Killer Dill Pickles
The first kirby cukes of summer just arrived at my farmer’s market, and I’m excited! I love making old fashioned sour dill pickles, and I hope you’ll give them a try, too. This is how dill pickles were made for hundreds of years, before the advent of modern canning. The flavor is fresh and tangy, without the harsh pucker you get from eating vinegar pickles. It is important to make these with kirby cucumbers – sometimes sold as pickling cucumbers – which are small and bumpy, very firm, and less seedy and watery than cucumbers meant for slicing into salads. The cucumbers need to be very fresh to make a nice, crunchy pickle so please wait to try this until cukes are in season in your area. I recommend buying yours at a farmer’s market or farm stand – the fresher, the better! I’ve given the quantities for a single quart (or liter) but I usually make double or quadruple this amount and ferment them in 2L jars. Below is a recipe as well as detailed information and photos describing the stages of fermentation. Time to take some of the fear and mystery out of fermenting!
Killer Dill Pickles
1 quart or liter
1lb. kirby cucumbers (approximate)
2 grape leaves
2 dried chiles (or 1t crushed red pepper)
1 dill frond
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 heaping teaspoon mustard seed
1 heaping teaspoon coriander seed
2 allspice berries
1 bay leaf, crumbled
Brine: 1 1/2T salt dissolved in 2c water for full-sours. 1T salt dissolved in 2c water for half-sours.
Wash the cucumbers well in cold water to remove any dirt, scrubbing gently if necessary. If the cukes aren’t just-picked from your garden, soaking them in ice water will help retain their crunch. Give them an hour or two in the ice water while you prepare your jars and the other ingredients.
Cucumbers have a blossom end and a stem end. The blossoms have enzymes which can cause the cucumbers to soften as they’re pickling. Be sure to scrub this end well to remove all traces of the blossom, or use a sharp knife to take a very thin slice off that end. The blossom end looks sort of yellowy-brown (on the left) while the stem end is usually still bright green, having been recently picked (on the right).
Place 1 grape leaf in the bottom of the jar, and add the chiles and the dill frond. Begin layering the cucumbers, packing them in as tightly as you can. When the jar is about half-full, add the remaining spices.
Continue packing cucumbers until the jar is full. Place the 2nd grape leaf on top, folding it over if necessary. Placing a grape leaf on top will help to keep the cukes from sticking up out of the brine. Fermentation occurs in the brine, and anything exposed could get moldy. Add enough brine to cover the grape leaf completely. Place a small weight on the top to keep the cukes submerged. Ideas for a weight are: a small shot glass (allow a little more room), a cleaned and boiled rock, glass marbles or decorative stones. (For this batch I used a glass lid from a small Weck jar in the mason jar, and a 4-ounce quilted jelly jar in the Fido jar.) Secure the lid. For a mason jar, place the lid on top and screw on the ring. Then loosen the ring about a half-turn. Fermentation creates gases, and if the lid is screwed on tight the pressure could build to a point where the jar might break. If using a wire-bale jar, clamp down the lid. The gasket will allow gases to escape. With either kind, if you are worried about excess pressure you can “burp” the jar daily in the early stages to release some of the gas (simply loosen or unclamp the lid briefly until you hear a “pffffft” of gas and then reseal). After the jar is sealed, write the date on the glass with a marker.
The jars should be placed in a cool spot out of direct light. High ambient temps can cause problems with vegetable fermentation, so if you live in a warm climate try to find a cool place in your house, such as a closet, where temperatures won’t rise above 75°. Don’t set the jars on the fridge or next to a window or stove. The jars should be kept out of the light – I usually drape a kitchen towel over mine. On day 1 your jar of cucumbers in brine will by bright and pretty; the progression to pickled goodness will be slow and gradual over the next few weeks.
Within a day or two the brine will start bubbling. You may see some foam at the top. The color of the cucumbers rapidly changes from bright to a more drab, olive green. If you tasted the brine now you would notice it has a bit of a tang already, but still tastes mostly like salty water. The rapid production of carbon dioxide will also make the cucumbers float. Good thing you put a weight on them!
One week later the cucumbers have taken on a more “pickly” appearance. The cucumbers have lost all their vibrant color, and now the brine has turned cloudy. This cloudiness is normal for naturally fermented pickles, and a good sign that things are proceeding well. Some of the cloudiness will also settle on the pickles or the bottom of the jar as a white film. This is a natural, healthy phenomenon – it doesn’t taste bad and it won’t harm you in any way. It is simply an accumulation of expired bacteria or yeast. (And if the thought of consuming dead yeast creeps you out, then you’ll have to give up eating bread!)
By two weeks, the bubbling will be reduced, or may have ceased altogether. There might be a thick layer of sediment on the bottom. The brine is cloudier and darker and they’re starting to look like real pickles! You may wish to sample one now. If you find that it is pickly on the outside, but still seems like a raw cucumber on the inside then it needs more time. Or maybe not! The great thing about making your own pickles is that you can eat them however you want.
I gave these pickles another few days after the last photo and in that time something magical happened! They transformed from “pickle-flavored cucumber” to full-blown pickle. And, YUM! These are tasty. You can see in the photo below that they are now pickled all the way through. The flavor is tangy and pleasing, without the pucker you get from eating a vinegared pickle. At this point you’ll want to transfer your pickles to the fridge or a cool place such as a basement or cellar. Left out at room temp they would keep fermenting and their awesomeness would eventually fade. These pickles have all their vitamins intact, as well as enzymes and beneficial bacteria – health food! – so feel free to let your kids snack on these as much as they want. If you have a baby, pickles make a great old-timey teether. You might want to take a picture to show off your pickles to all your friends – if so, do it fast before a little person makes off with your photo subject like mine did!
When all your pickles are gone, don’t toss that brine! It is teeming with beneficial probiotic bacteria. It’s excellent for sipping, or mixed with vodka for a dirty martini. You can also use it in salad dressings or as a marinade for meat.
When shopping for kirby cucumbers, select the smallest ones you can find. But the most important thing is to try to pick ones that are equal in size. Small cukes will pickle sooner than large ones, so putting a mix of sizes in one jar will give you uneven results. If you have to use a mix of sizes, put the largest ones at the bottom of the jar – they’ll keep pickling after the jar is moved to the fridge while you’re working your way down through the smaller ones at the top. Occasionally you might find a pickle that is hollow in the middle. This is not caused by fermentation: the cucumber grew that way, probably due to irregular watering.
The spices I listed in the recipe above should be treated as guidelines only – feel free to substitute or omit as needed. You can even make pickles without the dill! A big part of the fun with fermentation is playing around with the flavors you get from different herbs and spices. You can also use a “pickling spice” mix. I happen to think these spices give excellent flavor, but a few more peppers would be a great addition if you like some kick. You can also add grated horseradish.
You might be wondering what the grape leaves are doing in there. Grape leaves provide tannins, which help the cucumbers stay firm and retain their crunch. Many plants have tannins in their leaves, bark, fruit, and seeds. If you don’t have access to grape leaves you can substitute: oak leaves, horseradish leaves, cherry leaves, or even blackberry, strawberry, or currant leaves. A pinch of green or black tea will also work. Beyond that list, you can experiment with other kinds of leaves, but they may not provide enough tannins, or could even impart too much, which would give your pickles a bitter, astringent taste. If you find some grape leaves for sale at a market you can buy them and freeze them in aluminum foil for future use.
Sometimes a powdery white film can form on the top of pickles or other ferments, such as sauerkraut. This film is commonly referred to as kahm yeast, and is an overgrowth of an undesirable (but not harmful) bacteria or yeast. It smells a little bit like a cross between beer and bread. The best way to prevent it is to use a lid, since it needs oxygen to grow and fermenting veggies quickly use up the oxygen and replace it with carbon dioxide. If you notice some growing in your jar I recommend leaving it alone until the pickles are done fermenting. If you open the jar to scoop it off you’ll introduce fresh oxygen and it will just grow back thicker each time. Best to leave it until the pickles are done, and then scoop it off before refrigerating.
If you’ve been surfing the web looking for fermented pickle recipes, you’ll probably find some that suggest adding things like whey, apple cider vinegar, or a powdered starter culture in the beginning. I urge you not to try this as you are more likely to have problems; adding starters interferes with the natural fermentation process, and can lead to mushy pickles and undesirable flavors. This recipe is how our great-grandparents, and their great-grandparents for many generations back made pickles. It works because all fresh vegetables carry exactly the bacteria they need to be transformed into tasty pickles when submerged in salt water. However, sometimes despite your most careful efforts a batch will turn out a little soft. Don’t throw those out! They still have good flavor and are full of probiotics. Instead, mince the pickles and cover them with a bit of the brine for a delicious relish.