I’m out of control, you guys…
Since my foray into homemade sauerkraut earlier this year, I’m now on a kick to ferment everything…
I have to admit, it helps that I’m no longer scared of the whole process, and have learned that fermented foods don’t taste gross– as long as they are done right.
My homemade fermented ketchup boosted my confidence even further, so I hunted down some pickling cucumbers at the Farmer’s Market (the ones in my garden aren’t ready yet…) and have dove head-first into the salty world of old-fashioned brined pickles.
And my oh my, I am so glad I did.
But first, in case you’re wondering about the whole brined pickles vs. fermented pickles vs. vinegar pickles thing, here’s a quick run-down:
Three Ways to Make Pickles
- Fermented/Brine Pickles: These are the ones we’re making today. Fermented pickles rely on good old-fashioned salt and beneficial bacteria to make things happen. The best part about a fermented pickle recipe? It’s easy to make as little (or as much) as you need, and they are packed-full of probiotic benefit.
- Vinegar Refrigerator Pickles: These guys are also simple to make, however, they will be lacking in the probiotic department. Instead of using the fermenting process, refrigerator pickles rely on vinegar for that traditional pickle tang.
- Traditional Canned Vinegar Pickles: I’ve made a whole lotta canned pickles in my preservation career thus far. The benefits of canned pickles is that you can put up big batches at once and they will be shelf-stable for long periods of time. The downside? The high-temps ruin any beneficial bacteria and a lot of the nutrients.
Why Use an Airlock Fermenting System?
Airlocks make the fermenting process even more fool-proof (especially for beginners) by reducing the the chance of mold, and allowing the ferment to release gases without you having to “burp” it. Can you ferment without an airlock? Sure, but to me, an airlock seems like cheap insurance for a better end result.
There are a number of air lock systems out there, but I’ve been loving the Fermentools system. It fits right onto mason jars so I don’t have to buy a bunch of special jars, and it makes it easy to make big batches (I did several 1/2 gallon jars with this pickle recipe, and it didn’t take any extra work or equipment to make it happen). I’ve been working with Matt from Fermentools for a while now and he’s been totally helpful as I’ve navigated my first adventures into fermenting.
Fermented Pickle Recipe
You will need (per quart jar):
- Small pickling cucumbers*
- 1-2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon mustard seed
- 10 peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1-2 heads of fresh dill (or 1 tablespoon dill seed, if you prefer)
- Sea salt and water to make 2% brine solution (instructions below)
*It might be tempting to try to use the larger, slicing cucumbers to make pickles, but don’t. They are mostly water and will give you a mushy, limp result. Your local farmer’s market should have loads of pickling cucumbers if you can’t grow them yourself, and you’ll be glad you went to the extra trouble to find them.
How to Make 2% Brine:
Dissolve 1 tablespoon fine sea salt in 4 cups non-chlorinated water. If you don’t use all of the brine for this recipe, it will keep indefinitely in the fridge.
I always use sea salt for my brines, but kosher salt or canning salt will work too. Just avoid iodized salts.
The finer the salt, the less stirring you must to do to dissolve, which is niiiiiiice. I particularly like the ultra-fine salt from Fermentools.com, as it dissolves almost immediately (and comes with a super-handy chart on the front of the bag.)
The Pickle Recipe:
Start with very clean jars.
Add the garlic, mustard seed, peppercorns, bay leaf, and dill to each jar.
Wash your cucumbers thoroughly and discard any that are mushy or soft. Remove the blossom end from each cucumber, and pack them into the jars. I prefer to leave my cucumbers whole, as it seems to give a crunchier end result.
Cover the cucumbers completely with the 2% brine solution.
Add a weight to the jar to keep the cukes from floating to the top. (I use the handy glass weights from Fermentools, but you can get creative with whatever you have on hand.)
Add the air lock assembly (or regular lid if that’s what you’re using), and set aside to ferment at room temperature for 5-7 days. Keep in mind, the warmer your kitchen, the faster the fermenting process.
After the initial fermenting process is over, remove the airlock, cover with a regular lid, and store at 32-50 degrees for up to six months. (I’m keeping mine in my fridge.) The pickles will continue to slowly ferment and improve in flavor during the storage process. After about six months, they will start to slowly degrade, but will absolutely still be edible. However, I’m betting they’ll be long-gone before then.
Fermented Pickles: What’s Normal?
Your fermented pickles might look a little bit different than the home-canned pickles you’re used to. Here’s what to expect:
- Cloudy brine, often getting cloudier as time progresses.
- Fizziness! Fizzy pickles are totally normal and just a sign things are working as they should.
- Liquid leaking out of the jar. Again, this is a normal process of fermentation. However, you can sometimes avoid it by making sure you don’t add too much brine to your jars.
- Lots of bubbles = happy pickles
- Pleasant sour taste. Fermented pickles have a slightly different tang than vinegar pickles. However, my kiddos are still gobbling them up.
If your ferments ever end up with a disgusting or putrid smell, that’s a good indication to toss them.
I Want Crunchy Pickles!
Ain’t nobody likes a mushy pickle…
It’s a problem that has plagued pickle-makers for centuries: how do you find a pickle recipe that results in perfectly crisp cukes?
I’ve experimented with this quite a bit, and have found loads of little tricks to keep pickles crisp. Here’s a short list– keep in mind you don’t have to use ALL of them– sometimes just one or two tweaks makes all the difference.
- Use small, firm cucumbers. This is hands-down the most important! If you start with a mushy cucumber, you’ll end up with mushy pickles. Always, always select the smallest, most firm cucumbers and leave the big soft ones out of the pickle jar.
- Jar them immediately after picking, or as soon as possible. Going straight from the vine to the jar is the best. However, I’ve still had good results using farmer’s market cukes– providing they are firm when I buy them, and I don’t leave them on the counter for days and days.
- Soak cukes in an ice water bath for a couple hours. An icy bowl of water tends to really help firm them up.
- Cut off the blossom end of cucumber. The blossom-end is said to contain enzymes which can cause mushy pickles. Removing it is your best bet.
- Add tannins to the jar. This may include oak leaves, grape leaves, or black tea. Honestly? This trick is always recommended, but I’ve had hit-or-miss results with it… If you have oak leaves or grape leaves handy, it definitely can’t hurt to toss one in each jar. Or, add a 1/2 teaspoon of loose black tea to each jar.
- Add alum, food-grade lime, or Ball’s Pickle Crisp. I don’t like adding alum to my pickles (aka aluminum), and have never gone to the trouble of finding lime or using Pickle Crisp, so I can’t say for sure if these options really work. Although you’ll find a lot of folks recommending these additives, I’d rather just stick to the other ideas on this list.
Fermented Pickle Notes:
- Want to keep things super simple? You can ditch everything in this recipe but the cucumbers and brine. Seriously! That’s the best thing about pickles– tailor them to your taste preferences and what spices you have on hand.
- My Fermentools airlocks makes it super easy to make larger batches of pickles– especially in my half-gallon jars. However, if you only have a handful of cukes, you can still jar them up to ferment in small batches.
- Can I use whey in my ferments? Yes, some folks use raw whey in their fermented vegetable recipes to jump-start the fermenting process. However, I haven’t found whey to be necessary, and I like the flavor a simple salt brine brings to a recipe.
Where to Buy Fermenting Stuff?
I’ve been totally impressed with my Fermentools equipment. Here’s why:
- The airlocks work with the jars I already have.
- You can easily make big batches of fermented foods with little hassle (no lugging around heavy crocks, either)
- Their glass weights are super nice to just pop into my mason jars so the food doesn’t float out of the brine and get gross.
- There’s a super-handy chart on the front of their ultra-fine powdered salt bags to help you figure out exactly how much you need for the perfect brine
This post is sponsored by Fermentools, which means they sent me one of their air lock systems so I could try it out. However, like everything I promote here on The Prairie Homestead, I don’t promote it unless I’m actually using it and loving it, which is absolutely the case here.