Friday, October 12, 2012

Raw Lacto-fermented Dill Pickles

   Pickles along with many other fermented foods, have roots in history as some of the most valuable, health supporting foods. Unfortunately in today's society we are accustomed to eating, cooked, artificially flavored and preserved pickles that don't provide any of the health benefits that fermented pickles have.  A process called canning requires you to cook foods before preserving, killing bad bacteria but also killing the beneficial bacteria that make fermented pickles much healthier. There are many different ways to make pickles but today I will show you how to make vinegar free, lacto-fermented, raw(uncooked) pickles without the use of whey or similar starter cultures. This simple traditional method is an alternative to the modern canning process that keeps all nutrients and enzymes intact with the use of a salt and water brine.

Researching different pickling techniques and studying cellular respiration has helped me to better understand this incredible process and also gave me the knowledge to reduce the risk of making bad batches. Pickling is an art, it takes a little knowledge and patience but the reward is a flavorful crisp bite to the tongue like you've never tasted before. I grew up on store bought pickles, no past generations to teach me and no prior childhood memories of fermenting anything. If I can do it you can do it and I'm here to help you, health is the number one goal. A homemade life isn't necessarily hard but it isn't easy either. I had to change all of my habits and become more organized to get everything done but hey that's not a bad thing.

The Bacteria Behind That Healthy Tang

    The purpose of fermentation is to preserve foods by promoting a naturally occurring healthy living bacteria such as lactobacillus. Lactobacilli converts lactose and other sugars into lactic acid, consequently creating an acidic environment, robbing bad bacteria of food; thus, killing them off and preventing spoilage for long periods of time. During this transition time we must eliminate the bad bacteria and help the good bacteria thrive. This means oxygen must also be absent to prevent contamination from yeast and other undesirable microorganisms. A salt water brine along with spices are added to draw out moisture to further eliminate growth of bad bacteria and to keep the vegetables as crisp as possible. The 2 main by-products of this particular lacto-fermentation is lactic acid and carbon dioxide. We must release carbon dioxide and oxygen but mustn't allow oxygen back in, there are many different ways to do this, I will show you the easiest way with common household products. Probiotics or "lactobacillus already live in our intestines, on our skin, in our muscles and on the skins of various fresh fruits and vegetables. Probiotics are said to have the potential to heal diseases such as IBS, Crohn's disease, diarrhea, eczema and more. If there is any reason at all to take the time to make your own pickles it's because you want the benefits.

Past Batches: The Outcomes    

My first batch of pickles consisted of cucumbers, fresh dill, carrots, garlic, bell peppers and onions. The salt brine contained mustard seed, allspice, clove, bay leaf, peppercorn and a few other goodies that kept everything crisp and tasting amazing.  I was so happy with the 1st batch I decided to make another but this time I used sour spinach as layers, it added a sourness that I really enjoyed! I will probably use it every time now! I decided not to add in the carrots and bell peppers because that meant less pickles and that was my favorite part. For the 2nd batch the summer drought proved challenging for finding fresh dill but I did happen to find dried flowering dill seed, this also worked seemingly well, except as you can see in the picture I should have put all the spices at the bottom so I wouldn't have to pick all the dill seeds off. For the third batch I put all the same spices on the bottom this time with layered cucumbers, asian sorrel, garlic, onions and the returning fresh dill.  This was by far the best batch of pickles and so this will be the recipe I post here. Experiment and have fun, with a little persistence you can ferment all sorts of fresh ingredients to make some of your favorite dishes for cheaper! A few things you should not experiment with are deciding not to sterilize your jars, salt to water ratios, and not using fresh ingredients. All these things have the potential to spoil a batch and possibly make you sick.

Yield: 1 gallon of pickles
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Ferment Time: 5-7 days
Tools Needed: 
1 gallon jar or 4 quart jars, knife, freezer bag, rubber band

Tips For Choosing The Best Ingredients

-Pick the smallest and firmest cucumbers with the most warts.
-Buy all produce from the farmers market to make sure you are getting the freshest available.
-The fresher the ingredients the crunchier they will be. Which means just picked off the vine is best.
-Buying in the fall time has many benefits such as an abundance of harvested foods at a cheap price.
-Ask the farmer if they are chemical free or try to find organic if you must go to a supermarket.
-Save time and money by looking for pickling mix in the dried spices and herbs bulk section.
-These ingredients are best fresh when possible: dill, garlic and onion.
-Use only kosher, mineral or sea salt. No iodized salt allowed.

Ingredients- All these ingredients are optional and can be experimented with
approximately 15 small pickling cucumbers
1 large onion
1 head of garlic
1 bunch of grape leaves, horseradish leaves, or sour cherry leaves.
    ^These ingredients help the pickles stay crunchy but they are not absolutely necessary especially if you cut of the blossom ends of the cucumber.

Salt to Water Ratio: 1 cup salt to 1 gallon or 4 quarts water.

1/8 cup pickling spice
      -or 1 tbsp each -mustard seed, allspice, clove, bay leaf, peppercorn, cinnamon, etc.

The sour spinach with the red stems on the left hand side are so sour and delicious, 
it makes an excellent pickle companion.

6 Step Instructions

Step 1. Boil water to sanitize a gallon mason jar or 4 quart mason jars. Leave a 1/2 gallon of water out on the counter for 24 hours to dechlorinate or boil for 10 minutes. Chlorine will kill beneficial bacteria.

Step 2. Make the salt brine. 
     -Bring the 2 quarts of dechlorinated water almost to a boil.
     -Stir in 1 cup salt until it dissolves
     -Let cool until room temperature or put a few filtered ice cubes in to speed up the process.

Step 3. Wash cut and prep all ingredients, 
     -Cut off the blossom end of the pickles. (This will also help them stay crunchy)
     -Poke holes in the cucumber with a fork.
     -I like to quarter the larger cucumbers. (They tend to be less crunchy when sliced but still a great.)

Step 4: Layer all of your ingredients, trying to pack them as tightly as possible.
-leaves of choice
-repeat until you have about 3 inches of head space.

Step 5: Pour your room temperature brine into the jar until you have an inch or 2 of head space left.
-Poke the pickles with something such as a clean wooden chopstick to release as much oxygen as you can. The pickles may float to the surface if it was not packed tight enough.

Step 6: Releasing carbon dioxide

There are many ways to do this. The simplest option is finding a plate or lid that fits inside of the jars mouth to push the pickles down. Unfortunately this is harder than it sounds since I have yet to find a perfect match. The other way is to buy pickling lids. I have read they are very effective and mess free but the problem is you would have to buy 4 lids for 4 quart jars because it does not fit wide mouth gallon jars. I usually make 2 gallons at a time so this does not work for me. If you plan to make small batches this may be the best option for you. There is also the option to just put the cap on and call it good but I have not tried this and from looking at pictures the pickle juice tends to get very cloudy. Plus the carbon dioxide would build up and you would have to monitor it very closely so it does not explode. I have been using the freezer bag method and it has worked every time.

-Put the jar on a plate to catch any spillage.
-Fill 1 bottom corner of a freezer bag with filtered water and close shut
-Put the water filled corner into the pickling jar and secure around the lid with a rubber band.
-Use a cloth, coffee filter or paper towel to cover the bag and rubber band again for extra protection.
The bag should be pushing the pickles down and allowing excess oxygen to escape. while the cloth adds outside invasion protection.
Let the pickles sit in a dark, well ventilated area for 5-7 days.
The warmer it is the faster it ferments, the cooler it is the longer it takes to ferment.
You can check on them and taste them as often as necessary until it is the desired sourness.

Additional Information
Perfect Temperature 86-104 degrees F
Perfect PH Balance: 4.5
Light kills lactic acid bacteria.
If it smells anything but wonderful throw it out.



  1. The liquid from my pickles turned cloudy after a few days. What does that mean?

    1. The white sediment is a natural and healthy by-product of the lactic acid fermentation and gives a cloudy appearance to the brine.