There are many ways to make pickles, including easy refrigerator or freezer pickles, or simple canned pickles. Or, you can go for the gold and make fermented dill pickles with your homegrown cucumbers. I make pickles all four ways, and there is no question that the fermented probiotic pickles are the best.
After making fermented dill pickles for many years, I’ve honed the procedure into a project anyone can undertake with a good chance at success. By following the 10 steps below, you can transform your organic cucumbers into probiotic pickles that are addictively delicious. My method results in “half sours,” which resemble the pricey pickles in health food store refrigerators. Cucumbers come from the garden laden with naturally-occurring lacto-bacilli, so you don’t need a special starter culture.
How to Make Fermented Dill Pickles
1. Collect small, whole cucumbers as they come from the garden, storing them in the refrigerator. You will need about 2 pounds (1kg) to make a 2-quart batch. Pickling cucumbers are best, but any small cucumbers will do.
2. Fill two, 1-quart (800ml) jars with warm water. Add 2 tablespoons (28g) salt to each jar, and stir to dissolve. Taste the mixture, which should taste as almost as salty as sea water. Try to memorize this taste, which is a 4 percent salt level.
3. Scrub cucumbers lightly under cool running water. Pack them into a clean, wide-mouth, 2-quart (1.6 liter) glass jar or other fermentation container. As you fill the jar, layer in flower heads or branches from dill, and five peeled cloves of garlic. Pour the cooled brine over the cucumbers, leaving two inches (5cm) between the liquid and the top of the jar.
4. To keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine while allowing excess gases to escape, fill a small plastic zip-closure food storage bag halfway with water, close it, and tuck it into the mouth of the jar. Place the fermentation jar on a plate, or in a broad bowl. Allow to sit at room temperature overnight. The brine level will rise as the salt forces juices from the cucumbers, so expect some spillover for the first couple of days.
5. After two days, remove the bag and pour off about two inches (5cm) of brine. Taste the brine, which will probably need more salt because of water exchange with the cucumbers. Mix 1 tablespoon (14g) salt with 1 pint (400ml) of warm water, allow to cool, and use it to top off your fermented dill pickles. Jiggle to mix, and taste a few drops for saltiness.
6. For the best probiotic pickles, use a cooler chilled with a frozen plastic water bottle as a fermentation chamber, starting on the third day. Changing out the frozen bottle once a day will keep the cooler’s interior at 55-60°F (13-15°C) which is the ideal range for fermentation bacteria.
7. Check the pickles daily. Push down any floating cucumbers, rinse and replace the bag, and use a spoon to remove any surface scum. Taste a drop of brine for saltiness, and adjust as needed. The salt level usually stays constant after day 4.
8. Taste a small cucumber after 5 to 6 days. The rind should have lost its bright green color, and the interior of the cucumber should look more translucent than white. Should the brine become so cloudy that white residue settles on the pickles, this is another sign that they are ready to prep for the fridge.
9. Prepare a clean 2-quart (1.6 liter) jar. If you have a fresh grape leaf, place it in the bottom along with an umbel of fresh dill. Gently rinse each cucumber and garlic clove under cool running water, and pack into the new jar. Discard the old dill, replacing it with fresh material.
10. Make a new brine, this time using 1 tablespoon (14g) salt per quart (800ml) of water. Cover the repacked pickles with the fresh brine, screw on a lid, and refrigerate. The fermented dill pickles will continue to mature in the refrigerator, mellowing in flavor, but they are at their delicious probiotic peak during their first two weeks under refrigeration.