When I was a kid, my favorite place to go with my dad wasn’t the ice cream parlor. It wasn’t the candy store, or even the toy shop. Nope, my favorite treat was to walk with him to the Pickle Barrel, a local sandwich shop, where we would pay 35 cents for….a pickle. These were no ordinary pickles, these were pickles floating around in a giant wooden barrel, pickles that a kid could chase around with a pair of tongs until they found just the right one, pickles that were crisp and bursting with salty-sour flavor. I’d find the perfect one, fish it out with the tongs, and then slip it into a white waxed-paper bag. Then, it was nothing but pure dill bliss as we walked back home.
I may have been a weird little kid…
…but there really isn’t anything quite like a really good dill pickle. Crisp and just the right balance of sour-salty, pickles satisfy that craving for snacks without giving you a lot of fat or carbs. Store bought pickles are great, but did you know that you can make pickles the traditional way at home…without vinegar (or a wooden barrel)? Natrually fermented garlic dill pickles are made simply from raw, organic cucumbers, garlic, spices, and brine. Throw a few organic grape leaves in to keep them crisp and then just let them ferment on the counter for about a week. You won’t believe how easy it is to make amazingly flavorful, crisp pickles…and not only will your pickles not lose nutrients and enzymes due to heat processing, they will also be full of healthy probiotics! Now that’s one pickle I don’t mind being in.
To make your naturally fermented dill pickles:
First choose the cucumbers carefully. Farmers’ markets are an excellent place to get pickling cucumbers, or you can grow them yourself. There are a wide variety of cucumbers out there, some are best for slicing in salads and others work well as pickles. You can read up on varieties here for a quick cucumber primer, but suffice to say you’ll want a smaller cucumber for your pickles. There are times of the year, however, when you really can’t find pickling cucumbers at the store…if that’s the case, you can try slicing and pickling any of the seedless cucumber varieties (English cucumbers are usually available). Although sliced pickles won’t be quite as crisp, they’ll still be delicious! For the pickles pictured in this article, I used Persian cucumbers…they were on sale at a local market and they were the perfect size and shape. Along with the cucumbers, you’ll need fresh organic garlic, dill, a hot pepper (if you’d like) and some grape leaves. The grape leaves contain tannins, which help keep your pickles nice and crisp. We happen to have vines in our yard, but you can buy these at a Mediterranean market. If you can’t find grape leaves, you can try one of the other non-toxic leaves that contain tannin (here’s a list). If you’d like, you can also use a little pickling spice to flavor your pickles. And, you’ll need water (use water without chlorine) and salt to make the brine.
Pack your ingredients into a large jar (I used 1/2 gallon canning jars, like this). Layer the garlic first…you’ll want to crush is slightly to release the flavor. Then drop in some dill, the pepper if you’re using it, and a grape leaf or two. Pack the cucumbers in as tightly as you can, I ended up breaking one or two in half to make them all fit (the broken ones won’t be as crisp, but are still good).
Sprinkle pickling spice over the cucumbers, and then pour brine into the jar. You’ll want to leave about an inch of head space in the jar, as it will expand and bubble during the fermentation process.
Once you’ve got your jar filled, use a grape leaf (or a weight of some kind) to keep the pickles below the level of the brine. Food below the brine will be safe from rotting, so you want to make sure your pickles are kept submerged. You can get creative with this if you don’t have any grape leaves…a small food grade plastic lid with something heavy on top would also work.
I know it’s kind of silly, but I found a certain amount of joy in the way these pickles looked sitting on my kitchen counter. I mean, food is functional, certainly, but isn’t it wonderful when it’s also beautiful? Homemade pickles are so fresh and green, and although they darken as they ferment they never really lose their color the way that heat-packed pickles do. These are fresh, raw cucumbers full of healthy green goodness, without the life cooked out of them. And if you’ve ever slaved in a hot kitchen, with the water canner boiling enough humidity into the air to cause your kitchen ceiling to start to rain, you’ll really appreciate how very easy making fermented pickles really is!
Now comes the really difficult part…
..you have to wait, looking at these deliciously beautiful pickles on your counter…for a whole week! The natural yeast on the vegetables will cause the pickles to ferment, releasing gas into the jar and giving the pickles a wonderful sour flavor. One note of caution…there really will be gas building up in those jars. I like to use a fermenting lid which lets air out but not in, but if you don’t have one you can just tightly cap the pickles and then unscrew the lids once a day to “burp” the jars and prevent too much gas from building up. One really cool side effect to this process is that your pickles will be fizzy…yep, carbonated pickles! When you open them, you’ll see all sorts of bubbles rushing to the top. You can see a little bit of this effect in the photo below (it turned out to be pretty hard to capture with the camera).
Another thing you will notice is that the brine in your fermented pickles will go from crystal clear to cloudy. This is also normal, and is a good indicator that your pickles are doing what they are supposed to do. Once you put them in the fridge, the cloudiness should settle. This is just the wonderful lactobacillius doing their thing, which is why these pickles are so good for you. The best way to get healthy probiotics into your diet is by eating foods that contain them naturally…how much more fun are pickles than pills?
Once you’ve waited a week, go ahead and try your pickles. Wow! These are really, really good. And I’m a bit of a pickle snob (I did, after all, grow up on Pickle Barrel pickles) so you can trust me when I say, naturally fermented pickles are the way to go! So crisp, and full of flavor. I have a feeling that I’m going to be pickling a whole lot of vegetables in the future…this process could not be easier or more rewarding!
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Photography by Jennifer Leung Johnson