how to make fermented pickles (aka: half sour dills)

I would like to preface this post by saying that this process demands the utmost level of cleanliness. Yes, it’s based on bacteria and fermentation but, and I do mean BUT, it’s the good kind.

I’d also like to throw in that fermented foods are really, really good for you. All that good, live bacteria is great for your digestion and your immune system. Fermented favorites of mine: pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut…okay, really any veggie. Kombucha and kefir. Soft, stinky cheese. Wine, beer and soy sauce are fermented also, but remember that a little of any fermented food can go a long way, so don’t overdo eating them if you’re not used to them.

People have been fermenting food for thousands of years so just use your head: use clean vessels, utensils and vegetables and, if you’re ever in doubt: throw it out.

This is how to make good old deli pickles. Some call them sour dills, some call them half sour dills, and both are right depending on the length of time they ferment in the brine.

I’ve learned this process by famous chefs and not-so-famous chefs alike. Sometimes, this sort of thing calls for looking a little deeper into the process than just the rules from the big guys. This is the sort of thing your grandma did, that you blissfully ignored. Play around with length of fermentation time and spices and see what you like.

So here’s the link to the Alton Brown recipe, which is how I first tried this and, to this day, use a technique or two. And here’s the Wild Fermentation recipe, which is an awesome site to visit if you’re drawn towards fermenting things. Actually, if you’re drawn to fermenting (or someone you know is) please, please, please read The Art of Fermentation – Sandor Katz is a fermenting god. And here’s Tommy J., a little guy who’s trying to get this kinda stuff down and doing a pretty damned good job.

I’ve learned from all of these sites and recipes and here’s mine:

While preparing the ingredients for these fermented pickles, first clean your freshly-picked cucumbers well, cut off the stem end (trust me, this is important. That little stem end will spoil your batch if you don’t cut if off first), and soak the cukes in a bowl of ice water while you’re assembling and crushing your spices and getting your brine together. Make sure you’re using fresh, blemish-free pickling cucumbers for this – the fresher the better. Let dry on a paper towel right before adding to the finished brine.

Start with:

  • ¼ cup pickling salt
  • 4 cups distilled water (tap water often contains chlorine, which is not ferment-friendly)

In a medium-size bowl or dish, stir salt and distilled water together, until salt has dissolved completely. This may be a little more than you you need, but that’s okay. It’s better to have a little extra brine than to go back and mix more.

Water and salt ratio is important here, but feel free to play around with the spices you like, until you find a mix that you love.

In a mortar and pestle, place all of this:

  • 1/2 tsp. whole coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. brown mustard seeds
  • 2 whole allspice
  • 1/3 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/3 tsp. scant black pepper corns
  • ¼ tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 small bay leaf, broken into a few smaller pieces

how to make fermented pickles spices lola rugula

Crush the seeds and spices just enough to release their oils. You can also do this in a sealed Ziploc and the flat side of a meat cleaver, which I’ve done before my mortar and pestle days. Add to salt/water mixture and stir to combine.

Add your fresh dill: 4 Tbsp. fresh dill weed

how to make fermented pickles lola rugula

Finally, to the salt water / spice brine, add:

  • 6-8 cucumbers, cleaned, trimmed and soaked
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed

how to make fermented pickles lola rugula

The final step in preparing your fermented pickles is to take a sandwich size or gallon size Ziploc bag and fill it partially with distilled water. This is going to sit on top of your pickles and keep them immersed in the brine, while still allowing some air flow to the pickles. You want to fill it with distilled water because if your plastic bag happens to spring a leak, you want it to leak distilled water into your pickles, so you still have a chance to rescue them. I’ve yet to have a bag break, but better safe than sorry. Then, take the water-filled bag and place on top of the pickles, to ensure all of your cucumbers are submersed fully into the brine. You don’t want this to be an air-tight seal – all those beautiful little airborne bacteria beasts need to get to your brine and keep the fermentation process working.

Now, they ferment. And you wait. And you watch.

Let sit at room temperature for about 3 days. This works best for me at summer daytime temps between 70 and 75 degrees, with cool nights. Be sure to keep them out of a sunny spot. A basement or cool room works best for this. Check on them daily, to make sure all of your cucumbers have remained submerged. Within a day or two, you should see some tiny bubbles happening inside your pickle container and some bacterial action happening on top. You can skim the top, if there seems to be a it of scum occurring there, and then assure that your baggie is placed back to submerge all your cukes.

The process is done in about 3-6 days, depending on how you like them to taste and also the size of the cucumbers. This may involve a little testing on your part, but that’s part of the fun. You don’t want them to smell bad or feel or look slimy. They should be crisp and clean. Drain off 1/2 the salt water, reserving the cukes and spices. Place in a clean, fresh glass jar or container and add the other 1/2 of the brine and then fresh distilled water to cover them. Place them in the refrigerator and this should halt the fermentation process.

We keep these in the fridge for about 4-6 months and love them. Happy fermenting!

8 thoughts on “how to make fermented pickles (aka: half sour dills)

  1. Sandor Katz (the wild fermentation recipe) is the god of fermentation. THE ART OF FERMENTATION is an eye-opening book, and it seems like hardly a month goes by without yet another article appearing in the science section of the NYT describing one benefit or another to fermented veggies. Good post. Good for you for spreading the word, along with the we’re-all-grownups-so-let’s-sue-some-caution message. Ken

    • Yes Ken! The Art of Fermentation is fantastic & I’m loving the trend back to fermentation. Right now my cukes are growing & I’m looking forward to working on this year’s first batch. I’m seriously hooked.

  2. Anonymous says:

    When you say to add the other half of the brine to the fermented pickles, where does that brine come from? Is it the extra from the beginning of the recipe, or are you saving the brine you drained off before placing in the jar?And how much distilled water do you add at the end? Thank you!

    • Lesley at Lola Rugula says:

      Hi – I’m sorry I wasn’t very clear on this, so thank you. Actually, the best way to describe it is reserve all the brine, fill your jars with pickles, fill jars 1/2 way with the reserved brine and then fill the jars the rest of the way with distilled water. You can pack them in full brine, if you wish, but be aware that the pickles will continue to ferment faster this way, even refrigerated. (though refrigeration definitely slows down the fermenting process, it doesn’t stop it all together.) Filling the jars with 1/2 brine and 1/2 distilled water, slows it down much more, giving you crispy pickles longer. Once you’re done packing your pickles this way, any leftover brine can be discarded. Please let me know if you still have questions and thanks again for stopping by and commenting. Lesley.

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