Growing up in Poland, I fell in love with homemade sour pickles – especially ones that were naturally fermented. The pickles sold in America are cucumbers preserved in vinegar. My idea of a pickle is a cucumber that’s been naturally fermented in a brine solution. The most common place to find them in the U.S. is at Jewish delis or overpriced foodie spots, but these places usually only give you one, or even just half of a pickle, so I’m always left craving more! If you ask for extra pickles, they charge you like you’ve ordered a fine steak. Well, being Polish means being frugal, and I refuse to pay a crazy markup for pickled cucumber that literally costs a dime to make. So I wait for cucumber season to make my own homemade pickles, and now you can too!
Pickling cucumbers are available at farmers markets and many chain grocery stores. If you have a yard, you can even grow your own, as they’re not a finicky vegetable. Pickle making, however, does require close attention. You don’t want to end up with soft, unappealing, smelly pickles that fall apart when you touch them. A good pickle should be crunchy with balanced acidity and saltines. I also like mine to have a little spicy kick, so I add Thai chili to the brine.
When it comes to optimal pickle crunchiness, I’ve learned a few tricks from my mom. Adding sour cherry leaves, horseradish, oak and grape leaves is an old-school, but effective ways to keep pickles crunchy. I have never seen sour cherry in California, but there are plenty of oak and grape leaves all around the state, so I just use those along little pieces of horseradish root.
Quality and size of the cucumbers also plays a big role in the fermentation process. I prefer small- to medium-sized pickles. The really big ones can be too seedy, hollow in the middle and spongy in texture. You should look for cucumbers that are as small as possible, bright green, hard when you touch them with scuff-free, healthy skin. The uniformity of size isn’t that important. You can always eat the smaller ones first as the larger ones will take longer to ferment.
It’s also important to experiment with brine strength and surrounding temperature, as those are the key factors in the process of fermentation. My general rule of thumb is 6 tablespoons of salt per 2 quarts of water and 4 pounds of cucumbers. More salt slows down microorganism action in summer heat. Less salt is good if the temperatures are lower. On hot days of 80-90’s degrees, fermentation happens so fast that “lightly salted dill pickles” are ready in 24-48 hours. The pickles in this recipe are not too salty, as they are meant to be eaten within one week. But the longer you keep them in the brine, the more sour, salty and smelly they become.
And one last thing— the container. To ferment your pickles, make sure to use only glass jars or ceramic crocks with a lid.
Homemade, fermented cucumber pickles
- 4 lbs cucumbers (as small as possible)
- 2 quarts of filtered water
- 6 tbs sea salt
- big bunch of fresh dill with thick stems (or dried dill heads with seeds)
- 2 to 3 heads garlic, peeled
- handful of grape leaves (alternate with sour cherry, oak leaves)
- 1 tsp of yellow mustard seeds
- 4 small Thai chili (dried or fresh)
- 3 inches horseradish root or or 1 handful of horseradish leaves (if available)
- 1/2 tbs black peppercorns
Now follow these steps:
- Wash cucumbers thoroughly, removing ones that are spongy in texture or have bruising. Make sure to remove blossoms and stems.
- Soak cucumbers for a couple of hours in very cold water to freshen them.
- Peel horseradish and cut into long matchsticks.
- Bring water to a boil and stir in sea salt until thoroughly dissolved to create brine solution (it should taste very over-salted).
- Clean a one-gallon glass jar or ceramic crock using boiling water. Place some of the dill, garlic, horseradish, grape leaves (or alternate leaves), Thai chilies, black peppercorns and mustard seeds at the bottom, then cover with a layer of cucumbers (pack them tightly). Repeat with another layer of spices, then another layer of cucumbers until all ingredients fill the jar.
- Pour brine over the cucumbers, then place a small ceramic plate (or another small, ceramic object) over them to keep them submerged in the brine. Secure the lid on the jar and store in a cool, dark place.
- Check the contents of your jar daily. If the temperature is 80 degrees or higher, your cucumbers should become “lightly salted dill pickles” in just two days. If you prefer them saltier and more acidic, keep fermenting them longer, skimming away any mold from the surface and tasting them daily until they’re to your liking.
- Once the pickles have reached your preferred level of sourness, move the jar to the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation.