In my grandmother’s house you can always be sure to find the tastiest, crunchiest homemade dill pickles. "You have to choose the right cucumbers and they can only be found in the early cucumber season", she says. The right cucumbers are small and firm and slightly sweet. They are grown with very little irrigation, often irrigated only as seedlings. They are very different in flavor from the big European watery cucumbers and from the greenhouse grown cucumbers available year round. Their season is very short; early summer.
Getting the right cucumber is half of the art. So what do you do, if you can’t get your hands on a proper one?
Before I get down to the recipes, I wish to start by explaining why fermented dill pickles (or any other ferment) are such a big deal.
Lacto fermentation is a process that involves lactobacilli bacteria, in an anaerobic solution. This bacterium produces lactic acid, which in turn preserves the food. This fermentation process also breaks down the nutrients into more easily digestible form and creating new nutrients like B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and others that were not there before.
Most importantly, these lactobacillus, eaten by us, promote healthy gut flora and help our digestion and protect us from harmful bacteria. That’s why in traditional cultures all over the world, fermented food are consumed on a daily basis and that’s also why many western culture people take pro-biotic pills, containing the very same bacteria as fermented foods does.
Since these bacteria are found all around us, there is really no need to buy factory-produced capsules to combine with our gut ecology. Making lacto fermented foods is a very easy process, and a very graceful one as well, as you will see when your kitchen shelves starts filling up with jars of vegetables in vivid colors, happily fermenting in salt water.
Grandma’s original dill pickle recipe
Ingredients for a four litre jar:
- 25 Cucumbers
- 3 cups Water
- 4.5 tsp Salt
- 1 bunch Dill
- 1 Bael leaf
- 2 Garlic heads
- 1 chili pepper
The first step is to soak the cucumbers in icy water for an hour or two. This will make them hardier and crunchier and will help them keep their shape longer.
Make sure your jar is sterilized; you can achieve this by pouring boiling hot water into it, letting it stand for several minutes, or by sterilizing in you solar cooker (might take longer).
Start by layering the ingredients — first some dill, a few garlic cloves, then the cucumbers. Compact vertically to form a crowded layer, then the dill, garlic and bael and another layer of cucumbers. Continue this way until you have all ingredients in the jar.
Now, mix the water with the salt. It’s better to work by cups. For 1 cup of water add 1.5 teaspoons of salt, until the jar is full and all cucumbers are completely covered with water. You can sterilize a little rock to place on top of everything, to keep things submerged. Since the salt is used not as a preserving agent but rather in order to restrict the growth of competing bacteria, you may try playing with the amount of salt you use. You may be able to work with less or even none at all if you are in a very clean environment.
The pickles are usually ready to eat between 1-3 weeks.
Storage depends on room temperature — the warmer it is, the quicker the fermentation will occur. As time goes by, the pickles’ taste will become stronger and they might become softer. You can slow this process, almost stopping it, by refrigerating them.
If your jar is full (as ours usually are), make sure you place a plate for the excess liquid that comes out of the jar during the fermentation process. This will make things much cleaner.
Since we’ve been traveling all around the world, and we couldn’t always find the right pickles at the right season, we started experimenting, to answer our urge for good dill pickles. We’ve discovered that using the exact same recipe on all sorts of different vegetables gives great results. This recipe works very well with squash, cut into long fingers, about a small cucumber size, and with organic watermelon peelings, which gives extra crunchiness and a great way to recycle all this mountain of watermelon peels in our summer kitchen. Yummy!
There are many books on fermented food, and traditional nutrition. Here are some, where you can find more information on the cultural context and the health benefits of fermented foods and many more recipes: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz (personally one of my favorite books in the kitchen), Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, and of let’s not forget the Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition by Bill Mollison.
Enjoy your new live food adventure!