Fermentation-Pickles

Introduction

Traditional pickled cucumbers are a product of lacto-fermentation (so-called because the microorganisms involved create lactic acid, not because of any association with dairy products).  Fermentation has been used for millenia to preserve foods without refrigeration.  These days, many store-bought pickles get their sour flavor from vinegar and are heat-treated for shelf-stability, whereas lacto-fermented foods are alive and active with beneficial bacteria that not only enhance flavor, but aid digestion as well.

The Basics:  To make pickles the natural way, submerge fresh cucumbers and seasonings in a brine solution and let them ferment for a week or more, depending on how sour you like them.  

Quick Reference
 Batch Size Cucumbers Water Sea Salt

1 quart

1 lb. 2 cups 1 1/2 tbsp.
1 gal. 4 lbs. 2 qts. 6 tbsp.
5 gal. 20 lbs. 2 1/2 gal. 1 7/8 cups
Materials
  • fermentation vessel (a ceramic crock, mason jar or food-grade plastic bucket will do)
  • fermentation weight (can be a saucer that fits inside crock/bucket held down by a jar of water or pebbles)
  • lid or cover
  • 3-5" pickling cucumbers
  • sea salt (non-iodized)
  • garlic
  • dill flowers, leaves, or seeds
  • black peppercorns
  • grape, oak, or horseradish leaves  
Instructions
  1. If cucumbers are not fresh out of the garden, soak them in a bowl of ice water for half an hour to perk them up.
  2. Cut stem and blossom ends off cucumbers.
  3. Using table above for amounts, make brine by heating water and stirring in salt until it dissolves.  Allow brine to cool to room temperature.  (Place in an ice bath and stir for quicker cooling.)
  4. Place grape, oak, or horseradish leaves in bottom of fermentation vessel.   
  5. Place seasonings in bottom of fermentation vessel.  This is largely up to you and what you like.  For a one-quart batch of generic dill pickles, start with a clove or two of garlic, one head of flowering dill, and 1/4 tsp. whole black peppercorns.  Some recipes call for a bay leaf, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and for a real kick, grated horseradish or hot peppers.  
  6. Pack cucumbers vertically into fermentation vessel and squeeze them in tightly so there's less chance of them floating as fermentation proceeds.
  7. Pour room temperature brine over cucumbers until they are completely submerged.  If not enough brine, mix more using just under 1 tablespoon per cup of water.
  8. Place saucer and weight on top of cucumbers to keep them from floating up and becoming exposed to air.  Airtight is best for keeping dust, molds, and stray yeasts out, but as long as the pickles stay below the surface of the brine it shouldn't be affected by any air-borne contaminant.  Traditional crocks use a water-filled rim and notched lid to allow fermentation gas (carbon dioxide) to escape while preventing outside air from getting in.  When fermenting in a mason jar, you can use a reCap lid with an airlock and rubber stopper to achieve the same results.  
  9. If you're using a crock or bucket without a lid or if your make-shift fermentation weight is too tall to put a lid on, then cover the fermentation vessel with tightly-woven muslin held in place with a rubber band to keep out dust and flies.  Check on it every day.  If you see scum forming on the surface, remove as much as you can with a clean spoon and wash and replace the plate and weight.
  10. Taste a pickle after a few days and see how you like it.  The longer you let them ferment, the more sour they will become.  When they're to your liking, move them to the refrigerator and enjoy!  Refrigerated pickles have a storage life of several months.
Frequently Asked Questions

Why are grape, oak, or horseradish leaves called for in this recipe?

These leaves are all high in tannic acid (tannins), which stabilizes the cellular structure of cucumbers, keeping them crisp as they ferment.  Without tannins, pickles tend to turn out mushy.  Black tea is also high in tannins, so if you can't access any of the above leaves, you can place a black tea bag in the bottom of the fermentation vessel along with the dill and other spices.  A single tea bag should be enough for batches of up to 1 gallon.  Larger batches may require two or more tea bags.  

Why are my pickles so soft?

Besides the above discussion of tannins, soft pickles may be the result of using less-than-fresh cucumbers, or cucumbers that were on the vine too long.  The crunchiest pickles come from the freshest pickles so pick them young and pickle them ASAP.  According to old farm lore, not removing the blossom ends of the cucumbers can lead to softening.  The amount of salt in the brine also affects the texture of the final product; using lower amounts of salt (if, for instance, you're on a low-sodium diet) creates a softer pickle that also won't last as long as a saltier pickle. 

Should I throw out my pickles if I see white scum or mould growing on the surface?

Not necessarily.  White scum of the surface of your brine is probably yeast.  If you check and skim your pickles every day, you should be able to stay ahead of such growths.  If you missed it for a couple of days and/or the pickles have floated up into the scum, you should discard any that have been in contact with it and wash and reposition your weight to keep them down.  If the scum or mould gets out of hand, there may be no salvaging your hard work.  Use your discretion.  If you choose to discard and restart, remember to be more vigilant next time.

Instead of scraping scum off when it forms, can I prevent the scum from forming in the first place?

Understandably, there will be people for whom the above advice is unacceptable due to sheer grossness.  If you're not the kind of person to cut mould off a block of cheese and eat the rest, then an airlock system is for you.  Some crocks have a rim that you fill with water to prevent outside air from getting in.  For smaller batches, if you're using a mason jar, you can get re-Cap lids that accommodate a #5 rubber stopper and airlock in the top.  Check out our sauerkraut and pickle-making kit for details!  Just remember that every time you open the jar to taste a pickle there's a chance that some contaminant may get in.  

Another way to decrease the likelihood of contamination is to increase the salinity of the brine.  Older pickle recipes sometimes called for "enough salt to float an egg," which is approximately 10% salt to water--that's enough to make you not want to eat your pickles, they'd be so salty!  If you try using that much salt, you'll want to soak the pickles in fresh water for a few days to reduce the amount of salt in them.

Additional Resources

http://www.wildfermentation.com/making-sour-pickles-2/   Sandor Katz's "Wild Fermentation" blog, contains pickle recipe and back story excerpted from his popular book Wild Fermentation.

http://www.culturesforhealth.com/what-lacto-fermentation/   A simple description of lacto-fermentation and its benefits from the company whose cultures we sell in our store.

http://phickle.com/getting-started-and-faq/pickles-getting-started-and-troubleshooting/   An in-depth fermentation guide, starting with the difference between canned and fermented pickles, as well as trouble-shooting info.


Pickles Supplies