Learn how to make real probiotic-rich lacto-fermented pickles with this easy step-by-step recipe, a perfect project for a small or large batch of cucumbers!
(This post is a contribution by Melissa Keyser)
My dad hates cucumbers. So much hate we couldn’t even have them in the house, he even detested the smell. So as a result, I didn’t eat many of them growing up. But when I started living on my own and cooking seasonally, I’d pick cucumbers up at the farmers market, enjoying them sliced with a bit of salt or grating into yogurt as a dip.
My dad, however, was fine with pickles. My mom would often buy sliced dill pickles from the grocery store, the ones that came in the glass jar, that you fish out with a fork. I just assumed that all pickles were like this.
When I had my own garden, cucumbers were one of the first things I was excited to grow. And like all things when I have too many to eat fresh, I searched for creative ways to use them. I started with canning dill pickles, making ones similar to the store-bought pickles of my childhood (which were never quite as good…).
Then, I learned about lacto-fermented pickles.
What are Lacto-Fermented Pickles?
Also known as “real pickles”, or sour pickles, lacto-fermented pickles rely on naturally occurring lactobacillus 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. Fermentation was also an important form of food preservation for our ancestors, saving nutrient-rich foods during their peak season to eat during the winter.
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. If you’re looking for probiotic benefits, eat at least a quarter cup of pickles a day, or other fermented foods.
Fermented Pickles are a Perfect Project for Small Harvests
During the cucumber season, I enjoy eating fresh cucumbers, but most of them are fermented as dill pickles. Because I have a small garden and only a few plants, I have a steady stream of the fruit, but not always enough at one time to preserve by canning. I can easily ferment a jar of just a few pickles, while a canning batch requires much more.
Plus, I don’t have to haul out the canning pot and having to deal with sticky, hot vinegar! And, they are better for your body and nourish your digestive system!
Choose the Right Cucumber for your Fermented Pickles
Not all cucumbers are considered equal when it comes to fermenting pickles. You want to use varieties that have been bred and selected specifically for pickling. Skip the English hothouse cucumbers or the big, uniform slicing guys at the grocery store. The popular lemon cucumber, or my favorite slicing, Dragon’s Egg, also won’t work. Instead, seek out the smaller pickling cucumbers at the farmer’s market. Or, if you grow your own, you’ll find lots of varieties specifically for pickling.
In the past, I’ve grown the Dar variety, but this year, I’m growing Muncher, and really loving them. They are doing great in my Central Valley heat, have smooth skin, and are also great as a fresh eating slicer and not at all bitter (double-duty cucumber, FTW!)
How to Make Lacto-Fermented Pickles
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 with no problems!
GATHER & WASH THE CUCUMBERS
Harvest or purchase fresh pickling cucumbers from a local farm. Pick ones that are about 4- 6″ 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.
Rinse, but don’t peel. At this point, it’s helpful to find a jar or crock that will hold your cucumbers, and see how they fit, so you know how much brine to make.
You’ll need to make a brine to cover the cucumbers, so make note of how much you’ll need to fill the jar. I like using mason jars as the shoulders help keep the pickles under the brine. You can also use a crock and weights to keep the cucumbers submerged.
Place the cucumbers in a bowl of ice water while you finish the remaining steps. This water bath is optional but is said to make crisper pickles. I sometimes do this, sometimes not, depending on my timing.
MAKE THE BRINE
This is the saltwater 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 with the water. Stir to dissolve, then wait until completely cold. I put mine in the fridge while I prep everything else.
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 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 and gently smashed
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 1 Tablespoons mustard seeds (optional)
- a handful of unsprayed grape leaves, rinsed
Plus, your brine– about 2 tablespoons of salt dissolved in 4 cups of water, as detailed above.
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.
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 cucumbers to submerge them. Spices will float to the surface, and that’s ok, but you want the cucumbers under the water level.
Add your weights if needed, your airlock (or your weights and cover if you use an open crock) then set to ferment! If your house is anything like mine, it’s 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 (you can just scrape that off).
When your time is up, pour or spoon out any mold, and then store in the fridge or another spot that stays below 60 degrees. Give the pickle a rinse before eating, and enjoy!!!