Tuesday, July 9, 2013


As soon as the first fresh-picked pickling cucumbers appeared at the farmers’ market, my mother was ready with her jar, dill weed, garlic and pickling salt. Naturally fermented summer pickles are hard to beat for flavor. They are ready to start fermentation after only ten minutes of preparation and are ready to eat in five days. As kids, we could hardly wait until my mother pronounced them finished and edible.

Now I follow my mother’s tradition, and during the summer season it’s rare for us not to have either a jarful in the fridge or one on the counter where natural bacteria and yeast are working diligently to ferment the cucumbers. It’s hard to believe that with such little work you can produce such good pickles in your own kitchen.

Purchase pickling cucumbers as small and as fresh as you can. If only larger ones are available, splitting them lengthwise not quite to the other end also works. You don’t have to use pickling salt, but it works better as chemicals added to table salt tend to cloud the liquid. Fresh dill weed is not always easy to find, but if all else fails, I use dried dill weed and dill seed.

The concentration of salt is critical. Two bacilli (Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc) produce lactic acid (same as in yogurt), which ferments and softens the cucumbers, and yeast from the air produce the flavor. Both bacteria and yeast tolerate a certain salt level that also inhibits the growth of other undesirable creatures. It is necessary to measure the water and salt carefully so nothing can go wrong.

The ideal fermentation temperature is 68 degrees. Pickling will still occur within a range of five degrees cooler or warmer. Below 50 degrees fermentation is slow, above 80 degrees cucumbers ferment too fast and are likely to turn soft and mushy.

Naturally Fermented Summer Pickles

2 lb (about 2 quarts) firm, fresh, unblemished pickling cucumbers, preferably not much larger than your thumb
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 sprigs fresh dill OR 3 fresh heads of dill weed
2 to 4 hot chilies, fresh or dried, slit on one side
2 Tbsp pickling (canning) salt
4 cups water
1 Tbsp dill seeds
1 Tbsp pickling spice

  1. Wash cucumbers thoroughly. If large, slice each to within ½ inch of other end along its length.
  2. Place garlic, dill, and chilies into a two-quart glass jar or crockery pot. Slip cucumbers into the jar so they stand up side by side (like people in an elevator in rush hour). Add dill seeds and pickling spice.
  3. Heat water until lukewarm, add pickling salt and stir until dissolved. Pour over cucumbers until they are totally submerged.
  4. Cover with a cheesecloth, note the date started on a label and let ferment at room temperature.
 Scrape off any scum that forms on top of the liquid. The cucumbers turn translucent and mildly tart with a pleasing fermented scent in three to five days. Start checking pickles after three days—continue testing flavor and texture daily. As soon as they are sour enough to suit your taste but still crisp, cover the jar with a lid and refrigerate.

Pickles stay firm in the refrigerator for three to four weeks but over the seeks they tend to get more sour.

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