Old-Fashioned Fermented Dill Pickles
Makes 3-4 quarts
During the late summer months when cucumbers are plentiful these simple fermented pickles are a staple in my kitchen. Over the years, the reassuring advice of Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods has encouraged me to keep trying – even when the results were “imperfect” to say the least. They need a few minutes of your attention everyday throughout the fermentation process – and remembering to check them is perhaps the biggest secret to success! This recipe is based on Katz’ priceless advice for making sour pickles.
Look for freshly-picked cucumbers that are not scratched or bruised. Small, uniformly sized vegetables are ideal, but not required. The cucumbers can be a variety of sizes, just make sure that they are less than about 4 inches long and about 2 inches in diameter (see cooks note for instructions on larger cucumbers). In a mixed batch, the smaller cucumbers will be ready to eat with less fermentation time, while larger cucumbers will require further fermenting. Simply follow the advice in Wild Fermentation and eat the small ones first!
3-4 pounds small to medium un-waxed cucumbers
7 tablespoons coarsely ground unrefined sea salt or 6 tablespoons finely ground unrefined rock salt such as Himalayan pink salt or Real salt (see cooks note)
8 cups well, spring, or filtered water, plus more for washing and soaking the cucumbers
2-3 large grape leaves or cabbage leaves
3-4 heads of dill, or 4 tablespoons dried dill weed and/or seeds (see cooks note)
2 heads garlic, peeled (see cooks note)
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
Wash the cucumbers well, being sure to remove any blossoms still attached to the vegetables. If they were not harvested that day, soak the cucumbers in cool water for about 15 minutes.
In a large bowl or pitcher combine the salt and 8 cups of water. Use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture until the salt is fully dissolved, about 2 minutes. Line a one-gallon glass jar or crock with the grape or cabbage leaves. Set aside one large leaf for making a cover for the pickles. (The tannins in grape or cabbage leaves are crucial to making the finished pickles crunchy.) Place the dill, garlic, and peppercorns in the bottom of the jar. Add the cucumbers, stacking them tightly as you go. Slowly pour in the brine. Use the reserved grape or cabbage leaf to cover the pickles. Tuck the sides of the leaf down into the jar. Skim any spices that may have floated to the top during this process.
Place a weight over the leaf. If you are using a jar, find another smaller jar that will fit inside to use as a weight. Fill the smaller jar with water (and cap tightly) to increase the pressure. If you are using a crock, you may have a specially-made, flat, round weight that fits perfectly inside. Otherwise, use an appropriately sized plate with a jar of water for added pressure. It is important that all of the vegetables be fully submerged under the brine. The fermentation process must happen in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.
Cover the pickles with a closely woven towel and secure tightly with a string or rubber band. Store them at room temperature (about 70-75 degrees F). The pickles may take as little as 3-4 days or up to 2 weeks to fully ferment. If your kitchen is warmer – as it is apt to be during cucumber season – the fermentation time will be shorter.
It is important to check the pickles every day. Skim any film that appears on top of the brine. If the film is excessive you may want to rinse it from the plate and/or weight. After 2 days begin to check the taste of the pickles each day. To taste, remove a small slice from one of the smaller pickles. It should be tart, salty, and infused with garlic and dill. If it tastes bland, then more fermentation time is needed. It is normal for the brine to become cloudy as the pickles ferment.
When the taste is pleasantly tart the pickles should be tightly covered and transferred to the refrigerator. The weight can be removed, but keep the pickles submerged under the leaf cover while in the refrigerator. Fermentation is slowed, but not stopped in cold storage. The taste of the pickles is stable for about 2 months in the refrigerator, and after that becomes increasingly sour.
Many varieties of cucumbers remain relatively seed-free and tender as they become larger. Traditional pickling varieties like the Parisian Pickling should not be used when they are oversized and seedy, but larger slicing varieties like the English cucumber can easily be pickled when properly prepared. Cut larger cucumbers into 4-inch segments, then slice them lengthwise into 4 spears. Then, proceed as called for in the recipe above.
Mineral-rich unrefined sea salt has a lower sodium content and larger crystal size than other unrefined salts. If you choose to use sea salt, then remember to use slightly more, as called for to maintain the 5.4% salinity suggested in Wild Fermentation.
Fresh dill is often harvested as a whole plant, roots and all. Keep the plant at room temperature with the roots submerged in water until you are ready to use it. It will keep well, refreshed with more water as needed, for about 5 days.
Use 2 entire heads of garlic. Peel the individual cloves.