Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Jan

Naturally Fermented Dill Pickles

pickles2Of all the food transformations that occur in a kitchen, few are as exciting as that of a cucumber into a pickle. Not because the process is so complicated, but because it’s so simple. Salt, water and a little time in a jar are all it takes to transform a cucumber into an entirely different food. What’s truly amazing is that so many people love pickles even if they’ve never tasted a really good one. A great pickle makes your eyes widen in surprise and your tongue tingle with pleasure. The sourness should make you salivate for more, rather than pucker and wince, and the texture should have a noticeable crunch when bitten into.

If it’s so easy to transform a cucumber into a pickle, though, then why are grocery store shelves filled with so many mediocre specimens? In a word, vinegar. Many store-bought brands use vinegar to pickle cucumbers because it guarantees a sour flavor and acts as a preservative. However, this method misses the entire point of pickled food. Using vinegar instead of brine (salt + water) prevents natural fermentation from occurring. Without natural fermentation the live bacteria cultures that turn pickles into a healthy probiotic food are absent. Not to mention that when pickles are soaking in vinegar for a long time it typically results in an overly sour flavor and rather limp texture.

There are brands of naturally fermented pickles to be found in stores, although they can be expensive. Making naturally fermented pickles at home is cost effective and easy to do and the anticipation of biting into that first spear is more fun than you might think. When you taste your first homemade pickle, be prepared for an audible crunch and a pleasantly tangy flavor. It will be ever so slightly infused with garlic and dill and taste fresher and snappier than a store-bought spear.

As much as you will love your first batch of homemade pickles, also be prepared for your mind to immediately start coming up with new variations. Why not spicy pickles? How about pickles flavored with star anise or cinnamon? What about herbs besides dill? And why stop with cucumbers? Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower…pretty much any vegetable is fair game.

This recipe is for one jar of pickles but can easily be doubled, which is a good thing. Once you’ve tasted the first batch, you just might find yourself feeling that no meal is complete without a homemade pickle on the side.

Ingredients:

ingredients 4
  • 6-8 small (3-4 inches long) un-waxed cucumbers. Look for pickling or “Kirby” cucumbers which are an ideal size. Persian cucumbers can also be used but don’t always stay as crispy.
  • 1 1/2 cups filtered water
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt (or other non-additive salt)
  • 4-8 sprigs of fresh dill
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half and smashed with a knife
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • Plus: 1 wide-mouth 16-ounce glass canning jar (sterilized in boiling water and air-dried)
  • Optional seasonings: red pepper flakes, hot chiles, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, celery leaves, bay leaves, fresh herbs, onion, cinnamon stick, cloves

Instructions:

Combine salt and water and let sit until salt dissolves

After washing cucumbers, cut the tips off on both ends. Leaving the cucumbers whole or cutting them in half or into spears is a matter of personal preference. Experiment to see what you like best.

In the jar put 4 sprigs of dill, garlic cloves and peppercorns.

dill garlic pepper

Tightly pack the cucumbers in the jar. Add remaining dill.

add cucumbers

Cut one cucumber in half and set it horizontally on top of the other cucumbers –this will keep the cucumbers from floating up above the water in the jar when they shrink a little during the pickling process.

cucumber ontop

Pour the salt water into the jar. It should completely cover the cucumbers.

fermenting

Set the lid loosely on top of the jar, don’t seal it. Let the jar sit undisturbed at room temperature. You’ll know fermentation has begun when you see bubbles rising to the top of the jar and the water becomes cloudy. A thin layer of white scum might also form on the surface of the water. This is harmless and can be scooped away with a clean spoon. However, trust your nose. If the pickles smell bad while fermenting, throw them out.

It will probably take 3-10 days before the pickles are done. Taste the pickles during this timeframe to see if the texture and flavor are to your liking. This is the only sure sign that your pickles are done. Once you’ve decided they’re done, tighten the lid and store the pickles in the refrigerator. Because there is no vinegar to preserve the pickles, they will only keep about a week. If the flavor of the pickles is not vinegary enough for you, try drizzling a little vinegar on the spears right before eating.

pickles2

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Awesome. I’ve been eating a lot of sauerkraut with vinegar in it lately but I think I’ll give this a try.
    Pickled cabbage is supposed to have 20 times the bioavailable amount of vitamin C than raw cabbage so I imagine pickling things is an easy way to absorb nutrients.

    Animanarchy wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • I just watched a video interview with Mat LaLonde and I remember him saying that fermented foods contain more bioavailable nutrients compared to non fermented foods.

      It makes sense… I would say the probiotics help for sure!

      Primal Toad wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • I’ve been doing natural sauerkraut for a few years. I’m told it’s the “traditional” German variety. The crunch can’t be beaten, and while store bought sauerkraut often causes boating and gas… the natural variety never has. My cabbage is pickled with onion and caraway seeds. My own added twist… is 1-2 small diced jalapenos! For a fun fuschia twist to sauerkraut… use red cabbage, red onion, and a couple of small red chiles, I never leave out the caraway seeds. 1 tsp per head of cabbage. The finished sauerkraut tastes exactly the same BUT is a bright purple/pink color!
      Another happy experiment in dill pickle making; take the left over broccoli stalks. (mine a about 2 feet tall this year!) with a vegetable peeler skin off the woody outer layer. Cut the stalks into medallions, and process the same way as dill pickles!

      cynical1_4u2 wrote on September 19th, 2014
  2. This recipe is almost word for word what Alton Brown has, and it is much more fun with a crock or butter churn.

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/dill-pickles-recipe/index.html

    Great episode this recipe comes from and it is showing again on Feb 21, 2012.

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/good-eats/dill-icious/index.html

    George Mounce wrote on January 28th, 2012
  3. I seal the jars (pickling jars with rubber seals). The pickling liquid leaks out of the jars but they last a few months.
    You can make a delicious soup with the pickled cucumber. Stir-fry some grated or chopped pickled cucumbers in butter on medium heat for two or three minutes. Stir in some beef broth (and some of the meat) and some pickle liquid (to your taste) and cook for about 10 minutes or less. (Before my primal days I added some cubed boiled potatoes but it is just as nice without). To serve, mix in some sour cream or spoon sour cream into each bowl before ladling in soup. Enjoy!

    Sandra wrote on January 28th, 2012
  4. great timing Mark! I was just about to try making my own sauerkraut, I’ll give this a go too!

    Burn wrote on January 28th, 2012
  5. Cutting the ends off is very important, but I can’t remember why. It might have something to do with enzymes at the blossom and/or stem end???

    Maybe an expert can chime in, just to make sure people don’t ruin their pickles…YUM!

    Rodney wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Cutting the ends off,is supposed to keep them crunchy.

      Though I’ve heard cutting them into halves and deseeding them is supposed to do the same…cause nobody likes mushy snotty dill pickles.

      Dutchie wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • There is an enzyme in the flower end that will cause the pickle to go soggy, so cutting off the ends makes sure that doesn’t happen.

      EZ wrote on January 28th, 2012
  6. Cutting the ends off isn’t that critical. I’ve made successful fermented pickles many times and it doesn’t seem to matter.

    What DOES matter is that the vegetables you use in your ferments are VERY FRESH. This post would have been better-timed if it had appeared in July, when pickling cukes are available locally all over the place. Making ferments from vegetables that have been shipped thousands of kilometers and then have languished on store shelves for days is just asking for nasty-smelling slime, not delicious crunchy sour pickles.

    (I guess it’s good for the folks in Aus & NZ though! Maybe I should stop being so Northern-Hemisphere-centric.)

    Sarah wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Indeedy! My cucumber vines are going nuts here in Melbourne, as are the grape vines. Sadly the first batch of dill pickles I made before Christmas failed…..maybe it was too hot, or I didn’t use enough salt. They smelled soooo good for the first four or five days, but then ‘something’ happened and they got mushy and smelled a lot less appealing.

      I’m heading out to the vegie patch tonight to pick some more cukes and try again. Wish me luck.

      Liz wrote on January 29th, 2012
    • I’ve been making my pickles so far with English cukes bought at Costco–doubtfully perfectly fresh and they’ve been quite crunchy. Will have to try fresh ones in the summer.

      Becky wrote on April 24th, 2014
  7. Oh and another tip for cucumber pickles – to keep them crunchy, add some well-washed grape leaves (as in, leaves you pick from a grape vine, also not currently available in the northern hemisphere). The tannins in the leaves help keep the crunch in the pickles. I use 2-4 leaves (depending on size) per quart (litre) jar.

    Sarah wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Fresh grape leaves do help keep the pickles crunchy. An alternative is to use oak leaves. These work in the same manner.

      Chris wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Grape leaves work. I don’t wash them though; I pick them from wild growing vines and just rinse. I do the same with my homegrown cucumbers, just rinse them. Washing them too much removes the local wild fermenting yeasts that make the pickling process go forward.

      In my first batch of pickles I used one big leaf per quart and all 6 jars came out great even though they were stored on the bottom (read floor) of my pantry and some were there for 6 or 7 months. In the batch I made this past spring, I forgot the grape leaves and they all turned to mush (4 quarts) in just a few months. I poured the juice off to marinate meats in, but the mushy cucumbers I gave back to Mother Earth in my garden.

      As someone else mentioned, I’ve heard that oak leaves work as well as grape leaves, but I haven’t tried them yet.

      I have fermented several different things. As far as I know, cucumbers are the only things that need the grape leaves to keep them crunchy. I’ve made sauerkraut (different variations) with no leaves and it seems you cannot mess up cabbage. I fermented Serrano peppers and they came out great – wonderful flavor and crunchy – no leaves.

      I fermented kale and some eggplant relish this past spring – just now opened a jar of each – next time I will use grape leaves in the relish for sure (although they are not as mushy as the cucumbers were), and maybe just add some kale to cabbage instead of a whole jar of just kale.

      My advice is if you are using an untried recipe for fermenting, just make a small quantity (a pint or just one quart) before risking too much of your good organic produce. And use spices.

      The juice produced from fermenting makes a wonderful salad dressing: I mix half juice and half olive oil. Wow!

      W. J. Purifoy wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • I’ve found grape leaves to work well, too. You can also use leaves from red raspberry plants for the same purpose.

      BABaker wrote on August 14th, 2013
  8. I don’t know if its just me but I love the taste of pickled gherkins. Can’t live without them.

    Suhail wrote on January 28th, 2012
  9. I LOVE cucumbers and pickles. I don’t recall every enjoying a homemade pickle. I’ll have to get going on this right away!

    Primal Toad wrote on January 28th, 2012
  10. I’ll sometimes put a tablespoon or so of whey into each jar to get the process started a bit faster. It seems to work well.

    I also second the grape leaf suggestion! Particularly important if you’re slicing the cukes rather than leaving them whole.

    hm wrote on January 28th, 2012
  11. I am lucky enough to have fermented pickles sold near me, but they are expensive. Crispy new pickles, just barely salty, are amazing.

    You can use this brine again for new batches of pickles :)

    AmandaLP wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Many cultures have a traditional variant of the standing brine crock – and they throw anything worthy of pickling into it and keep it going.

      The previous owners of my house in Michigan were Ukrainian – sold the house when they were in their 90’s to move to a condo. They always kept a garden here and left behind a 12 gallon pickling crock in the basement canning kitchen. 12 gallons! Just think…

      Unfortunately, it was cracked so not usable any longer for food prep. I had to replace it. It makes dandy firewood storage for the family room, though.

      rarebird wrote on January 28th, 2012
  12. Pickled okra is one of my favorites – but I’ll have to check to see if okra is on the “allowed” list for primal eating.

    rarebird wrote on January 28th, 2012
  13. This sounds alright, but are they really sour? I mean, I love some good pickles, but mainly the ones with extra garlic, that are preserved in vinigar.

    Just a thought though, anybody ever thought about using some dark, natural balsamic vinigar to make these?
    Speaking from personal experience, if you cover some sliced cucomber with basamic vinigar and leave them in the fridge for about 3 days, you get some really delicious results.

    Dommy Cruz wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Yes! I have used balsamic vinegar that way. I use balsamic as my first preference for vinegar whenever I can – and make sure to get the real stuff, well aged, no additives, etc. My staple salad dressing is balsamic vinegar with extra virgin olive oil and a rustic Tuscan herb mix that is nothing but dried herbs – no additives – and a little water. I reverse the usual oil to vinegar ratio so its more oil than vinegar.

      rarebird wrote on January 28th, 2012
  14. I used to make these all the time back when I had a little more kitchen space. They are super easy and delisioso!

    Peggy The Primal Parent wrote on January 28th, 2012
  15. I’ve been meaning to make my own pickles and sauerkraut for ages.. need to make a conscious effort to add more fermented foods to my diet!

    ThePrimalist wrote on January 28th, 2012
  16. Pickled food is a big thing where I live during the winter time, when there are less fresh, natural vegetables available than in the hot seasons.

    Paul Alexander wrote on January 28th, 2012
  17. Can anyone explain why sauerkraut is good for months (made with brine) and pickles are only good for a week? Just wondering…,

    Diane wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • I think that may be an error. Although there’s no vinegar, there is lactic acid from the bacteria. I’ve certainly kept my homemade fermented pickles far longer than a week.

      Tanya wrote on January 28th, 2012
      • My fermented pickles (with a grape leaf in ea jar) kept for several months without refrigeration. Once I open a jar I put it in the fridge, but the unopened quarts I put on the bottom shelf of the pantry. All the salt and lactic acid keep them from spoiling.

        Just smell of them when you open – if they smell bad, then toss them. But they won’t.

        W. J. Purifoy wrote on January 28th, 2012
      • I agree. I worked at a living historic farm for a while and we kept our brined pickles for quite a while more than a week (mustard pickles). They fermented for a little over a week and then were put into jars and into a cool location and lasted for- as I recall- about a month and a half before they were eaten. However, after about a week or so they started to get a bit floppier than when they first started as they didn’t have lime in them, so perhaps he’s referring to the crisp texture as opposed to the edible shelf-life?

        Jess wrote on January 28th, 2012
  18. Awesome! I’ve been making saurkraut every couple weeks since reading about that on this post (who knew so simple?) and will now make pickles. Love them in my daily BAS. Just salt, water, and a few herbs? Can’t wait to try…

    Peter wrote on January 28th, 2012
  19. Another type of cucumber that might work well in this recipe is the so-called “gourmet” cucumbers. They are small – about five inches long, have tender skins (no need to peel), no seeds, no spines, and come pre-packaged in bags. I’ve seen them in several markets, including Sam’s Club and Costco.

    rarebird wrote on January 28th, 2012
  20. Deja vu! My breakfast this morning was exactly this topic. I had some older man begging me to leave some pickling cukes for him as I was buying up the supply this summer at the Farmer’s Market. I made 10 qts. I use my grandma’s recipe which is similar. Per qt – 1 garlic clove, shake of crushed red peppers and 1 T salt. If I’m out of dill, I sub in 2 tsp dill seed. Once fermented, I place them in a cool area (frig in summer, cold basement in winter). I still have two qts left that I made in August. I do spears for the bigger cukes, but little ones, I just cut off the tip and make a couple of slits. They stay nice and crunchy.

    Sandra wrote on January 28th, 2012
  21. Has anyone ever done this with carrot ‘peelings’ ie sliced with a potato peeler. I was given them stir fried yesterday, and they were fantastic, but I imagine they would be equally good pickled

    Jenny W wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Yes, you may want to take a look at either Nourishing Traditions or Wild Fermentation, the latter is all about fermenting foods, and the former has a nice section on fermenting veggies. Fermented carrots are great with a bit of garlic or ginger (or both) thrown in.

      Tanya wrote on January 28th, 2012
  22. I really want to do this. I have yet to try pickling any foods and I love pickles. Although I think everyone loves pickles. :) A friend of mine made pickled okra and it was amazing. This is sort of random, but is there a reason why it seems that pregnant woman always want pickles?

    Laura, RD, LDN wrote on January 28th, 2012
  23. this recipe sounds great! FYI if you’re looking for fresher pickling cukes in the winter, try your local Asian market – they often seem to stock pickling cukes regularly and they’re always very crisp.

    Jenny T wrote on January 28th, 2012
  24. We just made these the other night. Still waiting to try them. The kids have been pestering me for pickles and shopping at Costco left us with lots of cucumbers. Thanks for sharing this!

    Michele Lauren wrote on January 28th, 2012
  25. I really don’t like pickles… But I LOVE cucumbers! (: close enough, right?

    Thanks!

    Suzanne wrote on January 28th, 2012
  26. Dill pickles….yummmmmmm!!!! This would be perfect alongside one of my egg wraps…or a turkey sandwich with paleo bread. Or just eat one straight out of the jar…the best way to eat them right???

    Sarah wrote on January 28th, 2012
  27. very interesting article! our occasional eating of hotdogs MUST be accompanied by pickles. now we get to customize it ourselves!

    Ying and Yang wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • I wonder if you could make pickles by slicing the cucumbers in half and scooping out the seeds so that you make a little boat. Then when you want a hot dog – let the pickle be thy bun!

      Emily Mekeel wrote on January 29th, 2012
  28. “Because there is no vinegar to preserve the pickles, they will only keep about a week.”

    Mark and the Worker Bees, did you really mean to say this? The point of fermenting vegetables is to preserve them, but in the old timey way, with the lactic acid from the bacteria.

    Tanya wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Let me second that. My pickles usually need to stay in the refrigerator at least several weeks before they even reach the consistency I like. And they last as long as I store them there.

      Remnant wrote on January 28th, 2012
  29. That sounds crazy simple. Making these! Need to find Kirby pickles. They look like what I refer to as baby cukes?? Probably not the same thing, though? Unless they are. :)

    j3nn wrote on January 28th, 2012
  30. Thanks for this.
    I remember my dad making pickles by the barrel when I was a kid. And he’d tell stories of his dad, a Wisconsin farmer during the Depression, and the threshing crews in the 1930s that would come around and at the end of the day want their pay…and a chance to grab a pickle out of grandpa’s barrels with their grubby hands.
    Dad/Grandpa’s recipe was never written down and is lost. But I do remember as a kid stirring salt into the water until an egg would float and the white scum you mention needing to be skimmed from the top.
    I’m definately going to give these a try. I’ll probably never match the taste those pickles I remember from 40+ years ago but it will bring back a lot of good memories in the process.

    Dave wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Dave,

      If I had to bet I would say they were using oak barrels, the tannin leaching out were probably a key ingredient to making the pickles so crisp.

      Bill wrote on July 30th, 2013
  31. I’m not sure about the single-jar method. When I do crock pickles, they need to be skimmed every day because of the little bits of mold and bacterial cultures that form on the top. If you don’t get them out of there, they run out of control and the whole batch gets an off flavor.

    I’ve been using the method in Sandor Katz’s book, but I make smaller batches by using old slow-cooker crocks and saucers that I get at thrift stores. (The saucer gets weighted down to keep the cukes submerged.)

    The fermentation takes a couple of weeks, depending on the weather, but the wait is worth it.

    LarryB wrote on January 29th, 2012
  32. You inspired me to pickle some green beans :)

    Laura, RD, LDN wrote on January 29th, 2012
  33. Wow! Add pickles (and pickled okra!) to the list of “reasons I can’t wait to get the garden fired up again.”

    Does anybody know of a good pickling cucumber variety to grow in north Texas?

    Primal Texas wrote on January 30th, 2012
  34. I use this same process and they keep for months *at room temp* as long as they’re plenty sour (which is a sign of lots of preserving lactic acid). They keep for well over a year in the fridge.

    Some advocate a source of tannin (like oak leaves or grape leaves) to ensure crispness.

    Love the idea of pickled cauliflower; will try that!

    MamaGrok wrote on January 31st, 2012
  35. One of the things not mentioned in this post or the comments, is whether sterilization of the jars is required. Is this just a given, or is it not important with natural fermentation?

    Jimbomack wrote on February 1st, 2012
    • The recipe says 1 wide-mouth 16-ounce glass canning jar (sterilized in boiling water and air-dried)

      I always sterilize my jars.

      Angela wrote on February 1st, 2012
  36. So it does, my bad.

    Thanks Angela. =)

    Jimbomack wrote on February 1st, 2012
  37. Hi! I included this article in the inaugural issue of Paleo Weekly (http://paleo-weekly.com/issue-1)

    Jeff Schoolcraft wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  38. I ferment veggies all the time in my Perfect Pickler…check out their website. My ginger carrots and pickles are my favorite. Fermented foods have traditionally been eaten as a condiment…to aid in the process of digestion. Amazing enzymes, bacteria and probiotics. Also check out Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook. There is a whole chapter on fermented foods in there that will give the novice fermenter a great education. Invest in your food…invest in your health!

    Penny wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  39. OK, just put together my first batch of pickles. Fingers crossed!

    Barb Crocker wrote on February 13th, 2012
  40. I have a type of scum floating amongst the pickles. Is this okay? How will I know that they have a bad smell? Is this bad smell a ‘make you want to puke’ smell? Mine smell like pickles and taste is not putrid so I take this as okay. I’m nervous about eating ‘rotted’ food that sits and festers on my counter. Let alone feeding pickles to my kids. How do I know they are bad? Is it safe to eat the ‘scum’ left on the pickles? So many questions so little time.

    Nick wrote on February 24th, 2012
    • hallo!
      1its not rotten its fermented – do u drink vino sometimes, its fermented fruits, tempeh or miso fermented soya beens ( actually the most healthy way to eat soya)
      2 skum floating amongst the pickles its a gas which are create in prices of fermentation
      3 sometimes Pickles get bad & than are very soft & go apart when u touch them & its unpleasant smell U will got it
      Normally Pickles are salty crunchy delicious thing with delicate taste of flavor builder U use.
      & yes its safety for your kid to eat its at list its allergic to some of ingredients.
      & 4 adults its use as hangover cure & during vodka drinking.

      p wrote on August 30th, 2014

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