We Can Phickle That – Tricky Pickle Edition

Pickles

Good, Better, Best. Smaller cukes make better pickles.  The guy in the middle is ready to eat.  You can tell by his shade of green.

When I see all the lacto-fermented cucumber posts that start to pop up this time of year, I will admit, it irritates me a bit that there aren’t more words of caution.  Or maybe it makes me jealous that everyone but me has apparently had nothing but perfect cuke batches since the dawn of fermentation.  Or it makes me think people are kinda lying.  The reason for this is that cucumber pickles can be a little bit trickier than most things I’ve pickled.  I would say it must just be me, but I read a lot: The SandorMan himself writes about many having similar experiences to my own in The Art of Fermentation.  Yet, many people write about them as if they’re just as foolproof to ferment as turnips, rutabagas, beets, carrots or green beans.  Well, in my experience, they are not.  I’ve messed around with cuke pickles for a few summers now, and my results have been mixed.  Why?  Cucumbers are mostly water, so they are prone to kind of emptying themselves out.  Also because of this water issue, they get mushy really quickly if you don’t shore up those cell walls, and using tons of salt isn’t a great option, since again, they are mostly water, and they will be uber-salty very quickly if you use that normally great trick.  So, no, they are by no means impossible, but if you’ve tried and had trouble, it’s not your fault, I promise!

a bitten pickle

This guy was made with oak leaves. He is not suffering from an empty core, but if yours is, don’t worry! Still okay to eat.

Here’s are a few tricks I’ve learned that will give you a much better chance of success:

  • Almost every recipe I’ve ever seen calls for tannins to be added (where none are called for, I call bullshit on how successful that person’s pickles really were), but all tannins are not created equal.  I’ve used black tea and red wine extensively in the past, and they do the trick, but not nearly as well as grape or some varieties of oak leaf do.  For sure untreated-by-scary-chemicals oak leaves aren’t the easiest to come by in the city, so this is a bummer for me. I often buy preserved grape leaves and soak them in water to remove as much of the salt as possible.
  • Unlike with other fermented pickles, in which I basically chop pieces roughly and don’t notice much of a difference in crispiness, even a moderate difference in cuke size can result in wildly different textures.  Size matters.  And in this case, good pickles come in small packages.
  • This is not a long ferment.  With most pickles, I can wait a week or two before I even check in. With cukes, I monitor them like the NSA monitors your sexts. After day three, I’m checking every day.  If I see even the slightest hint of softness, I pack them into a jar and stick them in the fridge to finish fermentation.
  • The vegetables you use must be ultra-fresh and blemish free.  Any soft spots will turn into mush faster than you can say “please don’t put me on a government watchlist because I referenced your invasive watchiness.”
  • They need to be consumed more quickly than other pickles.  I have some carrot and radish pickles in my fridge from a huge batch I made last October.  They are a little on the soft side, but still very tasty.  With cucumbers, I’m lucky if I get two to three months out of them before they’re unpleasantly soft.
  • They need lots of seasoning.  I don’t know why this is, but I’m guessing it has to do with shorter fermentation time.  With most pickles, a tablespoon of whole spices or a sprig or two of herbs goes a long way. With cucumbers, I have to load the friggin’ crock (or jar, or bowl) with dill heads galore and whole heads of garlic to get the flavor I’m looking for.
dill flower head

This dill head is a great addition to cucumber pickles, but you’ll need lots.

I’m definitely not discouraging you from making cucumber pickles.  They are very tasty after all, and an iconic food in my family.  And I guarantee you I’ll be getting emails or comments below from people who make perfect batches every time.  But the truth is, I spend a lot of time here telling you guys how easy this whole thing is.  And it is.  But I want you to approach cuke pickles with a tad more caution and not feel crappy if they don’t turn out perfectly the first time.  And a personal por favor:  don’t  start fermenting with cucumbers.  They are not always an easy win and if you start with them as opposed to SO many other fantastic veggies, you may get it in your subconscious that fermenting vegetables is hard or complicated or finicky.  It isn’t, I promise.

Once you know the above tricks, cucumber pickles are not hard to make, but there are SO many other vegetables that are as simple as being constantly monitored via Facebook and your iPhone (meaning you have to do basically nothing to make them happen).  My advice: Start with beets or radishes or turnips or cabbage and be amazed at the simplicity of the process.  THEN, move on to cucumbers, where you might need to play around to find your perfect amount of salt between needing a big rinse and being stuck with mushy pickles.  Where you need to find a frickin’ oak tree in the city that doesn’t have stupid pesticides or fungicides all over it. What am I saying? I’ve seen the crap they spray on their lawns in the ‘burbs. Yikes! Where you need to forget what you know about seasoning ferments and go for broke, throwing every dill flower head you can find in there and dousing your jar in spice seeds and garlic cloves.  If you have a few simple pickles under your belt, a kimchi or three, a few submersion methods, then come back for the cukes.  Or learn from my past mistakes and follow the recipe below.

pickles in a row

Pack o’ pickles

CUCUMBER PICKLES

Adapted from Sandor Katz’ recipe in The Art of Fermentation

You’ll want to choose similarly-sized cucumbers here and small/skinny is better than large/fat.  If you get a batch with many sizes of cukes, you can always make a few smaller batches, separated by size.  It does help!

If you’re new to lactopickling, please check out my Pickle FAQ before you get started!

Ingredients

~2 lbs of the smallest, freshest pickling cukes you can find, blossom end removed, carefully washed

6-8 dill heads or more if you can get them

1-3 tablespoons mustard seeds

1-2 bulbs of garlic, peeled

a few whole peppercorns

4 cups filtered water

1.5 tablespoon salt

1 cup oak, cherry or grape leaves, carefully washed

How-to

  1. Clean your cukes well and then soak them in ice water for an hour or more.  This will help keep them firm during fermentation.
  2. I actually like to ferment my cuke pickles in bowls when I’m doing a small quantity, because that allows me to use all different shapes of cukes without shoving them into a jar.  Place mustard seeds, garlic, peppercorns, dill heads and oak leaves into bottom of bowl and put the cukes on top of them.  Use the same process for a jar or crock, just adjust quantities.
  3. Mix salt into water until dissolved and then pour mixture over cucumbers, ensuring that they are submerged using a plate, crock weight, or if fermenting in a half-gallon jar, your favorite version of the ghetto jar method.
  4. Let them sit at room temperature for three days.  Taste.  If they have changed color and are acidic and flavorful, move them to a jar (or keep them in a jar), seal it and stick them in the fridge.
  5. I like to let them keep fermenting for a couple days, but then it’s chow time.  These guys won’t last til Christmas.

What are your favorite tips for keeping your cukes crispy?

In the jar.  Murky goodness

In the jar. Murky goodness!

Ferment Pickles Vegan Vegetarian

37 comments

  1. Becky says:

    As someone who pickles just about everything non-lactofermented style with vinegar, I find cucumbers extremely hard to pickle no matter which way you try it. Last summer I tried three different dill recipes – and the best dill cucumber pickle I ate last summer a friend had fermented!

    So why is that when you say ‘pickle’ people think cucumbers? Outside of bread & butter pickles, they are hard to do.

    Is there are particular kind of oak or cherry leaf that’s better to use? We have both in our yard that I know are safe to use.

  2. Amanda says:

    Hi Becky,

    That’s so funny! I had the same conversation with Marisa McClellan at our last food swap! Everyone goes straight for the cukes, and having fermented my share of pickles at this point, I kinda don’t get it. Yup, they are delicious, but there are other pickles in the sea! And better ones to preserve, in my mind.

    Oak is my first choice. That’s what I’ve had the best results with, but as I said, it’s SO hard to get leaves that I trust in the city (they’re probably fine, but how do I know that?) that my experimentation has been limited. Any leaf I’ve tried has worked better than tea, by a lot, so please, tell me how it goes!

  3. Everything you said, I totally agree. I pickle cucumbers mostly because I’d otherwise be overrun with cucumbers from the CSA. I enjoy eating them, but they’re tricky, and never more than half of a batch comes out really good for me. Of the other half, most of them are edible but a little disappointing in one way or another. And there’s always the one or two floating somewhere hard to reach that are gross and soggy on one end.

    Given the choice, I’d rather do turnips or beans — or especially kale and cabbage — any day.

    (For the record, this is the recipe with which I’ve had the best luck: http://www.twice-cooked.com/2012/10/01/lacto-fermented-pickles/)

  4. S says:

    Except for my very first attempt (which I fermented in a mildewy basement and panicked over suspicious slime) I haven’t had much trouble with cucumbers. I’ve only ever done the Joy of Pickling Spicy crock recipe, since it worked and I like it, ha! I was going to try out a new recipe this year but now you have me worrying :) I use grape leaves since we grow them, and she also uses a wee bit of cider vinegar in this recipe.

    Last year our homegrown cucumbers were a bust and I was so amazed by the farmer’s market fruit–so tiny and perfect. It almost made me skip growing them this year–I am either a bad picker or my homegrowns are just sneaky and grow oversize before I catch them.

    • Amanda says:

      Hi S,

      No worrying! My point isn’t that they’re impossible, and obviously, if you like yours, that’s great. My point is that there are hundreds of vegetables to which you need to add nothing but brine (or salt) and they ferment perfectly every time. Cukes are just more finicky and I always feel bad when people tell me they tried cukes and, “Fermentation is hard.” Better to try them after an understanding of how fermentation works has formed, IMO. Also, please believe me, your grape leaves make a HUGE difference. If you want to be wasteful, try it without them, the way you would a radish ferment, for instance, and get ready for a big crock o’ mush!
      Glad your work so well. I just want people to understand this is a ferment that takes more concentration (and special ingredients) than just about any other pickle worth doing.

  5. Waz says:

    I’m not a city dweller, which makes me think that many of the issues that you mention are directly related to the resources you have available. (And reading comment 5 reinforces that).

    I have a large garden and grow most of the things that go into my cuke ferments, including cukes. I also grow my own grape vines, so I’ve always added grape leaves to my cuke ferments. Sounds like I should greatly appreciate having that resource lest the mush monster pay a visit.

    My cuke ferments also take longer than two weeks, varying according to temperature. It typically takes four weeks for my dills.

    You’re right in that there’s such an incredible amount of veggies that make for tasty, easy ferments (sauerreuben is probably my favorite non-cuke ferment, and it has to be one of the easiest). For those of us who worship at the vine of the cucurbit and dedicate a huge garden space to them so that we can rock that crock and have a daily supply of dills, there’s no comparison. Cuke ferments are a must!

    How do oak, cherry, and grape leaves compare in terms of crispness? Have you tried running small batches of all three at once?

    To S, you really have to go ninja on those cuke vines and infiltrate! Cukes *are* very sneaky and fast-growing, and if you don’t catch them at the right moment, they’ll turn gargantuan in the next breath. This year, I’m trying to ferment more gherkins, so I feel your pain.

    Happy fermenting!

    • Amanda says:

      So lucky you’ve had such wonderful success! As it turns out, both Sandor Katz and Alex Lewin reference the very issues that I have had in their books! Not sure where Lewin lives, but since Katz lived on a commune off the grid when he wrote AOF, I’m doubtful that the issues are city-dweller specific, although as was hopefully clear, switching to leaves over tea or wine definitely helped. Still, I keep them to a short ferment at room temp. I can’t think of many pickles I ferment for a month (sauerkraut and citrus are definitely two of them) but to each his own sour-level!

      Thanks for reading and enjoy those pickles!!

  6. S says:

    Ha didn’t take it as impossible, just grateful that the method I chose seemed to work for me! (And super grateful for organic grape leaves at my disposal too.)

    It’s funny how there are so many ways to do thing (like yogurt, or bread) and one method just sticks with you–I’m just happy to some them with less trial and error :)

    The first fermentation pickles recipes I read (a la blue book) seemed so complicated and scary, I’m so glad to have JOP and Katz’s small batch methods that inspired me to try.

  7. Judi McCann says:

    I ferment pickles in crocks, jars, and food grade plastic buckets with airlocks (the easiest of the options). I have to say, I’ve never had issues with cucumbers being soft unless I slice them before fermenting. I don’t use anything except filtered water and salt (plus seasonings); no tannins. I do, however, grow my own cukes. Wonder if that makes a differece.

  8. Andi says:

    Thank you for telling it like it is. I’m a moderately experienced fermenter, mostly kimchi and sauerkraut. My first batch of cucumber pickles went in the garbage. My family just finished off my second batch of cucumber pickles, this time garlic dills. I used whole dill heads I harvested out of my herb garden and everything. They smelled good but the white scum over the top of the brine and the white scum laying over everything on the bottom of the jar almost made me pitch the whole batch. I steeled my nerve and reached in with a pair of tongs, and was so surprised that they tasted good! Thank you for the encouragement.

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks, Andi! I appreciate the back up :-). I knew I’d get lots of folks saying it worked perfectly for them (which is awesome!) but I wasn’t sure any other fermenty types who’ve had trouble would be willing to admit it with me. I’ve made peace with it. Cukes are good, but I honestly prefer so many other vegetables pickled that I just make a small batch when they come in and leave it at that. But to each her own pickle preferences!

  9. Ann says:

    Your post made me immediately get a chair and take my garlic dills off of the top of our china cabinet and check them out. They had been fermenting a week and a half. Just the thought of mushy, soggy cucumber pickles turns me off. (One friend cans vinegar pickles and hers just are not crispy. I can’t bring myself to eat them.)
    Luckily, this batch is fine. I went ahead and put them in the fridge. I don’t have fresh dill, so I did a mix of dried dill weed and seed. In the half gallon jar I put two PG Tips pyramid tea bags. PG Tips is a pretty strong tea so maybe that helped me out. I have 2 neighbors with grapevines, but as both are the kind of talkers that keep talking and rarely get cues (like the 2 year old crying and asking to go home, the 6 year old asking to go home nicely, or the 10 year old just leaving), I felt it was better to risk the tea bags.
    Next batch I will try some of our oak leaves. Thank you for the warnings. I think I will always keep my batches of cukes small because of my dislike of mushy pickles.
    You are right, there are so many other ferments that are reliably successful, cucumbers are not a good one for starters.
    I feel I am constantly stressing to people how easy fermenting is, but don’t feel they really believe me. Oh well-I keep trying though! :)

    • Amanda says:

      Sorry, Ann! Not trying to scare you! They (as you can see from the comments) never fail for some people. I’ve had mixed luck with tea and good luck with oak leaves, so I’m sticking with those. Even then, I don’t ferment them long outside the fridge and I use small guys. Glad yours have worked better than mine! Keep trying to convert. One day, we’ll form a critical mass and Americans will love and accept bacteria as friends.

  10. Rachael says:

    Hi, I’m looking for your input. I have two batches of cucumber pickles fermenting right now. I use the Perfect Pickler for pickling veggies and I’ve had success with cauliflower, kim chi and dill pickle slices. Currently I have one batch of cukes, cut into quarters and the other batch I left the pickles whole. The quarters are bubbling nicely but the whole cukes/pickles aren’t. The brine looks the same in both. What do you think?

    • Amanda says:

      Hmmmmm…I would guess that it’s just fine. I almost always do mine whole, and they aren’t particularly vigorous fermenters. I would give them a bit longer to ferment than you do the quarters, and see how it turns out.
      Take all of that with a grain of salt, because I’ve never used a Perfect Pickler (although I have used a jar with an airlock lid, that looks pretty much the same) so I’m not sure if there’s anything different about the process when you use them.
      Let me know how they turn out! Thanks for reading!

      Amanda

  11. abbey says:

    LOLOLOL — It’s snowing and freezing and I started surfing for some fermenting blogs and found yours.

    I was so proud of myself when I “discovered” fermenting. I couldn’t wait to start pickling and yes, cukes were on the list.

    Imagine my horror when I proudly opened one of my first jars to give my father-in-law a pickled cuke and he promptly spit it out.

    Once my section of earth thaws and I start getting veggies, this will be my third year of pickling. The pickled radishes, cabbage and even cukes are getting much better after I started doing some of the things you mention above.

    • Amanda says:

      Glad to know I’m not alone, Abbey! I came pretty late to cukes (I’d done tons of other, easier veggies first) so I was pretty shocked that they didn’t just “work” the first time like all of my other veggie ferments had. Years later, mine, too, are getting better, but I still have to put a lot more effort and thought into cucumber pickling than doing it with just about any other veggie!

      Wishing you very happy garden days ahead!

    • Amanda says:

      I have used them directly from the tree, but you’ll need to do some research on whether the varieties in your area are safe to use!

  12. Scott says:

    I know this is kind of an old post, but I ran across your site while trying to solve my own mushy pickle problem and I was wondering if you have ever tried cutting an 1/16″ to 1/8″ slice off of the blossom end of the cucumbers? and if so have you had any success with this method?

    Supposedly there is an enzyme that is stored in the blossom end of cucumbers that serves as natures way of softening them once they mature so that the seeds can get to the ground and do their thing. In any case, I don’t recall seeing any mention of it in your article and I thought you might find it interesting as well. I plan to try it on my next batch, with and without the use of tannins to see if there is anything to it.

    Thank you for the great information on your site. I’m definitely trying the pickled snap peas next!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the kind words! Yes, the blossom end removal should definitely be in the bullet-point list. I thought it was! I just remove a sliver and I haven’t done a head to head comparison, but it doesn’t hurt, so why not?

      Snap peas are a fave! That’s another veggie where you might want to remove the tips with a clean knife before fermenting.

  13. Uri says:

    I agree that growing your own cucumbers which do not get refrigerated or transported is the best way to make good pickles. I take mine straight from the vine into the brine.
    ive been growing French heirloom pickling cucumbers, about 50 vines,this year and getting a lot of fermenting practice. I use a mason jar type but a lot larger, clear glass vat. The method that is working best for me is freshly picking tiny or small whole cucs, rubbing the blossom end with a cloth until it is all green but not cutting into the cucumber, leaving on a bit of the vine (I call it the tail, great texture comes from that part) . Add a grape leaf or two in the bottom of crock. Get the proper brine of about 3% using himalayan salt. I do not use any flavorings in the first ferment, just salt and 2 large leaves on the bottom, to avoid floating substances which will grow the dreaded surface yeast . add brine, haven’t been boiling this but might try that out… After covering with a lid or towel and making sure the brine covers all solids by an inch, let sit room temp for 2 days. Air out a couple times by removing lid. If it is cooler fall season, sit room temp up to a week in a dark spot. In summer I get white yeast on top after 2 days so 2 days is my normal ferment at room temp. Before the 2 day mark i have a clear and slightly cloudy but appetizing brine. After ferment, I use the same brine to repack the pickles into multiple smaller mason jars. This is when I add my fresh dill, garlic cloves, fresh herbs, or anything such as coriander seeds or mustard seeds. Cover with brine to the very top of the jar so it spills out almost, seal mason lid tight, place in fridge for a week+. to continue fermenting and infusing flavors of spices and herbs while in the fridge. I like adding the herbs especially fresh dill fronds in the second refrigerated ferment because they stay fresher tasting and look greener. Hope that helps someone! :} I was having a lot of surface yeast until i made up this method. I am all about the super simple brine. Now our pickles turn out perfect, crunchy and still have a fermented and spicy herbal flavor.

  14. Michele says:

    Found you in a google search for what the heck i should do with all my dang cukes and knew I wanted to lacto-ferment but need help not to be afraid. And WOW! So glad I found you! I LOVE your attitude, your style and hopefully my pickles from your recipe! Thanks for being on the web! :)

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks so much, Michele! This has been a banner year for cukes, I think! I hope your pickless turn out as great as all of ours have been this summer. Something’s in the air!

  15. Donna says:

    We’ll here it goes I have pickling cukes and slicers. Don’t have grape leaves but have a sweet cherry tree and a sour cherry tree. Witch one should I use?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Donna,

      I’m so sorry I can’t help you with that question! I went on a walking tour with an herbalist and she gave me some cherry leaves to use and specifically told me to approach using cherry leaves with great care, since some leaves are quite toxic. The best I can tell you is to google your specific cherry varieties and see if the leaves are okay to consume. Some people use any variety and are fine, but I don’t want to point you down that path!

  16. Cathi Servideo says:

    My 12 year old daughter is doing a science project on pickles and fermentation. She came across your article hear and would like to list it in her bibliography but there are some key items missing that we can’t find to do a proper citation (like your last name). Could you please email me your last name and the city you are located in so she can cite your article. Thank you!!!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Cathi,

      Well. That’s just awesome! My last name is Feifer and I live in Philadelphia. I’m so happy to hear that your daughter’s project is fermentation related! I’d love to hear more about it if you care to share. Best of luck to her. Crossing my fingers for an A+.

  17. Libby says:

    I wish I’d found your website 3 weeks ago when I tried my hand at fermented cucumbers. I’ve done cabbage for years with great success so I thought I’d give cucumbers a go. I just used a random recipe online (no grape leaves) and my cucumbers look a little scary. I’m worried to taste them. Can you tell me what they are supposed to look like? I must have filled the jar too full because a couple of the cucumbers aren’t covered with liquid (although they were when I first started) and it has a thick film of white stuff on top. Also a white milky substance floating around amidst the cucumbers, kind of stringy looking. Should I toss the whole batch?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Libby,

      Whether or not to toss has to come down to your discretion. If they smell off or are very mushy, it’s probably best to toss. The substance on top sounds like kahm. Kahm isn’t at all dangerous, but it can sometimes impart unpleasant flavors. You might try skimming the substance on top and then rinsing one or two of the better looking pickles under room temperature water and taking a taste. If they smell terrible after you rinse them, or if they’re mushy enough to start falling apart, it might be better to throw them in the compost and start again.

      A “perfect” batch will have cloudy brine but otherwise look much like the pickles you would buy at the store.

      Good luck!

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