How to Ferment Cucumbers
Do you love dill pickles? Sure you do; you found your way to this article and want to know what the recipe is right away. Let’s not waste any time. If you want to know more about why to ferment, feel free to head over here to this article about all the whys. Otherwise, let’s start talking about the hows: Lacto Ferment Pickles.
This video on how to Lacto Ferment Pickles was made on August 12, 2012. Man! Did I have a great garden back then. Ahhh, the best is yet to come. More writing below…
What cucumber variety will work best for Lacto Ferment Pickles? Truth be known, any variety will work. However, I like the small ones that “look” like pickles. Why do they “look” like pickles? Because I have been programmed by commercially sold dill pickles on what a dill pickle looks like. They look that way because they fit in the jars way better than those big, honking dudes that are sold for slicing and salads.
We call this process of fermenting cucumbers lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermentation is the microbial fermenting process using “good” bacteria. This includes Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains (see this link for more information). Fermentation is the breakdown of the cucumbers by beneficial bacteria. We will take our fermentation process only to a certain point, and then halt it in order to preserve the cucumbers and gain the benefit of the fermented cucumbers by ingesting the microbes and their nutritive byproducts. Eating bacteria on purpose! Who woulda thunk it??
If you want my advice on what to grow for the best pickles:
Boston Pickling Cucumber and Chicago Pickling Cucumber are my favorites. But there are many other varieties, as well:
Empereur Alexandre Cucumber
Mexican Sour Gherkin Cucumber
Parisian Pickling Cucumber
TIP: Let a few of your heirloom cucumbers turn deep yellow and over-ripen. Wait for the frost and gather 3-4 of the over-ripe cucumbers from the different plants and scoop out the seeds. Place them on a towel initially to dry a little. Then, using some cardboard, spread them and let them dry out. Then scrape them of f the cardboard with your fingers and store them in the refrigerator for next spring. A couple or three weeks BEFORE it’s time to plant (either indoors for seedlings or in the garden), test a few to see what your germination rate is. See this video for more information.
Okay, let’s get back to it…
Start with a jar or a crock. A plastic food-grade bucket is A-OK, but I prefer glass or ceramic for my fermented goods. There’s really no way to tell how many cucumbers will fit in a jar, and your guess is as good as mine. The nice thing is: if you guess wrong, either way you’re okay.
You will want your cucumbers to be smaller than the long, straight green ones you find in the store (or grow). And, you’ll want them to be fresh. Many of the store-bought cucumbers (even organics) are coated with wax to increase their shelf life. Fortunately, the smaller ones are usually not coated with wax because their shelf life is longer than the larger cucumbers. Growing your own is encouraged, but not a must. We consider fermented pickles to be a seasonal goodie that lasts “as long as they last” because we ferment only what we get fresh from the garden. But this is a personal preference and by no means a rule.
Gather your cucumbers and wash them. I just wash them in some cool water to get the dust off them from the garden. If you try to clean them too much or with hot water or vinegar, you’ll likely reduce the good bacteria to a point where your pickles will not ferment and will instead spoil in the jar.
Pick cucumbers without any blemishes. The purpose of the cucumber is to manufacture and distribute the seed. The cucumber has a naturally occurring population of bacteria that will go to work on the cucumber as soon as the plant dies or the cucumber is separated from the vine. This will shed the cucumber of…well…the cucumber part and prepare the seed for next spring’s volunteers (the seeds you missed from the cucumbers that never made it into the fermenting jar). These blemishes may harbor the bad bacteria that may spoil your batch of fermented goodies. Don’t throw them away, though; they are good for salads and infused waters or just to snack on (well, all except for the blemished part).
Okay, here we go…
You have your washed cucumbers ready and laid out on a clean towel to dry. Gather up these other ingredients:
Small and medium cucumbers with no blemishes
Optional: Peppers (mild, medium, or hot)
Garlic cloves to taste
Dill (or dill seed). Use a couple full heads of dill or more if you like.
Grape leaves or oak leaves or horseradish leaves or cabbage/collards/custard/turnip Leaves
Now, let’s talk about the brine. How do we make it, and what’s it for? The saltwater brine is important in that it keeps the bad bacteria, as well as the yeast/mold, out of your batch of pickles. You may get some mold on the top of your leaves (we’ll talk more about that in a bit). You don’t want to have it not-salty-enough because that will just let (if not encourage) the bad stuff to infiltrate your batch and spoil it. If the brine is TOO salty, you will even kill off the good bacteria and end up with salt-cured veggies (and that’s okay if you want that). Here’s how to make your brine:
Brine: 1 gallon of water to 12 tablespoons (not teaspoons) of sea salt (or kosher salt).
You can mix the saltwater brine and save it for future batches. Take a gallon of non-chlorinated water (such as bottled spring water or drinking water) and add 12 tablespoons of sea salt (or kosher salt). The table salt has iodine in it (and that’s a good thing, but not for our pickles). That’s about 3/4th cup of salt.
For you salt cautionaries:
If you’re thinking, “NO WAY! That’s too much salt.” I say, “Not really.” The brine will fill only the empty part of the jar that your ingredients are not occupying. Let’s say you have a ½ gallon jar and you fill 75% of the jar up with goodies (being conservative here). You’re not adding ½ gallon of brine to the jar, you’re only adding 25% of ½ gallon. Confused? Sure you are.
A half-gallon jar will take about 8 cups of whatever you put into it. If you add 25% of 8 cups of brine you will only be adding about 2 cups of brine. That’s about 1/8th of the gallon or 1/8th of the 12 tablespoons of salt or only 1.5 tablespoons of salt. Salty? Sure it is. Are you going to drink the brine? Only if you want to. A small portion of this brine will be infused into your pickles, and THAT is where the taste will be enhanced.
If you are on a salt-restricted diet, even this bit of salt will detract greatly from your salt-restricted diet, and there is no way for me to ensure an accurate salt content of each pickle. So, for you on a low-salt diet, eat with care.
Step 1) Wash your small and medium cucumbers.
Step 2) Wash your peppers and chop them up.
Step 3) Peel some cloves of garlic and leave them whole.
Step 4) Pick some heads of dill. About two or three will do the trick. Dill seed will work if you don’t have any dill. Be sure to run the dill heads under a bit of cold water to knock the dust.
Step 5) Drop in your ingredients except the pickles. Most of that stuff will float and you need it “in” your pickles and not “on” your pickles.
Step 6) Cram in the cucumbers. Not so crammed that you break or bruise them, but good and tight nonetheless. Leave a bit of space at the top for the brine to cover and to secure with the leaves.
Step 7) Pour the brine over the pickles until they are all covered.
Step 8) Take the leaves from your grapes or oak or horseradish or cabbage/collards/mustard/turnip plants and fold them in on top of the brine and bobbing cucumbers to secure all the ingredients under the brine.
Step 9) Screw on the jar lid, or cover the crock, but don’t make it air-tight unless you are using an air lock. Gasses will build up in the jar and eventually the pressure will be too much for the jar. Needless to say, you’ll be wiping up pickles rather than eating them if the pressure gets too high.
Step 10) Let them sit out at room temperature for a “period of time.” This is where folks get all catawampus. Here is a list of factors that we know or can do very little about that will influence the fermenting time of the pickles:
- Room temperature — Warmer = shorter fermentation time. Cooler = longer fermentation time.
- Size of the cucumbers — Smaller cucumbers ferment faster than larger ones. Cut cucumbers ferment faster than uncut. (I prefer uncut.)
- Amount of bacteria initially on the cucumbers
- An array of other factors
Here’s my suggestion: When the water turns from the initial crystal clear to cloudy and the cucumbers turn from bright green to a dull, OD green (like an unripe olive), you will want to try one and see how they did. They should look like store-bought pickles through and through. You know what raw cucumber looks like on the inside. If it looks like this in the center, you need to let them ferment longer. If they are not crunchy and they are turning soft, you’ve let them ferment too long. You WILL get the hang of this but it will take some time…or…you’ll get lucky like me, and your first batch will be AMAZING!
Step 11) Refrigerate
The biological activity in your jar is proliferating with the massive population of probiotics. You need to slow the fermentation process way down. These pickles WILL NOT LAST IF KEPT AT ROOM TEMPERATURE. They will eventually become so mushy that your body’s “reject” sensors will “kick” them out. Refrigeration is the next step. In this cold environment, the bacteria’s metabolism will slow way down like a cold-blooded reptile or fish. They will not “eat” as much. I don’t know how long they will actually last in the refrigerator. I’ve never kept them for more than 2-3 months before they were all eaten up. Some folks have kept them in the refrigerator for longer than a year. My guess is that they will last up to a year if properly refrigerated.
Another idea is to ferment the pickles in a crock with a lid and something to keep the pickles below the brine. After a day or two, start eating them. Enjoy one or two or ten each day until they reach a certain point where they are perfect. Then refrigerate. You may find that they will not last long enough to make it to the fridge.
Have you seen the video?
This video was taken some time back and has been viewed thousands of times. It’s is a bit slow to start, but covers a lot of information. Soon I will make a newer, shorter version for those who want me to “get to the point.” Stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy this little how-to on How to Lacto-Ferment Dill Pickles.
Frequently asked questions:
- Question: Why did the water get all cloudy?
Answer: This is the live bacteria that has populated the water. They are microscopic. You can’t see them. But there a so many that you can see the cloudiness, which is the bacteria.
- Question: What’s all that white powdery residue on my pickles and in the bottom of the jar?
Answer: That’s the dead bacteria that have settled to the flat surfaces of the jar and its contents. It’s A-OK to eat dead bacteria…well…the probiotic bacteria, anyway.
- Question: Why are my pickles mushy?
Answer: The fermentation time was too long based on the room temperature at the time of fermentation, OR they have been in the back of your refrigerator for too long.
- Question: Can I store these pickles with my other canned goods?
Answer: NO! They have a short shelf life and need refrigeration for any longer-term storage (not long-term). There’s nothing wrong with cooked, canned dill pickles from your garden. Consider these more perishable fermented pickles as a seasonal treat.
- Question: After they ferment, can I can them in my pressure canner?
Answer: Sure. That’s A-OK. The flavor will mostly be preserved. However, the canning process will kill all bacteria in the batch, and the pickles will be absent of any viable probiotics.
Here is a bit of cucumber and pickle trivia and jokes:
Spines are the little pokey hairs on the cucumber and vine.
Spines are the prickly hairs on certain cucumbers can certainly make their presence felt, as in you might need to wear garden gloves when you harvest your crop. The flavors of some spiny cucumbers make that little inconvenience worthwhile.
Stippling are the wart-like bumps on the cucumber.
Cucumbers are in the cucurbit family. They are related to those in the squash family and melons. The pests and diseases that attack these plants will jeopardize the others as well.
Archeologists and anthropologists believe that the ancient Mesopotamians pickled first and way back in 2030 BC.
Japanese folklore tells of a slimy demon called the Kappa that will lure you into the river and suck your blood. The Kappa’s weakness is cucumbers…their favorite meal. If you ever find yourself face-to-face with a Kappa, bow politely and offer him a cucumber. He’ll likely promise you anything, as he prefers cucumbers to blood anytime.
Two Cucumbers: One day two cucumbers, who were best friends, were walking together down the street. They stepped off the curb, and a speeding car came around the corner and ran one of them over. The uninjured cucumber called 911 and helped his injured friend as best he was able. The injured cucumber was taken to emergency at the hospital and rushed into surgery. After a long and agonizing wait, the doctor finally appeared. He told the uninjured cucumber, “I have good news, and I have bad news. The good news is that your friend is going to pull through. The bad news is that he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life.”
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