Making Fermented Pickles

Dabble in the science and art of fermenting by turning your garden cucumbers into pickles. These little dears are a living food, full of beneficial bacteria.

| May 2019


Fermenting your own foods is an amazing process — part science, part art, part ancient tradition. Its alchemical nature makes fermentation a little “dark-arts” creepy for some, but you needn’t fear it. Here’s the science: fermentation generates lactic acid, which destroys pathogens and gives the brine the acidic pH necessary to make pickles safe (and scrumptious!).

There are two methods for kicking off the fermentation process. One is to make a brine and submerge the produce in it, as you do with classic crock pickles. The other is to layer the produce with salt, as with Classic Fermented Sauerkraut, and let the moisture that leaches out of the plant material create its own brine. No matter which method you choose to get the brine, it’s the salt in the mix that discourages pathogenic bacteria from growing and encourages beneficial bacteria, like those found in yogurt, to proliferate. This probiotic action is great for digestion — like getting a little tonic with your gherkin. Here’s how to make your own.


  • Large, clean crock: The key piece of equipment for fermenting food is a good clean crock. This can be made of glass, food-grade ceramic, or food-grade plastic. Never use crystal or decorative pottery, as it might contain lead, or metal which may react with the acid or salt. Use only food-grade plastic containers; others may carry residues that could leach into your recipe.
  • A plate just a bit smaller than the crock: The plate is going to keep the vegetables submerged, so it needs to fit inside the crock but not be so small that the produce bobs up in the liquid around it.
  • Plastics and Preserving: Many recipes call for a plastic bag filled with brine to weigh down the plate. I’m not a fan. I try to keep the amount of plastic in my life, particularly around acidic foods, to a minimum. Additionally, you have to observe the liquid during the fermentation process to check for the formation of scum (some call it bloom), and I find the folds of the plastic make this difficult to do. You also have to dip off this bloom and wash the plate and the weight throughout the process. For me the wrinkles in the plastic make it difficult to remove the bloom efficiently and are really tough to clean.
  • A weight to hold down the plate: I use a quart-size canning jar full of water as a weight. It’s heavy enough to get the job done, it lifts neatly out of the brine without disturbing the bloom, and it has a nice, smooth surface that is easy to clean.
  • A clean tea towel: You want to prevent dust from settling on the brine and curious bugs from flying into it. A nice big clean tea towel serves as an effective tent over the whole thing.


Key Ingredients

  • Impeccably fresh produce: Fermentation is a war among microorganisms, battling it out right there in the crock. Give the good bacteria the advantage by making sure that contaminants — such as molds and fungi, which develop quickly in decaying produce — are at their smallest possible numbers. For that, you want produce that is straight out of the field and thoroughly washed. Produce that is a few days old may be fine for other recipes, but do not use it here if you want to reach pickle perfection.
  • Salt: In most of the recipes in this book, salt is used for taste alone. In fermented recipes however, proper salinity is necessary to create safe and tasty results. For these recipes, salt is important to keep detrimental bacteria from crowding out the good bacteria that give these pickles their characteristic flavor. Using more salt than what’s called for slows down the fermentation; too much can bring it to a halt. Too little salt and produce will rot rather than ferment. In all cases I use kosher salt. It’s readily available — much more so than pickling salt — so much so that it’s becoming the “house salt” for many families, and then it’s one less thing to buy. You can also use sea salt, if that’s your preference, but highly mineralized salts, such as red and black varieties, may discolor the food and affect their flavors. Don’t use table salt that has added iodine; it doesn’t dissolve well and will give recipes an off taste.
  • Water: Regular tap water is fine for most recipes. Fermented recipes, however, are the most sensitive to trace amounts of chlorine and other minerals, so if you’re on the borderline, you might want to take some precautions to guarantee the success of your ferment. If you know you have heavily chlorinated water, boil it for a few minutes and then let it come to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. If you have a high mineral content in your water (faucets tend to have a white or green ring under them) use filtered or distilled water in these recipes. 


Fermented pickles, such as classic crock pickles, are submerged in a salty bath that encourages fermentation and discourages the growth of contaminants such as molds and fungi. Recipes such as kimchi and classic fermented sauerkraut can be made without added brine. The salted produce provides all of the moisture needed to create its own pickling liquid.


Fermented pickles are a living food, full of natural, beneficial bacteria. I protect this vibrancy by storing pickles in the refrigerator once they’re fully fermented. Fermented pickles keep well in the chill of the icebox if you make sure they’re submerged under their brine. I love dipping into the pickle pot for a cold, crunchy dill whenever I want one. Subjecting them to the boiling-water method would make them shelf-stable — and a lot of people do it — but the heat kills off all of the beneficial bacteria that are such an important part of our diets.



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