Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fermenting Pickles: A Hopefully Simple Tutorial

First let's talk about the basics: The basic process is to wash and clean cucumbers, add them to a seasoned salt water brine and allow time to run it's course in a room temperature environment. As time goes on the vegetable will release Lactobacillus into the brine (Lactic Acid) and you will end up with a wonderful tasting pickle. You may encounter some yeast, mold, or scum along the way.
Then off to the fridge they go, where the culture will be slowed to a craw, and your pickles can be stored until you are done eating them. 

Things that impact your pickle making process:
Freshness of produce
External Temperature
                                                        Salt content

Hopefully this tutorial will help you in making a wonderful, and tasty old fashioned pickle full of tummy loving good bacteria.

This recipe is for a 2 gallon crock, or 2 one gallon jars.

10 lbs pickling cucumbers- the fresher the better
2/3 cup non-iodized salt without caking agent. (canning salt, pickling salt, kosher salt, sea salt etc.) Keep in mind each flake size of salt is different. This recipe is using kosher salt so if you are using a large flake salt from the high reaches of the Himalayan mountains you might need a little more to achieve the same salinity. 
4-6 tablespoon of pickling seasoning
10 heads of dill (You can never have too much dill in a dill pickle.) 
6 cloves of garlic (optional, but you are not eating MY pickles if you don't include it!) 
1-2 chili peppers if desired. (optional) 
Non chlorinated water
Grape or oak leaves to cover your jar. 

As you can tell my pickling recipe is very based on taste. I learned from an old Jewish recipe that is like a lot of old recipes- a splash, a dash, a shake of this or that. I did modify it for safe canning practices. 

The only things you can't adapt are the salt amount, and don't add sugar.

1) Start by inspecting your cucumbers for softness, and rot, and scraping the blossom end off the cucumber.

This is the blossom end of the cucumber. It's brown and paper and comes off easily with a butter knife, or a fingernail.

The blossom should be removed entirely.

 See the contrast? The one on the right has it's blossom end totally removed.
This is a blossom end removed.
Then give your cucumbers a good washing! This will wash away any residual blossom, or dirt. Wash them in a bowl of clear water to help refresh older cucumbers.

It can impact your ferment. If you are concerned about pesticide residue fill a large bowl with cool water and vinegar and then rinse well.

Now it's time to fill our jar! I'm using a 2 gallon Anchor Hocking glass canister for my ferments. These can be purchased for about $10 at Wal-Mart or at second hand stores. I like this jar because it has a loose fitting lid that gas can escape.

You can use pickling crocks, gallon jars, half gallon jars, quarts, or food grade buckets with lids and airlocks. Basically what I'm saying is don't go out and spend a fortune to learn to pickle. Use whatever you can get your hands on.

I add all spices, garlic and dill to the bottom of the jar to stop them from floating to the top. In pickling air creates spoilage so the more you can keep in the brine the better.

Once all of your spices are in add your salt. (We had to add more salt due to the large flake of the salt we had on hand.) The salt is a very important part of this process. It both draws the natural juices out of the vegetables, and also preserves the produce until the lactic acid takes over. DO NOT TRY TO CUT THE SALT DOWN! This is not a low salt process.

Add about 1/2 cup of filtered, non-chlorinated water to the bottom of the jar to create a strong salt brine.
Now jam your cucumbers in! They work best when you stack them length wise tight in your jar. In larger containers you can do two layers of pickles. The tighter the pickles are in the jar, the less likely they are to float when you pour your water in.

Because this jar doesn't taper at the top we put the grape leaves in between the rows of cucumbers.

This is a gallon jar, filled with two layers of cucumbers and then grape leaves are added on top.

Fill your jar to the top with water, covering all the vegetables, and put a loose fitting lid on top.
Air needs to escape your brine. If using mason jars don't use the lids, only the rings with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel inserted.

For this process I like non-chlorinated water without fluoride, but do not use distilled water.

Place your jar in a cool dark place. Pickle cultures do best in an environment between 40-74 degrees F. Any hotter and you could get yeast over growth that will soften pickles, any cooler and your ferment will slow to a crawl. If your house is hotter then 74 degrees (like mine) any glass container can be set in a bowl, or tote full of cool water to maintain a more even fermentation temperature.

Check your  ferment daily. Push any vegetables back under the brine to prevent spoilage, and make sure you scrape any scum off the top of the brine. Scum will be a off white film with out fuzzy mold, or odd colors.

Small patches of mold can form too. Gray and fuzzy is harmless but might make your ferment a little "earthier" in flavor.

This is day 2 of a pickle making. One pickle has managed to float to the top and will need to be pushed back down into the brine. Notice the bubbles, they are a good sign that your culture is working!

Fermentation time is variable based on temperature, and the longer you allow them to sit the more intense they become. Test one after a week, but it can take up to 4 weeks depending on temperature, and how fermented you like your pickle.

A finished pickle will turn olive in color, and be translucent. The brine will also be cloudy and that is okay.



Humans survival has been closely linked to determining if food is bad using our instincts. Does it look bad? Does it smell bad? Does it feel bad? Does it taste bad?
Notice the order? You have 3 senses you use before anything ever gets into your mouth. And if you still decide to taste it, a bad pickle will not be swallowed!

If a pickle has red or pink mold, an off smell, or is slimy don't eat it!

Trust me! You will know when a pickle brine as gone bad. 

But let's not end on that note! 

This is 25lbs of pickles. What are you going to do with all of those pickles? Most people don't have enough room in their fridge. You are able to can your fermented pickle! As long as your ph is under 4.6 your pickle is safe for canning! I test mine with test strips from the brewery supply store, or you can use this guide produced by the government and add vinegar to your batch: What your government says to do.

I do not personally like vinegar added my ferment, because part of the reason I ferment is to avoid the vinegar. But I do follow their canning process in the link above when I get ready to can.
Also if you notice their recipe requires a great deal more salt because of the vinegar and salt need to strike a balance. This is a newer guideline, but it is the guideline so I'm including it. Anything you do otherwise is obviously at your own (relatively low) risk. Notice also the time frame for a fermented pickle is much longer with vinegar.

And finally you should know you can ferment in spears, sandwich slices, pickle chips or whole.
Processing times will very based on how much inner flesh of the pickle is exposed because the brine will permeate faster then with whole pickles, and lactic acid will be released faster. 

I hope this helps in your pickling journey! Don't be afraid, worst case you throw away some cucumbers and start over!