How to Make Sour Pickles (i.e. Fermented Cucumbers)
Oh for the love of a ‘real’ pickle.
I am still working my head around fermentation. We’ve been doing it off and on for a few years and I must admit that the entire process is somewhat foreign, strange and even a bit uncomfortable. There’s no good reason for this as I’ve been eating rotten food my entire life.
See, that’s the difficult thing to work ones noggin’ around – rotten food.
Then again, I do love cheese. Wine. Beer. And so many other fermented things…
The ultimate deli pickle (often associated with Kosher pickles) is brined and aged in a salty bath of water that naturally ferments and causes the pickles to degrade and sour. It’s a kind-of controlled rot that breaks down the cucumber into a lovely savoury treat that remains crisp and fabulous. It requires no vinegar and less concentrated time although more careful observation over a longer period of days to perfect.
You also need a container (a crock for large batches but you could also use a wide-mouthed mason jar with a small half-cup jar to weigh down the surface to prevent floating) and fresh, clean cucumbers. A food-safe bucket would work as well.
To make 0.5 gallons of cucumbers (I use this amount as it corresponds with the largest mason jars in Canada which are almost a half-gallon).
- Handful of grape leaves (optional though this will increase tannins and make your pickles crunchy. You can also use clean Oak leaves).
- 1 liter (approx 4 cups) of water. Consider buying water for this purpose or using spring water – chlorine can stop the fermentation process and if your water supply is full of chlorine, you may not reach the proper fermentation.
- 3 tablespoons of salt (45 ml per liter – this is a 4.5% ratio)
- 1.5-2 pounds of cucumbers (I like smaller ones). A consistent size is useful but you don’t have to be strictly militant about this.
- 2-3 heads of dill (you can use more if you’d like.
- 1-2 heads of peeled garlic (or even more if you want to be daring). When the whole thing is done you can also eat the garlic so don’t be timid!
- A pinch (pr more) of whole black pepper. Don’t go crazy here (unless you want to).
- Rinse your cukes and make sure none of the blossoms remain.
- Unless the cucumbers are right out of the garden, soak them in an ice bath for several hours to coax them back to life. Leave a few cukes out of the bath to compare the before and after – the difference is notable!
- dissolve the salt and water (I stir them over high heat until everything dissolves and take off the heat). Do this as your cucumbers swim in their arctic paradise as this will allow your salt water bath to cool before adding everything together.
- Place garlic, pepper and dill at the bottom of the clean crock.
- Place grape leaves on top of those ingredients. This will help prevent the small stuff from floating to the top.
- Pour brine over the lot. Floaties are the enemy here – if you don’t have enough bring you can mix more up pretty quickly.
- Place a foodsafe weight over the cucumbers. I use a few clean plates which as usually enough to weigh things down. If it’s not enough to hold things in place, use a mason jar filled with brine (you’ll need additional for this) to hold the plates down.
- Cover with a cloth or loose-fitting cover. Store in a coolish environment (out of direct sunlight).
- Check the pot every day. You may see ‘scum’ starting to appear – it’s natural and simply needs to be removed with a clean spoon. If there’s mould, make sure to remove it, clean the plate and weight and continue. Remember that cheese was aged with a large furry mould on it. (Sandor Katz, also known as SandorKraut and wrote THE book on Fermentation, called Wild Fermentation, wrote about skimming mould – something I was not comfortable with originally). You may not get all of the mould or scum, do your best and remove as much as you can.
- Taste the pickles on the third day and then sample every few days (more when they are approaching the flavor and texture you like).
These are best stored in the fridge to keep their texture in tact. refrigeration slows down the fermentation process but will keep the healthy bacteria created alive.
There is more information and a great overview of fermentation on the National Center for Home Food Preservation as well as the link to Sandor’s site above. They also have a detailed recipe for their own Dill Pickles which includes a bit of vinegar and calls for 10 minutes of processing for each pint and could be used for larger quantities though the texture and lovely bacteria will be lacking (we tend to do a bit, or a lot, of both methods).