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.
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)
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.
- Wash cucumbers and rub them gently if any spines remain. Pay particular attention that all traces of blossom are removed.
- If you didn’t pick the cucumbers yourself refresh them for a few hours in very cold water. Drain well.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]
- Every two to three days skim the scum that will float to the top of the brine.
- 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.
- 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.