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!

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23 thoughts on “tips on mitigating risks for fermented dill pickles

  1. apremerson 2 June 2009 / 7:16 am

    I hate leaving replies to posts someone wrote a while ago, but this is an excellent post.

    I used a Kosher pickle recipe for years (from Sheila Lukins’ USA Cookbook) which included a slice of rye bread, and they were always great, when they chose to be. I started using other recipes, thinking the recipe was the issue, but as you have said, there are so many factors (the cucumbers themselves, the weather, etc.).

    I’m not a serious fermenter- I just stick to pickles and kraut, but thanks to well-researched posts like this one, I am at a point where I simply do it and hope for the best, knowing some batches will work and others will not.

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  2. Eugenia 2 June 2009 / 8:34 am

    Thanks! I appreciate nice comments, no matter how old the post. :) I like that way of describing fermented pickles: “they were always great, when they chose to be.” I’ve never tried the rye bread recipes — good to know they’re as finicky as the others.

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  3. heather 14 June 2009 / 2:19 pm

    hello…i just finished with my first batch of half sours and glad i came across your site. it IS really hard to find definitive info, and my question is, i put the lids on loosely (barely screwed on cap), is that ok?

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  4. Eugenia 15 June 2009 / 5:08 am

    Heather: Thanks! I use a different clamp-lid jar than the one depicted above, but it is similar. I will drape a towel or cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar, then flip the lid down without clamping it. You don’t want to screw on the lids at all because the gases can build up pressure in the fermentation process.

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  5. cheezilla 2 July 2009 / 1:14 pm

    I love your pickle politics. I too read Sandor Katz and insert my cukes (small and whole) into a prepared sauerkraut solution – just chopped cabbage smashed together with liberal salt. I also tuck in little carrots, cauliflower, garlic, whatever. It’s turns out great and after about 4 weeks at room temp I keep it in the ‘fridge as I nibble my way through. I included a couple of grape leaves too, and the cucumbers (I only had two last year!) turned into the very best pickle I have ever eaten – no shit. This year we planted three kinds and I am picking them when they are 2-3 inches long and tucking them into the veggies. Hey! Let’s have a fermented veggies tasting party!

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  6. Eugenia 9 July 2009 / 7:23 am

    Cheezilla: I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying — do you make sauerkraut, then add vegetables and grape leaves to it? Be careful with this method, since you’re adding larger vegetables and keeping them at room temperature for a long period of time. I leave my cucumbers at RT only for a few days.

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  7. Andrea 3 August 2009 / 3:59 pm

    Hello,
    You wrote “Pickles kept in brine with even a small amount of vinegar at room temperature (and in the refrigerator) have been tested to host listeria”

    Does this mean refrigerator pickles are unsafe? I make a salt brine for cukes and onion slices and leave them soaking on the counter for 2-4 hours (sometimes I refrigerate over night or longer) then drain, add vinegar, spices, sugar, and refrigerate. I have read this can be kept up to 6 mo. or longer in the fridge. Should I be worried?

    Also, about the no vinegar fermentation – I used an organic product called Seranade on my cukes to prevent disease. It is made from “a strain of a naturally occurring microbe called Bacillus subtilis”.. Do you think this could interfere with the brining process and render the final product unsafe? It is certified organic biofungicide; however, I wonder if it is capable of also destroying the fermentation.

    Last, I found a recipe for Old-Fashioned Barrel Pickles, which call for counter top fermentaion with both salt and vinegar (plus all spices), and a 4 – 8 week fermentation process. THESE would be considered listeria producing? Salt AND vinegar seem safer to my untrained “pickle” brain. ;-)

    Thanks

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  8. Eugenia 4 August 2009 / 9:46 am

    Andrea: Here’s the study about listeria in refrigerator pickles: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16300073 . If you’re concerned about listeria, botulism, or other microbes, please make vinegar pickles, not fermented pickles. They’re still delicious! There are tested recipes for both in the Ball Blue Book — don’t rely on the internet for your pickling recipes.

    Leaving your refrigerator pickles out on the counter for up to 2 hours is fine, then refrigerate (this is the standard for most prepared foods). I would eat them within a week or two. Leaving them for 6 months is not recommended.

    I don’t know anything about Seranade, I’m sorry.

    And I’d only recommend tested pickle recipes officially (such as those in the Ball Blue Book or vetted through an Extension Service) so I can’t comment on your recipe. Lysteria grows slowly in the refrigerator, and it is inhibited by vinegar, but I have no idea how much you put in or how the pickles are processed.

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  9. Joni 10 August 2009 / 8:30 pm

    I made my first batch of fermented dill pickles, with no refrigeration but rather in a room temp. churn (I guess you would consider these “full sour pickles”). I know that the brine should be cloudy. However, after packing my fermented cucumbers with the heated brine, I have a white film that seemed to develop and settle in the bottom of my water-bathed jars. Is this the yeast to which you were referring, and should I be concerned? I have not opened a jar yet and was afraid perhaps it was something unsafe.

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  10. Eugenia 10 August 2009 / 8:44 pm

    Joni: I can’t comment on your recipe, since I don’t know which one you used and I’m not comfortable giving advice without being able to talk with you (and no, that’s not a service I provide personally). Please call your local Extension service. And if in doubt, throw it out.

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  11. Andrea 30 August 2009 / 5:32 pm

    Thanks, Eugina.
    Sorry to take so long to respond. I tried to set up for email confirmation by subscription, but apparently it didn’t go through.

    I soak my cukes with a bit of bleach water or hydrogen peroxide and water before use, so hopefully I kill off any pathogens prior to creation of the refrigerator pickles. YIKES!

    I may go back to buying pickles at the store ;-/

    Andrea

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  12. Amy 29 June 2010 / 10:50 am

    Hello,
    I make my own fermented foods like sourkraut, Kombucha, kefir and I make my own whey from raw milk, so I am right on board with your recipe and cannot wait to try it. We have a big garden so I will be doing pickles often during the growing season. We are still new at this, this will be our 3rd season but really 2nd because our crop last year was diseased, so this year I really want to make them right and good. I will comment when we have completed the wonderful task of preserving food naturally in our own home for our health.

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  13. LizardQueen42 22 November 2011 / 7:39 pm

    Thank you very much for your insight. I have been experimenting a lot with fermentation in the last year (kefir, kimchi) but this is my first attempt at pickles and its making me a little nervous. Your food safe mindset is well considered.

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  14. Theresa Fox 24 March 2013 / 1:52 pm

    Lot’s of babbling without significant information. All of this could have been said in one small paragraph.

    From the editor: Let’s see your guide then, o rude one.

    Like

  15. Mike 5 July 2013 / 10:22 am

    I ferment them for about 4 to 6 weeks and they turn out great! Just don’t ferment them in too warm a location, and keep things clean. As long as you keep the pickles UNDER water they should be fine. You will know if something is wrong if anything other than a white flora (scum) grows on top or if they smell bad or the skins start to bubble. If they look and smell good keep ‘em fermenting and the better they get!

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  16. Eugenia 1 August 2014 / 8:15 am

    @Shawn, yes, I posted the recipe for the USDA-standard LAF pickle that contains a small amount of vinegar in a previous post (see link in the beginning of my post). I’ve found that adding vinegar *greatly* increases the risk of spoilage in LAF half-sour pickles, since it inhibits that very same bacteria you mention in the beginning of the process. If you want fast fermentation, this is a problem. But for longer fermentation, less of a problem. It will affect the taste, though, and that’s another (big) problem for me. For a full sour that has vinegar, I’d be more inclined to go for the NCHPF than the old Victory Garden Cookbook recipe because of the lack of salt in the latter.

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  17. Sam Spade 15 September 2014 / 3:44 pm

    I packed my first (test) jar of lactic acid pickles a week ago and it seems to be going well. I didn’t have the benefit of your article when I set them up, unfortunately. The recipe I followed suggested I use a screw-lid Mason jar sealed tight with a brine solution twice as strong as the one you recommend.

    Which I did. Along with storage in a safe place in case the jar bursts. Which, fortunately, it has not yet done.

    I left only about 1/4″ of space between the top of the liquid and the top of the jar.

    So far the pickles look fine, with only a little white powder floating along the bottom and a nice green color. The lid is bowed out, something it did in the first 24 hours, and the pickles have all floated up to the top of the jar. But no bubbles are visible.

    So, my question has to do with yeast root beer. When I made it, I minimized the amount of alcohol by keeping ‘head space’ over the liquid very small. By leaving little room for gas, you force the CO2 into solution and so kill the yeast before it can make much alcohol.

    Could this be the technique for making half-sour pickles? I checked and found that dissolved CO2 alone in water at 15 psig creates a pH of 3.4, well within the safe range. And of course, since the fizz all leaves as soon as you open the pressurized jar, most of the sour goes away also.

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