Culture Your Cukes: Lacto-Fermented Pickles

My pickling cukes are starting to come on, which means it’s time to get cozy with your friend and mine – the beneficial microbe! I am a tremendous fan of pickling through lacto-fermentation. Think of it as yogurt making with vegetables.
Beneficial bacteria chomps down on the natural sugars and starches in the vegetable and converts it to tasty lactic acid. This is the traditional way to make sauerkraut, kim chi, and sour pickles.
Lacto fermentation is fast, easy and doesn’t involve any canning. It’s a great first preservation technique.
I use Sandor Katz’s recipe for Sour Pickles from Wild Fermentation. Read his extensive discussion about the hows and whys of lacto-fermentation on his website. Nourishing Traditions also talks a bunch about lacto-fermenting and gives several great recipes.
First I pick a peck of pickles (or as many as the vines will yield) and a handful of fresh grape leaves. If I have fresh dill seed heads I’ll pick those too, otherwise I gather up dill seed, fresh garlic and any other spices that seem like they’d be tasty with pickles: mustard seed, allspice, bay leaf, peppercorns and chili if you like it hot all seem to work well.
I mix up a brine of 2 liters water and 6 tablespoons sea salt and add in all the dry spices I’m using. If I have some around from yogurt making, I’ll substitute a few tablespoons of whey in place of an equal amount of water to get the ferment going. Everything gets a good stir so the salt dissolves. I get a large, clean glass jar or crock ready to fill.
I arrange the cucumbers, grape leaves and garlic in the jar and pour the brine and spices over the top. Since the jar wasn’t packed full, all the spices settle to the bottom eventually.
In order to keep the pickles from floating to the top, I fill a plastic ziplock bag full of leftover brine and push it into the jar. This keeps everything underwater, which is important. If the cukes float half-out of the brine, they’ll get moldy.
Over the next week, as I harvest more cucumbers I just rinse them and toss them in the brine. As you can see from the background of this picture, you don’t need to stop at cucumbers. I have beans and a mix of peppers and carrots lacto-fermenting on the counter too.

 

The pickles will get increasingly sour over time. The warmer the temperature, the faster they will ferment. When they are uniformly dull green (you know, pickle color) all the way through instead of opaque and pale inside, they are done. At that point you can start to eat them or let them continue to ferment. I keep mine in the fridge to slow fermentation changes way down when they get the way I like ‘em, but a cool root celler situation is traditional.
Once you get comfortable with the ideas behind fermentation preservation you’ll want to branch out. So far, spicy turnip pickles are my favorite ferment. This year I want to try a cultured salsa recipe too.
Have you tried lacto-fermenting? What foods do you preserve this way?
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Comments

  1. says

    What I like about this method is it allows me to bring in the cucumbers from the garden as they grow and continue adding to the jar. Even though I planted a huge amount of cukes, I'll have to buy a large bag from the farm to make my garlic dills and bread and butters.

  2. says

    Laura – refrigerated, about 6 months + depending on your taste preferences. Or, after they are fully fermented you can water bath can them and they'll last for years. Do use a good reliable recipe if you are water bath canning though, since you don't want to take any risk with low acid foods. Those things have to be fully pickled before being sealed up. Also, if you can them they will lose the beneficial microbes that make them a veritable superfood. So I go with the fridge.

  3. Be Grim says

    Thanks for the reminder! I was going to do a tiny batch of B&Bs with my first cukes, but this is better; I like that I can keep adding more cukes to the jar. I have a recipe for lacto-fermented peach salsa I want to try this year; keep us posted if you try doing a salsa. A few years ago I fermented some pickled plums. The results were….interesting! Not an experiment I'll repeat, though.

  4. says

    Instead of using a plastic bag (which I try to avoid as much as possible, but particularly with acidic foods), I put water or brine in a glass jar that's slightly narrower than the opening of the pickling jar and set that inside the pickling jar. This works perfectly with a wide-mouth quart or half-gallon jar and a narrow-mouth half-pint straight-sided jar.

  5. says

    @Be Grim, I made LF peach salsa last year and it was amazing!! Thanks for the reminder. I followed this recipe (http://divinehealthfromtheinsideout.com/2010/07/smoky-peach-salsa-lacto-fermented/), except I used some of the sauce from my chipotles en adobo instead of chipotle powder. NOM!

    Also: try pickling some whole cherry tomatoes–I had those for the first time at last fall's fermentation fest and they were one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth.

  6. says

    I am going to invest in some Pickl-It Convert-R lids, hopefully for a more fool proof fermenting experience. They also have Dunk-R thingies & other accessories, so think it is worthwhile.

  7. says

    No Vinegar involved at all? I am surprised. I have never done pickles this way, but sure my mom and grandmother did. But I am still surprised at the no vinegar. I can my koshers in a vinegar brime and spices.

  8. Nick says

    Hello. Those veggies look fantastic! Say, I’m using Katz’s recipe as well and I noticed you said you would add cucumbers as you harvested them. I’ve been searching to see if you can reuse the brine and this might answer my question. I suppose trying a few out couldn’t hurt. Thank you!

    • says

      I think the risk with this is that eventually the brine will be too dilute from the osmosis that equalizes the salinity in the pickles and the surrounding brine. In other words, as the pickles get saltier, the brine gets weaker. I think if you have a great brine you can add a bit of that culture to a fresh brine batch to get it going, but I wouldn’t push reuse of brine too much on a lacto-fermented product. That’s just a guess though – I don’t have proof that it’s not a good idea or anything. :)

        • Karen Smith says

          Laurel,
          I have about 1/2 gallon of brine left over from last weeks pickles. I have more cucumbers to do… would you add the same amount of salt to the brine as you would if it were just water? If not, how much would you say?
          Thanks! Karen

  9. Diane says

    I’m wondering — I planted cukes, but no “pickling” ones. Do they have to be of the pickling variety — or can I use regular cucumbers for pickling?

  10. Gary says

    Can the cucumbers be cut into halves or rings before being put in the jar? or does this only work with whole cucumbers? I’ve got some pretty big pickles that won’t fit in the jar opening but halving (or even quartering them) will work.

  11. Gary says

    Is it normal for the brine to get pretty cloudy? In a half gallon jar I can’t see more than maybe a third of the way through it. I’ve had it going for about a week now.

    • says

      Yes, that’s totally normal. A “milky” type brine develops as the lactic acid bacteria mature. Sorry I didn’t catch your early question – I do these whole. I haven’t tried rings or slices. I think fermentation would go faster and texture would be compromised.

      • Gary says

        Thanks for the replies. I ended up doing one jar whole and one with some whole and some halves and rings so I’ll see how that turns out. So far after one week on the counter (72-75 degrees most of the time) the pickles are starting to change color but still “not there” yet.

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