Fermented Pickles - Simple, Delicious and So Healthy (Recipe)
August 8, 2023
I’d like to tell you that our kids love pickles, but “love” isn’t really a strong enough word.
Obsessed? Smitten? Addicted?
So many pickles.
And how great is that?! For a snack they are asking for a vegetable! I always had a jar in the fridge of one of the popular brands and would hand out bowls of them willy nilly.
Then one day I started looking at the ingredient list. I grew up making pickles with my mom and grandma so I assumed the list would contain cucumbers, salt, water, vinegar and probably some spices.
I was not expecting Polysorbate 80. At first, I was stumped. Polysorbate 80 is an emulsifier used to keep things like ice cream mixed together rather than separating. So why is it in pickles? To keep the yellow dye suspended in solution.
Yuck and drat! We know that feeding our bodies the best nutrition, and minimizing the junk, is the foundation of a healthy life.
To that goal, one of our family food rules is to avoid foods that we can’t re-create in our kitchen. And I absolutely have no idea how to whip up a batch of Polysorbate 80. And it’s a nasty double whammy with the dye. I allow dye in the house for birthday cake frosting and science experiments, but on a daily basis it’s just not necessary.
Now, do we break our food rules on occasion and have treats? Of course! You’ve gotta enjoy life. But with what amounts to a staple food, I put my foot down. No more emulsifiers and dyes in pickles at our house. Luckily there are a few brands of pickles available that follow our food rules and we get those on occasion.
But now for the most part we eat our own pickles – junk free and so tasty!
And not only are they free of yucky stuff, but they’re even better for us because we make fermented pickles, rather than canned, heat-treated pickles made with vinegar. Fermented pickles are a living food full of the good bacteria that make our guts healthy.
I’m talking the old school “crock” pickles that contain no vinegar and are stored in the refrigerator (since most of us no longer have root cellars).
Now, on occasion we do like making all sorts of “pickled” pickles – like kosher dills and bread and butter chips – which are made with vinegar and canned in a hot water bath for preservation.
But by far the pickles we make the most are fermented pickles, which are made without vinegar – only vegetables, water and salt are required to bring to life the naturally present lactic acid bacteria that create the fermentation process, preserve the produce, and create a zippy, bubbly, oh-so-good and good-for-you pickle.
Fermenting is one of the most important summer activities at our house, for so many reasons:
Fermenting is SO easy and fuss free.
- In my opinion, fermented vegetables are about the easiest of all methods of preserving the harvest. They are second in ease only to freezing blueberries which just get dumped into a ziptop bag and tossed in the freezer.
- Unlike canned pickles made with vinegar, there are very few requirements or rules.
- There’s no weighing of ingredients, no long ice bath steps, you don’t need special jars, you don’t have to worry that the lids won’t seal, and no need for a boiling water bath or any of the other fuss that goes along with canning. Now, I do love to can some produce (peaches, for instance, are my favorite), but when I know it’s going to take me all day to make it happen, often it just doesn’t happen.
Fermenting is versatile.
- You can use nearly any vegetable – no need to stop at cucumbers, though those are our favorite. We’ve also successfully made and enjoyed fermented beans, cabbage (sauerkraut), carrots, turnips and even raw potato (which I enjoy chopped small on salad for a crunch, but I will confess I am the only one in the house that eats them…).
- And you can make any quantity at a time. From a pint jar to a 5-gallon crock, the process is the same. This means you can try out a small jar and see if you like it before committing to a large batch. It is also particularly useful when you’re using home grown produce because you can easily process small quantities at a time as they ripen.
Fermented foods are not only delicious but also so good for our health.
- The fermentation process creates a living food full of beneficial bacteria. (When you make canned pickles with vinegar the result is tasty and shelf stable, but there are no bacteria present.)
- These bacteria are excellent for gut health. And every time we turn around, we read of new evidence that gut health = overall health.
- Yogurt, kefir, kombucha are other popular foods containing live bacteria. There are so many assaults on our gut health these days, it’s helpful to be able to consistently add some good bacteria to our system. Of all these healthy and delicious foods, fermented vegetables are by far the easiest and most fool proof.
- Basically, bacteria rule the planet. And fermented foods are full of the good guys that we want on our side.
Pretty much the only down side to fermented pickles is that you have to keep them in the refrigerator for long term storage. If you don’t refrigerate them after they’ve reached your desired “doneness”, the fermentation process will continue and eventually create mush.
We choose to dedicate a fair amount of refrigerator space to ferments, because we love them so much for all of the above reasons – and we’re usually making a bunch all at once in the summer.
But since they’re so easy, you can always just make a few small jars at a time and eat them as you go. There’s no reason you can’t have a rotation of jars bubbling away on the counter all year long.
Below you can see the natural fermentation process already in action as the liquid begin to bubble and the vegetables start to change color.
Below is my basic recipe for cucumbers, with notes about other vegetables and variations. Notice that the only required ingredients are vegetables, salt and water.
Fermented Pickle Recipe
Cucumbers (small left whole or large sliced into spears) or other vegetables
2.5 – 3 T Salt per quart of water*
Fresh dill stalks and heads (optional)
Grape leaves or horseradish leaves (optional)**
Fermenting vessel – a glass jar or a crock
Weight and cover for jar***
Choose a jar or crock that will hold your desired quantity of vegetables. Make sure it is clean.
Wash your vegetables, scrubbing if necessary to remove dirt. For cucumbers I slice off the flat scar on the bud end of the cucumber, but it’s not required. Leave cucumbers whole or slice into spears.
If using grape or horseradish leaves as a crispiness booster, pack them into the bottom of the jar. 2 leaves per quart.
Add garlic cloves (2-3 cloves per quart) and dill (1-2 stalks per quart). I’ve used dried dill when I didn’t have any fresh. You don't even have to peel the garlic. I just cut the cloves in half and throw them in.
Fill jar mostly full of cucumbers, leaving about 2” of head space.
In a measuring cup, stir together salt and water. Use 2.5 T salt per 4 cups of water.
Pour the water into the jar until the vegetables are just covered.
Weigh down the vegetables so they stay below the water. ***See ideas below.
Cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth or a dishcloth held on with a rubber band - to keep out any curious insects.
Optional – set the fermenting jar into a tub to catch any fermenting liquid that bubbles out.
Leave the jars on the counter and watch the magic of natural fermentation. After just a day or two you’ll notice the color of the vegetables start to change and you’ll see bubbles forming like in the photo above. That’s the fermentation in action!
Wait, watch, and taste until the vegetables are fermented to your desired “doneness.” I like my vegetables to stay fairly crisp but be "pickled" through. Length of time depends on the temperature in your house and the type of vegetable. For cucumbers in the warm summer, I start taste testing after about 3-5 days.
When they’re done, put them in the fridge to stop the fermentation process and preserve the crispness.
*Choosing salt – My current favorite is Redmond Real Salt, but I have successfully used sea salt, kosher salt, pickling salt and table salt. Just choose a salt that is not iodized. When using flaked kosher salt, you need to use a bit more.
**Grape and horseradish leaves contain tannins that are thought to help keep the vegetables crispy longer. I use them because I have both grape and horseradish available. However, not having them sure wouldn’t stop me from fermenting anyway as they are not required.
*** The vegetables want to float up, but need to stay submerged under the water. For fermenting in glass jars, a ziptop bag filled partly full of water works great as a weight to hold the vegetables down. For a crock, you can use a small plate or other round object weighted down with a ziptop bag of water or other heavy object. When using a plate, make sure it’s small enough that you can easily get it out of the crock.
Other vegetables – Beans can be fermented whole. Cabbage should be sliced/chopped thin. Other vegetables like turnips do best when sliced into serving size pieces as if you were putting them out on a vegetable tray with dip.
Other optional ingredient suggestions – hot peppers add a bit of spice to the fermented vegetables, as do pepper corns and sticks of horseradish root. Instead of dill you can use other herbs like rosemary.
If you want to know everything you could possibly want to know about fermentation, I suggest Sandor Katz’ The Art of Fermentation.