve    the salt, and then I allowed it to cool completely.  Once cool, I poured this mixture over the cucumbers in my jar and used several small saucers to weigh the pickles down.  It is important that the pickles be completely submerged in the brine at all times.  The object you use to do this is up to you (as long as it is clean).  Some people use canning jars or freezer bags filled with water.  Just make sure that the water cannot leak out into your brine. 

At this point, I covered my jar with a clean, thick dishtowel and tied it with twine. This allows the mixture to breath which is essential when fermenting, but it also keeps debris out of the brine.  It sort of looks like my jar is wearing a head scarf, but it works.

Then came the waiting.  It takes three to four weeks for pickles to ferment completely, depending on the temperature in your house.  Pickles ferment best at 70-75 degrees F.  Any cooler than that and it will take longer for fermentation.  Any warmer and your pickles may soften and spoil.  Over the three to four week period, your pickles may begin to look a little scary.  They will begin to bubble and a white scum may form on the top (or settle to the bottom) of your jar.  These are normal effects of fermentation and should not alarm you (even though they scared the heck out of me!).  I called the Ball Canning Hotline several times over the course of the fermentation process, but was assured each time that my pickling process was going according to plan.  Stick with it, even when it looks unpleasant. 

During this time, you should skim the white scum from the pickles daily.  Even though they may not look pleasant, the pickles should smell good (like pickles).  Pickles with a strange odor or slimey feel should be discarded.  Your pickles are finished when they are translucent throughout with no white flesh remaining and taste sour like a kosher dill. 

After about three weeks, I removed a pickle and cut it in half thinking it was probably not quite ready.  I was feeling brave and decided to taste it. This confirmed my suspicions that it needed more time .  Horribly salty.  I was thinking something had gone wrong, but did not want to give up yet.  I left the pickles in the brine one more week, and sure enough, they miraculously transformed into perfect pickles. 

I opted not to can these pickles since it would make them a little softer (less crispy) and would kill the beneficial bacteria created during the fermentation process.  Instead I simply replaced the brine with 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 quarts water, and 1/4 cup kosher salt.  You could also strain the original brine and use it.  These pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months submerged in the brine.  They can also be canned. 

If you choose to can the pickles, strain the original brine and boil it for 5 minutes.  Pack the pickles into quart jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Cover with hot brine, remove air bubbles, and adjust headspace accordingly.  Place lids and rings on jars and process in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes.  Leave jars in canner 5 minutes after processing time is complete.  Remove jars to a towel to rest for 24 hours. 

Either way, be prepared to enjoy the best pickle ever!


  1. I can't wait to make these pickles! I do have a question though. Why is there vinegar in the brine? You said that this pickle is fermented in a salt solution and not a vinegar one, but there is vinegar in it. (I really don't care either way, but was just wondering.)
    Thanks so much!

  2. First of all, let me say that I am not a food scientist nor am I an expert on lacto-fermentation. That being said, from all the digging I've done, it seems that the vinegar is probably there to prevent any harmful bacteria from growing before the good bacteria has a chance. It is not uncommon to see some vinegar in fermentation methods for dills (anywhere from 1/4-1 cup depending on the recipe), but plenty of people out there ferment pickles with no vinegar added at all. Natural fermentation will occur without it if you wish to use a recipe that does not include vinegar. The recipes which do include vinegar (like this one) do not include enough to really make much of a difference in the overall taste of the finished product, and the finished pickle will still be rich in good bacteria from the fermentation process (you just may not have to worry as much about nasty molds forming early in the process).

  3. yeah you need to get rid of the vinegar, otherwise you're not really fermenting. You're just preserving the pickles and waiting until their drenched