Query most people and they will say that pickles come from jars filled with vinegar and spices. Growing up in the northeast, however, my first pickle was of a whole different sort. Salty and sour, but not tart, they would be served from the depths of a cloudy brine, either in barrels or countertop glass jars. As time went on, it became harder and harder to find sources of these fermented to perfection pickles. After moving away from the northeast, it seemed all but impossible.
Fortunately, there has been a bit of a revival in all things fermented. Sandor Katz, author of , and others, have shined a light on such culinary treasures that were slowly slipping from our collective grasp. Nothing could be so simple as preservation through a salt brine, and yet I had gone for years without realizing that I could make those same pickles that I craved from my youth with ease. The fact that lacto-fermented foods support digestive health practically ensured that a fermentation jar would become a permanent fixture in my kitchen.
So without further delay, let's make some pickles!
While there are a lot of ingredients shown in the picture above, most of them are optional. In order to make a basic pickle, all you need is a jar, salt, water and cucumbers.
Let's discuss each primary item in greater detail:
-a fermentation jar- While you could certainly get started on your first batch of pickles with just a glass jar and some cheesecloth secured over top, lacto-fermentation does emit a distinct odor. It's not unpleasant, but it could make guests wonder what you're up to. If you have a pickling crock, this will of course work as well. **Screwing a lid on any ferment could be dangerous due to the build up of gases.** Opening a closed and air-tight fermentation could soak you in brine at best, or shatter the jar given enough time. My recommendation is to produce your own fermentation jar that uses a brewing airlock to release gases, control odor and prevent curious bugs from entering. An easy tutorial and video can be found here: DIY Fermentation Jar
-salt- You can use any type of salt, but for best results, use only non-iodized varieties as regular table salt can cause discoloration. I tend to use sea salt since it is what I most often have on hand, but feel free to use pure canning or kosher salts as well.
-cucumbers- As summer winds down, it is relatively easy to find small sized pickling cucumbers at farmers markets, grocery stores and within your own garden. I tend to make several batches in August and keep them in the fridge. While I have not been able to find a 'best before' timeframe for lacto-fermented foods, I have eaten my own pickles up to 9 months later. Could they last longer? If kept under stable conditions, I see no reason why a batch wouldn't last until the following harvest though they may be rather sour by that point. While refrigeration does greatly slow the fermentation process, it does continue.
-filtered water- Chlorine from tap water can interfere with fermentation and potentially affect the overall taste of your pickles. While I use water from a reverse osmosis system, Brita or Pur filters rated to remove chlorine should be sufficient.
Now that you have the basics, this short video will give you all need if you would prefer to skip right to making some pickles:
With the four main components squared away, let's discuss some ways in which to make your pickles outstanding.
Listed above is the recipe I prefer for a basic, year round pickle. When making a large batch in August, I will add fresh dill and grape leaves if I can find some (more about the grape leaves later).
- 1 tbsp pickling spice - If you have a brand you enjoy for canning pickles in vinegar, feel free to use it here. After trying a number of brands, I actually prefer the generic Kroger pickling spice though it is only available regionally. You can also find a number of basic recipes on the internet, though I would avoid adding cinnamon as it could turn bitter if left in the brine too long.
- 1 to 3 dried chilies (opt) - if you like your pickles spicy, then add either whole, dried chilies or pepper flakes and remove once your pickles are ready for the refrigerator. Do you like your pickles really hot? Then don't remove the chilies and they will continue to increase the heat of your pickles over time.
- .5 tsp extra mustard seeds - These are optional, as mustard seeds will already be in your pickling spice, but I prefer a little extra.
- 2 bay leaves - As with everything else in this section, these are optional but serve to add a certain depth. Be sure that you are using dried bay laurel leaves (which are the most common), and not fresh California bay leaves. The later is likely to overwhelm your brine.
- 1/4 to 1/2 onion sliced thin - These are highly recommended, as long as you like onions. They impart a nice flavor into the brine that your pickles will adopt, and its easy to save a few slices when preparing a meal.
- 15-20 garlic cloves - Most of the time, I recall pickles being referenced to as 'Garlic Dills', so don't forget to throw in a few cloves. Do you really need so many? You can of course use fewer cloves, but to hit that traditional baseline, go with at lease 15. As a bonus, you can always cook the fermented cloves later. In fact, if you purchase the larger club sized bag of garlic cloves and find that you can't get through them in time, fermentation is a great way to avoid waste.
-.5 cup brine from previous batch - While this is unnecessary as your salt brine will do all of the magic, starting future batches with some of the previous brine will speed up your pickles by about a day. You do want pickles a day faster, don't you?
- Fresh dill - If you want to make a true dill pickle, you will of course need to add some dill. Fortunately, this herb is readily available when cucumbers are at their peak, meaning that a well stocked store or CSA program should offer fresh bunches. Dried can be used when fresh is unavailable, but as with most recipes, fresh is best.
**A note about tannins, freshness and crispiness: Pickles can be notoriously difficult to keep crispy, and while some aspects are within your control, others may not be. Soon after a cucumber is picked, enzymes within the vegetable set to work on breaking it down which pits you in a race against time. In winter, you'll be at the mercy of your local store's availability, but when possible, choose hot house grown cucumbers, especially if they originate from from a nearby location. The longer the distance (and thus, the time) your cucumber has traveled, the less crispy it will be once fermented.
Even with cucumbers picked locally, however, you might find that a batch isn't as crunchy as you would prefer. One way to halt the enzyme activity is with the addition of tannins. Adding a grape leaf is the preferred method of introducing tannins, but if they are not available, I have heard of success with used black tea bags.
With your ingredients assembled, start by wedging the cucumbers into your 1/2 gallon fermentation jar. In the picture above, you'll see how difficult it can be to maximize space when using larger pickles. I prefer to keep my pickles uncut since it helps to preserve the crispiness, but if your cucumbers are any larger than these, you'll have to cut them into spears.
Once your cucumbers are positioned in the best possible configuration, start stuffing in your larger ingredients: onion, garlic, bay leaves & grape leaves if you found some.
Next, pour in your spices followed by your salt. **If using smaller, pickling cucumbers, it is generally easier to add your spices after the first level of cucumbers, as seen in the video tutorial.**
Before we add our water, we do need to take a moment to discuss the salt.
For lacto-fermentation, you want to reach an ideal salinity of around 5%, as this will allow only the beneficial bacteria to survive and thrive. Too little salt and you invite a host of molds, yeasts and other undesirable guests; too much salt and you affect not only flavor, but potentially the ability for fermentation to occur. No need to do math every time you endeavor to make pickles though, if you follow this easy formula:
For each 1/2 gallon fermentation jar = Add 2 tbsp & 2 tsp salt to your packed jar, and then add 1 quart of water.
As I have every size of canning jar on hand, I just use a quart jar (1 quart = 4 cups). Add your salt to the packed fermentation jar and then pour your water over the contents. Unless you displayed an incredible aptitude for spacial relations, most of the quart jar of water should fit. If you have water left over, don't worry, your pickles will be just fine. I have made pickles with 3 tbsp of salt so as to make a saltier pickle, and they fermented perfectly.
The pickles above are now fully assembled, with the addition of a clay weight. While it is ideal to keep all of your produce under the surface of the brine to avoid the chance of mold and yeast developing, I haven't experienced any issues with the relatively short ferment time required for pickles. Still, it is a good practice to develop. In the Fermentation Jar tutorial, I listed a number of suggestions for making or purchasing weights for your own jar.
The water level in the completed jar is at the maximum height possible to avoid brine overflowing through the airlock once fermentation begins. In fact, if I were to ferment this jar in a warm room, I would be sure to set the jar into a baking pan just to be safe. Ideally your water level would be at or below the first ridge of the jar's neck, but sometimes your larger pickles may not cooperate. Better to have your cucumbers submerged and deal with a little overflow than have your contents exposed for the duration of the fermentation. Just be sure that the stem of your airlock is not making contact with the water level or it will not function as intended.
If using the fermentation jar from the linked tutorial: Assemble your lid by applying first the red sealing ring that came with the Tattler lid, followed by the lid itself and then secure with the metal band that comes with the 1/2 gallon canning jar. Insert your airlock, fill with water to the fill line and apply the air lock cap.
If using a jar with cheesecloth: Make sure that your cucumbers are fully submerged and will not make contact with the cloth. Cover and secure with a rubber band. Watch throughout the week for unexpected mold & yeast growth and add more brine if levels decrease.
And now the hardest part... waiting. Ideal fermentation occurs between 65 and 75 degrees F and will take between 1-2 weeks. At higher temperatures, your ferment will occur more quickly, but not always with the best quality, so its best to let your pickles develop at their preferred pace. The size of your cucumbers will exert a significant impact on the length of your ferment. The large cucumbers from my garden shown here took nearly 2 weeks, while the smaller ones picked later in the season for the video took only 1 week.
So how will you know when your pickles are ready? This is going to be as much about observation as it is your personal preference. The jar pictured above is only slightly cloudy from the seeding of 1/2 cup of brine from a former batch, but it will become much more opaque over the first few days. Gases will release pretty regularly from the airlock, and then begin to ebb off towards the end of the first week. By this point, I will generally sample the progress by cutting off a chunk. If it tastes like pickles, then the jar is ready to move into the fridge to drastically slow the fermentation. (Of note, fermentation does not end, and your pickles will continue to sour even in the fridge over the course of weeks and months). If your sample still tastes like a cucumber in the center, just return the remainder of the pickle to the jar and replace the lid. Never be reluctant to taste your ferment as it develops or else you might wind up with pickles that are too salty, spicy or sour.
Once your pickles have developed to meet your preference, remove the airlock lid and apply either an undrilled Tattler lid, or use one of the screw top white lids from Ball. While you can use the metal lid from your canning jar, it will begin to rust after about 3 weeks in your fridge.
After you have tried your hand at pickles, feel free to try a host of other veggies with the same brine recipe. My favorites so far are thin sliced gypsy peppers (pictured below) and radishes.
The key to great fermentation is definitely patience and a sense of curiosity which is only possible once we remove the fear surrounding such natural processes. In the case of these pickles, we are controlling the environment through salt level in order to cultivate the lactic acid producing bacteria that is beneficial to the process of preservation by lowering pH to a level inhospitable to C. botulinum. For more information, check out this great handout from Oregon Health and Science University.
Next in the series we will explore another lacto-fermented food, sauerkraut, that is prepared not with a prepared brine, but through a salt packing method that utilizes the cabbage's own juices. Ready in as little as 2 weeks, you can't beat this Oktoberfest essential.
Do you miss any foods (fermented or otherwise) from your childhood? Post about it below and I'll see what I can do to rekindle the magic in a future article/video.