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Wild Dill Pickles Recipe

Pickles at the one-week mark

Other than bacon, dill pickles may be my most frequent topic for posts. I’ve veered from strictly mainstream with posts about deep-frying pickles and making Jello shooters from the brine (seriously) but in 2009 I also did a background post on my second batch of homemade pickles and then a comparison between mine and similar store-bought pickles. With my fifth batch (in four years) of lacto-fermented, kosher dill pickles fermenting in the crock I think I’ve gained enough experience to offer some guidance to others.

I’m going to do a couple posts this week on these pickles. Today’s will be a straight-up recipe and the second will be a more in-depth troubleshooting post.

What distinguishes this recipe from other dill pickle recipes is that no vinegar is added to the brine. Cucumbers and flavourful ingredients are left in a salty brine for a few weeks at room temperature. “Wild” lactobacilli that are either already present in the container, on one of the ingredients, or land in the brine digest the sugars in the cucumbers and produce lactic acid which flavours the brine and keeps other micro-organisms from taking over.

This recipe is adapted from Sandor Katz’s Sour Pickles in his excellent book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Lve-Culture Foods. Especially since the recipes trick comes from him credit is definitely due in this case. Wild Fermentation is a very useful book that is full of rare gems.

Update: After three weeks in the crock we have pickle success. For the fermenting period (July 30 to August 20) we had daytime temperatures that were roughly average (high 20′s in Celsius) for this time of year in southern Ontario. By the last of the three weeks it had started to get cooler at night (down to about 15C) on a more reliable basis.

By the time I was ready to transfer the pickles to jars the scum on the top of the brine was a slightly darker off-white shade. The pickles were sour, not too salty, had lots of garlic punch, and had a good, if not perfect, crunch.

In jars they’ll last in the refrigerator for about two to three months–some sources even say as long as six.

Wild Dills

Adapted from Sandor Katz’s “Sour Pickles” in Wild Fermentation.

  • 1/2 bushel pickling cucumbers (just shy of 24 pounds)
  • 20 dill flower heads (or the more familiar fronds)
  • 10 heads of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 2 moderate handfuls black peppercorns
  • 10 litres clean drinking water (but not distilled)
  • 450 g (1 pound) kosher salt
  • A few handfuls of tannin-rich oak leaves (apparently grape, cherry, and horseradish also work)
A half-bushel of cucumbers comes to about twenty-four pounds.

A half-bushel of cucumbers comes to about twenty-four pounds.

Note on ingredients: Cucumbers: You want the ones that are three or four inches in length. Bigger is fine, I guess, but at that point they are more seedy and a whole pickle becomes quite the commitment for one person to eat.

All the other ingredientas.

All the other ingredientas.

Dill: I like the more robust flavour that the dill flower heads lend to the brine but dill has established itself in our garden and I know that these are rarely (if ever) available in stores so feel free to use the dill fronds that I would rather save for smoked salmon.
Garlic: I have found that local Ontario garlic is more difficult to peel, but much more flavourful and less likely to turn unpleasantly blue especially when compared to the stuff from China.
Black pepper: I don’t crack my peppercorns at all. If you want more pepper flavour you might want to lightly crack yours but consider reducing the amount. Remember that these flavours can always be adjusted after the fermentation when the pickles are going into jars.
Oak leaves: The tannins in oak leaves are thought to keep pickles crunchy by inhibiting the micro-organisms that can cause the centre of pickles to become mushy.
Note on quantities: Twenty-four pounds of cucumbers and their associated brine is a lot of pickles. But the cost savings for a half bushel are pretty significant ($20 versus $40 if bought by the basket, and a full bushel is only $35 versus $80) for buying in this kind of volume. I recognise that this may be an un-manageable quantity especially if you aren’t blessed with an antique 6-gallon pickle crock so feel free to scale the recipe. But note, the quantities for the dill, garlic, and black pepper are all scaled in relation to the quantity of cucumbers; the amount of salt varies in relation to the water, at 4.5% by weight; and the water varies to create enough brine to cover the cucumbers. Even if you don’t change the quantity of cucumbers you may need more brine depending on the shape of your container.
  1. Wash cucumbers and rub them gently if any spines remain. Pay particular attention that all traces of blossom are removed.
  2. If you didn’t pick the cucumbers yourself refresh them for a few hours in very cold water. Drain well.
  3. Layer all the ingredients into a non-reactive (glass, ceramic, food-grade plastic, or stainless steel) container. Generally you want each layer to go pepper, garlic, dill, leaves, cucumbers in the hope that the cucumbers and leaves will keep the smaller ingredients from floating to the top. Be somewhat efficient about arranging the cucumbers to take up a minimum amount of space to cut down on the amount of brine needed to cover them.
  4. Stir the salt into the water. Depending on the shape and size of the crystals in the salt you are using this may take some time and effort but it is better than heating the water.
  5. Pour brine over cucumbers. If when the cucumbers are pressed gently down the level of the brine doesn’t cover the cucumbers by at least an inch to two inches make more and pour it in.
  6. Drop one or two up-turned dinner plates into the container and press down gently to keep everything submerged. If the weight of the plates isn’t sufficient use a releasable bag filled with brine to keep them submerged. Cover the container loosely with a clean towel or apron. [Edit: The covered container should be left at room temperature, out of direct sunlight and in a relatively cool spot.]
  7. Every two to three days skim the scum that will float to the top of the brine.
  8. At about the two week mark start tasting the pickles and when they are as sour as you want, transfer them along with a proportionate amount of dill, garlic, and pepper to very clean, large mason jars.  Taste the brine. If it is much saltier than you like add water but note that this will reduce the life of your pickles. Pour brine into the jars to cover the pickles. If you have been efficient about packing them you will definitely have enough brine to cover.
  9. Refrigerate for two to three months. As always, if in doubt about the safety of a preserved food discard it. This is particularly true if you detect off odours or colours, or if your pickles are mushy, floppy, or have hollow centres.

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  1. Correen says:

    David this is a wonderful post you have written up here. Ooh, I sure love that crock you have full of pickles at the top.

  2. [...] in the week, I had a post that was intended to be my simplified recipe for wild, lacto-fermented dill pickles. It went a [...]

  3. Diane says:

    I just finished my first batch of fermented dills. Aside from your beautiful crock my final fermentation period looked very much like yours. I just finished processing them, awaiting the settling of the white stuff and am noticing small white spots on the pickles themselves. Any idea what this is? I was assuming salt but I want to err on the side of caution. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Thank you!

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Diane,

    Glad to hear you’ve joined the fermented pickle club. Generally, I would not be terribly concerned about small white spots. They might be salt or more likely are just scum (I have not read a consensus answer on whether this is a byproduct of fermentation or the dead fermenting bacteria themselves) that has settled on one of the bumps or in one of the grooves that cucumbers have.

    You might be more concerned if the white spots are mostly or only on pickles that were near the top of your crock and might have poked above the brine’s surface. Or if the pickles with white spots have an unpleasant odor or a mushy texture. Finally, I’d gently rub one of the spots and ask myself “does this seem like something that was floating around the brine and happened to land on the pickle or like a spot of mold that has grown on (and in) this pickle?”

    Basically, don’t sweat it, enjoy your pickles but operate with caution, care, and common sense. Let me know if you have any further questions.

  5. Brenda W. says:

    I love Sandor Katz’s book, too.

    I made two batches of brined pickles with varying degrees of success. My first batch (4lbs), I added wild grape leaves to assist in the crisping. I stored the bucket in the spare-room closet and checked it often. I tasted a pickle after one week and it was almost perfect, so I left them in the brine….and forgot to check for several days (of very warm weather)…they were slimy and smelly and gross, so they got thrown out.

    I bought another batch of cukes (about 5 lbs from a different farmer than the first batch) and started over. This time I kept the bucket in the kitchen and checked it daily. Unfortunately, the cukes were more mature and most were hollow inside. The skins were very tough and the pickles are not flavorful. I sliced them into spears and put them in quart jars, covered them with brine and put them in the fridge. Decent, but not great.

    So two lessons learned: watch your pickles, and use young cucumbers! Also, lots of garlic and dill are necessary. I cheaped out and didn’t add as much to the second batch.

  6. [...] at home, especially with homemade pickles, you’ll be a super-star. I find that deep-frying my wild dill pickles brings out the garlic, dill, and black pepper flavours. You do get more of the acid but because [...]

  7. Alyson says:

    first time trying these brine pickles. We made sure we had at least 2 inches of brine covering them. A day later the brine was overflowing so I suctioned some out and removed the weight on the plates. Any explanation why this is happening?

    Best Regards


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