This time of year, you can often find baskets of pickling cucumbers at your local farmers market. Compared to slicing cucumbers available in supermarkets year-round, this thin-skinned, stubby variety enjoys a relatively short season that lasts only a few weeks. Those few precious weeks of late summer just so happen to coincide with when dill blooms. It’s a natural harmony that marks the beginning of pickle season.
You might remember your grandmother standing over a hot stove, packing cucumbers into jars with vinegar, salt, and dill before canning them in a bath of boiling water. It’s a tradition that preserves the bounty of summer for use during winter’s leaner months. Canning and pickling kept families fed when food was scarce due to economic challenges and food shortages. During both world wars, the federal government encouraged growing gardens and making pickles. Homemakers took up the challenge, considering it an act of both thrift and patriotism.
Yet, there’s a tradition that stretches back much further. The first pickles, which date back to at least 4,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, were fermented, rather than pickled in vinegar and canned.
Traditional sour pickles are made by packing them in saltwater brine and letting them ferment. This process encourages the proliferation of beneficial bacteria—the same kind you might find in yogurt or sauerkraut. As these good bacteria metabolize the carbohydrates in your cucumbers, they release an abundance of B vitamins as well as lactic acid. The lactic acid gives the pickles their sour taste and preserves them for long-term storage.
While the process may sound complicated, it’s practically effortless. These are the easiest pickles you’ll ever make.
Unlike the slicing cucumbers that you would find at the grocery store, pickling cucumbers have a bumpy texture and a matte green color.
Head to your local farmers market and look for the freshest cucumbers you can find. They should feel uniformly firm, free from mushy spots or wrinkled ends. Cucumbers that are about 4 to 5 inches in length work perfectly for traditional sour pickles. Their color should be a rich, deep green, though you may see a small spot of yellow if the cucumber grew against the ground.
Once you have cucumbers, plop them in your sink and soak them in cold water. A gentle scrub to remove debris helps as well. Finally, dry them by hand, and they’ll be ready to ferment.
Dill, Garlic, and More
To make sour pickles, you’ll also add dill, garlic, and pickling spices to your jar. While a sprig of dill leaf works just fine, try looking for flowering dill at your farmers market. Dill flowers radiate from a central stalk in a large starburst of tiny yellow flowers, and they have a penetrating aroma that’ll make your pickles taste delicious. Fresh garlic adds a pungent punch, while pickling spices such as coriander and black pepper round out the flavor.
A horseradish, grape, or oak leaf added to the jar will keep your pickles crisp. These leaves don’t add much in flavor, but they’re high in tannins. Tannins are an astringent plant compound that can improve the texture of fermented pickles. If you can’t find any of these, use a spoonful of black tea leaves, instead.
Crocks, Jars, and Safe Fermentation
To make sour pickles, you’ll need a crock or jar. While pickles are traditionally made in large stoneware crocks that can hold several gallons, you can still make them in small batches. A quart-sized glass jar, such as a Fido jar with a clamp or a mason jar with a tight-fitting plastic lid, works well.
Keep in mind that beneficial bacteria will release carbon dioxide during fermentation, which can build up in a sealed jar. Veteran pickle makers solve this issue by using an airlock or fermentation seal, as you would in winemaking, to release the excess gas. In the absence of an airlock, make sure to burp your jars daily. Simply open them briefly to allow the excess gas to escape, then close them again.
To keep your ferments safe and prevent the formation of mold, you’ll also have to shake your jars daily. Alternatively, you can invest in glass fermentation weights that keep your cucumbers under the brine and safely fermenting.
As the pickles ferment, the brine may turn cloudy, and you may see sediment at the bottom of the jar. Both are normal signs of fermentation. Your pickles should taste pleasantly sour when they’re ready: That might be as little as a week if you prefer a light sourness or as long as a month if you prefer a more robust flavor. Discard pickles if they have a slimy texture or smell or if they taste putrid or have visible signs of mold on the brine’s surface. Store pickles in a jar in the fridge for up to 6 months.
Traditional Sour Pickles
Sharply sour and infused with the intense flavor of dill and garlic, these sour pickles are made the traditional way, by allowing cucumbers to ferment in a saltwater brine.
Makes 1 quart
- 4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 pounds pickling cucumbers (4- to 5-inch)
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 tablespoons pickling spice
- 3 heads flowering dill (or sub 1/2 cup fresh dill leaves)
- 1 horseradish, grape, or oak leaf (or sub a spoonful of black tea leaves)
Pour the water into a saucepan. Set it on the stove, and then turn up the heat to medium-high. Stir in the sea salt until it dissolves fully, then allow the water to cool to room temperature.
Trim the cucumbers of any tough stems and flower ends and place them in a bowl. Cover them with cold water to refresh them, at least 20 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Drain the cucumbers and place them into a clean quart-sized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Drop in the garlic and spices, then slide the horseradish leaf and dill into the jar. Cover the cucumbers with the saltwater brine, discarding any additional brine. Seal the jar.
Ferment the pickles at room temperature. Burp (open briefly and then close) and shake the jar daily, letting the cucumbers ferment until they turn from a vivid to a dull green, at least 1 week and up to 1 month. They should smell pleasantly sour.
Eat the pickles right away, or store them in the fridge for up to 6 months.
This recipe originally appeared on NourishedKitchen.com. Reprinted with express permission of the author.