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!
Here’s are a few tricks I’ve learned that will give you a much better chance of success:
- The FRESHEST POSSIBLE CUCUMBERS MUST BE USED. I can’t overstate this. You will be unlikely to have success with grocery store cukes (unless they happen to be super fresh). I won’t say you won’t have good pickles, but it generally works so that fresher the cuke, the more successful the pickle. You can buy a big batch of cukes and try this for yourself (I have). Make a quart jar everyday for a week. The day 1 pickles will usually be the best, the day 7 the worst.
- 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 (aka the ones that aren’t toxic to eat! Do your research) 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.
- Use pickling varieties. Slicers do not make great fermented pickles.
- 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 sometimes 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. Having said that, this is fermentation, and I’ve had more than one batch make it for longer than a year in the fridge.
- 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.
- Snip off the blossom end and soak them in ice water for 30 minutes to an hour before pickling. It helps. There are hypotheses why but I’m not sure science supports those, so I’ll just leave you with the practical advice to do this.
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.
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!
~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
- Clean your cukes well and then soak them in ice water for an hour or more. This will help keep them firm during fermentation.
- 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.
- 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 cheapo jar method.
- 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.
- 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?