tips on mitigating risks for fermented dill pickles

I posted a few weeks ago about the tested and food-safe recipe for kosher-style dill pickles that my Master Food Preserver group teaches. You can find an annotated version of two recipes here.  Both can be safely processed in jars for storage.  One uses a strong vinegar solution and low temperature pasteurization to produce crunchier but familiar pickles like the ones you get in the grocery store.  The other ferments the cucumbers for a few weeks first with a bit of vinegar and a salty brine, then cans the pickles with low-temperature pasteurization to kill off any living microbes.  These taste much better than the vinegar pickles, but it’s a matter of an extra step and waiting several weeks more to eat your delicious pickles.

Now that the weather is cooler and cucumbers are at the end of the season, I thought I’d post my thoughts on non-canned, non-vinegared fermented pickles, a radically different process than canning.

Fermentation pickles are the not-so-safe kind of pickles, the ones you ferment on the counter, keeping alive in a crock with lactic acid, and want to eat relatively soon.  I have to preface this post, therefore, by stressing that I’m not writing as an MFP volunteer here, and the MFP program only endorses their recipe for fermented full-sour dill pickles.

There are good reasons for this.  For lactic acid fermentation, you can’t use a lot of vinegar, which kills bacteria, both good and bad, and inhibits the lactic acid fermentation.  Pickles kept in brine with even a small amount of vinegar at room temperature (and in the refrigerator) have been tested to host listeria, a nasty little microbe that makes seniors deathly ill and can abort fetuses in pregnant women.  And there’s always a risk of listeria in low acid foods in anaerobic environments (as in inside a cucumber, even if in brine).  Brine pickles without significant amounts of vinegar at room temperature are not considered safe at all.

My pickle needs require brining without vinegar, and keeping the pickles in a solution that is relatively low salt.  For me, the holy grail is the half-sour pickle, the bright green pickle you see in New York delis next to the sour garlic Kosher dills.  They must make them in some way that’s considered safe for public consumption by some authority, so I’ve been looking for a reliable recipe.  I’m willing to risk some of the pickle dangers for this.  I am a firm believer in risk-aware, consensual cooking (RACC), where consumers take responsibility for the matter they put in their mouth, especially if it is homemade, and know what the potential risks are.  I know I run a risk by making my pickles, just as I know I run risks by eating European soft cheese and sushi (you are taking this risk, too, if you eat deli meats, hot dogs, or supermarket produce.)

I’m willing to sacrifice some safety for the thrill of orgasmic deliciousness, but not for hot dogs.  Everyone needs to make their own call on risktaking.

It helps me to know how to help along the good bacteria and discourage the bad.  Lactic fermentation starts soon, and it acidifies the brine (think of the sour flavor or yogurt, which contains lactic bacteria), so I aim to encourage that along as fast as possible.

I also try to minimize contamination as much as possible by keeping my counter, sponges, and utensils very clean.

So that’s my stance on pickle politics.

I’ve been experimenting all summer long, first with pickling cucumbers from the Asian market in town, then with some from farms, and now with my own cucumbers.  I’ve looked at recipes in German, Hungarian, French and Polish cookbooks, and heard recommendations for Russian recipes and old-fashioned American ones.

Of everything I’ve read, I highly recommend Sandor Katz‘s book Wild Fermentation, if you are going to take the fermentation route.  I love his writing style and his pilgrim soul.  I also particularly dig that he’s not your usual food preservation type: a gay man living in an intentional community at the corner of wilderness & who-knows-where, and one living well with AIDS.   He has experimented for years, and it shows, undaunted by ingredient or national cuisine.  His book has recipes for hooch, injera, tempeh, vinegar, cider, sourdough, kombucha, kimchi, and everything in between.

Unfortunately, his dill pickle recipe, which is much more about the garlic than it is about the pickle (to the tune of 2-3 heads per jar) and produces a very sour pickle, isn’t what I’m looking for. Please take a look, though, if you’re interested.  They’re delicious.

As much as I look, and as much as I try, I can’t find a standardizable recipe for half-sours (and many internet recipes are downright scary).  The variables are just too numerous.  Unlike the vinegar pickle, which aims to be reproducible, and the sour dill fermented pickle, which blasts the pickles with garlic and salt, the half-sour fermented pickle is more finicky about the temperature of the environment and the ingredients.  My first try at the half-sour was brilliant:  sour, only a bit salty, bright green, and alive with almost a fizzy quality from the active fermentation.  Then, several delicious but not most-fabulous-like-the-first-one batches later, I am stymied.

All I can do is provide some tips from what I’ve learned.  As I mentioned earlier, you’re responsible for the risks these pickles create in the kitchen, just as you are welcome to take the credit for their deliciousness.

Golden rule: if in doubt, throw it out!

NOTE:  I’ve received a few questions about fermented pickles, and I wasn’t very clear in the above paragraph about NOT providing a recipe here because I don’t want the liability associated with advising on fermented pickles.  As such, I won’t be able to answer your questions here, either.  I’m not comfortable answering questions about this over the internet with strangers about recipes I can’t see or discuss in more detail, sorry.  Please use a tested recipe and/or call your local Extension office for help.

Half-Sour Pickle Tips

  1. Sandor Katz has a handy formula for salt in brine for pickles (see his recipe linked above).  He suggests using 2 T. canning salt per quart of water for half-sours, and I’m trying this now.  Longer storage requires a stronger brine.
  2. Many Eastern European recipes boil the brine before using it, but I think that would kill beneficial bacteria with the bad, so I don’t do it.  I use lukewarm water.
  3. Go forth and multiply!  The key is to make lactic fermentation start as quickly and productively as possible, especially if you’re on the lower end of the salt spectrum in your brine.  I’ve had great success enculturating my new brine with a bit of homemade kimchi juice or fermented pickle juice from the last batch.  Poles used to use a slice of fresh soured rye bread. Whey is also suggested. Drain an organic yogurt (like Nancy’s from Springfield) in a fine-meshed sieve in the refrigerator overnight.  A quart will yield about a third-cup of whey, so drain at least two quarts for a 3L jar of pickles.  I’ve also heard that whey softens pickles, but I don’t have a problem with that.  At least so far. [Ed: Several softer than desirable batches, and it’s No Whey, Dude! for me.]
  4. To keep pickles firm, use a handful of fresh, organic Concord (or other) grape leaves.  I’ve also had good — even better — success with horseradish leaves.  The leaves leave no discernible taste in the brine.  I also cut 1/16-inch off the blossom end of the cucumber because enzymes live there that soften the pickle.  The blossom end is the lighter-colored end of the cucumber, opposite the stem end, which is where the pickle attaches to the vine.  See the blossom in the middle of the first picture?
  5. I use a tablespoon of Penzey’s pickling spices in my pickles, as well as dill, garlic, and brown mustard seed and fresh bay leaves.  This spice mix has cloves, red peppers and allspice in it, among other things, and I think it adds a beautiful, subtle spiciness to the brine.
  6. I poke holes in each cucumber with a rounded chopstick to assist brine penetration.  I do this after I’ve washed the cucumbers so there’s less risk of pushing bacteria into the inside of the cucumber which needs the most time for brine penetration.
  7. One recipe recommended washing the cucumbers and garlic and jars with vinegar.  This killed off the fermentation bacteria for me, and it was the only batch I had to throw out.  Cucumbers can be dirty and muddy, though, so do wash each cucumber carefully, scrubbing gently with a soft brush after soaking them in a clean sink full of water.
  8. Temperature, temperature, temperature.  It’s really crucial to do half-sours in cooler weather, or even better, if you have a temp-controlled place to store them.  Vacillating temperatures are the worst. 60-65 degrees seems to be the magic range; 55 degrees slows down the fermentation too much and over 80 speeds it up too fast.
  9. As for the timing, I just don’t know. This depends on the temperature.  You have to keep the pickles unrefrigerated to start the fermentation.  I usually take a look after two days on the counter, then either keep them there for another day or two if I don’t see active bubbles and the brine turning cloudy (which is a bad thing for vinegar pickles but a good thing for fermented pickles).  After I see fermentation going well and the pickles smell like pickles, I immediately move them to the refrigerator.  I usually don’t taste them for a week or two as they sit in the refrigerator.
  10. I taste the pickles once they’ve achieved a standardized color, they smell like pickles, they aren’t slimy or suspicious-looking, and I can assess the brine has penetrated through to the middle.  I slice a small one in half and look at it first.  I leave the bigger ones to ferment longer.
  11. When making the pickles, I put in a weighted Ziploc bag of brine, and leave the jar open with a clean dishcloth on top as it sits unrefrigerated.  In the refrigerator, I close the jar.  I might be stopping the fermentation process when I do this, though, so the jury is out on this one.
  12. In full sour pickles, sometimes a white, slightly viscous, yeast develops on cucumbers.  This is harmless but ugly.  This shouldn’t develop on half-sours, though.
  13. I use fresh dill heads from my garden, but also freeze some.  Frozen dill heads are much stronger than dried ones and dried dill seed, and some people even say better than fresh.
  14. Use a large container and a significant amount of brine.  One recent internet recipe calls for a weak brine and small jars holding just six cucumbers (which aren’t sliced, so most of the jar is hard to penetrate cucumber).  This is a serious risk for listeria.
  15. I can’t stress this last point enough.  Keep everything clean.  I microwave my sponges (dampen them, then put them in at full power for 1 minute), spray the counters with a bleach solution, and scrub down my sinks with cleanser before making fermented pickles.  I wash my hands during the process if I’ve handled anything out of that immediate area.

I’d love to hear experienced, tested opinions on any of these tips, so please let me know what you’ve tried and researched!