Monday, July 19, 2010

Crisper than a Klausen's! Crisp Refreshing Homemade Fermented Kosher Dill "Half Sour" Pickles


Last summer I totally fell in love with the idea of making my own pickles. Full of optimism, I bought 5 pounds of the most gorgeous Persian cucumbers, and spent hours slicing cukes, simmering vinegar, perfecting seasonings, canning and processing. And oh my, those pickles were gorgeous: they looked like jewels in their shining glass jars. We waited in anticipation for the jars to cool, the pickles to pickle, the spices to infuse, and when we opened the first jar, pulled out the first emerald spears, we closed our eyes, took a bite and...


Absolute mush.


So soft and mushy that the pickles disintegrated in their pretty jars until they looked like jars of sad pea green soup. We threw them all away.

It was such a bitter and total epic FAIL, that I couldn't even blog about it. That's how disappointed I was (according to my husband, I do not deal well with disappointment or frustration. Go figure.) In typical fashion, I vowed that one day, I would indeed conquer the pickle, once and for all!


That day is today. It turns out I did a few things wrong last year. First, I used the wrong kind of cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers, the sort of cukes usually found in big chain grocery stores, tend to be soft and watery, perfect for salads and cucumber sandwiches, but far too soft for pickles. Those Persian cucumbers were so soft and bendy I was doomed from the start. What you want are pickling cucumbers, which are crisp enough to stay crunchy for the long haul. Second, the brine/hot pack waterbath process also had me doomed, because the heat that sterilizes the brine also cooks the cucumbers, making them that much softer.

The secret to getting really crisp, really deliciously cool pickles is to skip the "quick-pickle" method and do it the old fashioned way: fermentation. This is the way pickles have traditionally been made throughout history, and they are incredibly delicious. And not only do they taste better than their shelf-stable vinegared cousins, but they are better for you. Fermented pickles are "pickled" by friendly lactic acid bacteria. This fermentation renders foods easier to digest, introduces "good" probiotic bacteria into the gut (much like yogurt or kefir), and lastly, offers an alkaline balance to acidic foods, like meat. Also, they taste better. What's not to love?


"Half Sour" Kosher Dill Pickles
probably the hardest thing about this recipe is finding the right kind of cucumbers to pickle. This summer, I grew my own organic pickling cucumbers in my back yard, but you can also also find pickling cucumbers at farmer's markets and specialty stores. I think you can probably use Persian or kirby cucumbers in this recipe, but I can't guarantee how crisp the results will be.

It is VERY important that the brine is made exactly as the recipe indicates, with the exact same ratio of water to salt. Fermentation pickling works by allowing the lactic bacteria, naturally present on the surface of all vegetables, to flourish and ferment the cucumbers. The salt brine inhibits the growth of other bacteria, so it's important to be at the right strength. Too little salt, and bad bacteria may grow in your pickles. Too much salt, and the pickles are too salty to eat without soaking first.

This recipe is for "half sours," or pickles that are half-fermented and finished off with a splash of vinegar. They take about 2 days to ferment, give or take depending on the weather. You can flavor your pickles with whatever spices and herbs you like, through fresh dill and mustard seeds are traditional and a good place to start. Or you can get creative, adding minced fresh garlic, red pepper flakes, olives, red peppers, etc.

small firm cucumbers, such as pickling, kirby, or persian cucumbers
pure filtered water
kosher salt or sea salt (no iodine)
fresh dill
mustard seeds
optional: red pepper flakes, minced garlic, black pepper, etc.

1. Scrub cucumbers well, and cut of flower end, as it contains enzymes which can soften the cucumber. If desired, slice cucumbers into spears or slices. Rinse any herbs you will be using as well.

2. Pack cucumbers into a large food-grade crock or jar, leaving at least 1" of head space at the top. I have been making mine in large French style mason jars, but you can make them in almost anything. Pack cracks with sprigs of fresh dill and sprinkle with mustard seeds or other spices.

3. Make brine: mix together salt and water, with 1/4 cup salt to every 4 cups water. Mix together thoroughly, until brine is clear. Pour over packed cucumbers.

4. Cover pickles with a lid or cheesecloth, and let ferment. Depending on how warm or cool your home is, this process can take anywhere from 2 - 7 days. When small bubbles begin to form on the surface of the pickles and dill, you pickles are done. You can continue to let them ferment as long as you wish: they will not go bad, they will simply continue to intensify in acidic flavor. When your pickles are at the desired sourness, pour off the 1" of brine head space, and add a splash of vinegar. Store in the fridge, which will slow fermentation. Enjoy!


  1. How funny! I did pretty much exactly this method a few weeks ago, and I think our pickles look like brothers (sisters?). :) They are so good, aren't they? Did you get your method from David Lebovitz?

  2. I am so happy that you posted this recipe! I will try it this week. :)

  3. Yum. Will definitely try. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Becks, I tried making these a few days ago. Yesterday they smelled pleasant. Today there were bubbles around the edges, but they smelled not quite so pleasant. Also, the brine turned cloudy, which I tend to associate with something going a bit bad. Did I do something wrong? Or are these actually still ok?

  5. Emily - Yes! They are still ok. In fact, it's almost impossible for fermented pickles to "go bad," since the fermentation acts as a preservative. Back in the "olden days" before refrigeration, a barrel of pickles would be left out all summer to enjoy.

    It sounds like what probably happened to your pickles is that they went from "half-sour" to "full-sour." One of my batches (see first photo) did that too: It's just so darn hot here that fermentation happens very rapidly, sometimes in a matter of hours, not days. They will probably taste more tangy/sour than the pickles you are used to. Not a bad taste, just different :) Next time, try fermenting for less time - I left a batch for about 24 hours earlier this week, and they were wonderful.

  6. Also, the cloudyness is just a byproduct of lactic fermentation happening. Far from being a sign that your pickles have gone bad, it means your pickles are ready!

  7. How long do these pickles last, once they've been put in the fridge? We are trying to make pickles as Christmas gifts, and we are concerned that the fermented type will not last long enough.

    The person who gave us our fermented pickle recipe (which is very similar to yours, but without the dash of vinegar at the end) said that her family leaves them in the basement for up to a year, without refrigeration. She said they are delicious and don't go bad. We're worried that they will become too sour and/or be unsafe to eat. What do you think?

  8. Thank you for posting this! This is the best recipe, and best information I have read so far. We just tried a different recipe using cloves of garlic, and fermenting for 4 days and ours were mushy and so so so sour. I was so sad, much like you after your first batch. My husband is quite excited with the mustard seeds, this makes much sense to him. Also, I thought I needed to bake them in the sun for 4 days, and I live in Texas, so I have a feeling that was wrong too. I guess its ok to just leave them in the windowsill, even with the air conditioning on? ;)
    Thanks again! Love your blog! Patrice

  9. Woah - baking in the sun for 4 days in TEXAS? That sounds like a recipe for like... Canada :) I just left mine on the counter (I don't even think it was in the sun). Yours must have been super sour :)

  10. One thing that really made a difference for me (cruchy-wise, as opposed to mushy) was using the right kind of cucumbers - I ended up growing my own, and they are super firm! If the cucumber is soft at all before you pickle it, it will just get softer after fermentation. Last summer I grew a kind called "endeavor" from Renee's Garden:

  11. Hi! Thanks for this recipe...just what I was looking for. :) I have a few quick questions so I hope you're still reading this. If I ferment these in a 1-gallon Ball jar with a cloth cover (my glass lid broke many moons ago), can I move them into smaller jars before going into the fridge? If I want to hot water bathe the jars after the pickles ferment on the counter, will that help preserve them longer? (Meaning no refrigeration until opened?) Will they lose their crispness if I hot water bathe the jars? Thanks a ton! Carey

  12. I was over looking at your PHFR post and noticed this on the side bar. My husband is Jewish and has a real opinion on "good" pickles -- full sours! I finally figured out they were fermented and made a batch earlier this summer. He deemed them perfect! :-) And it's so easy, isn't?!

    We love HB and it is our go to beach spot (we drive over from Vegas)! You have a beautiful blog.

  13. I made this recipe two days ago and the water has finally turned milky/cloudy but the pickles are not yet sour. They taste salty, not sour. When will they start tasting sour? I don't want to ferment them for too long.....a heat wave is going on and we have 90 degree weather for a week. I'm afraid they'll go bad.
    Thank you very much for posting recipes for your readers. You guys are under appreciated :-)

  14. I have a friend that gave me a bunch of pickles that I love. I finished them soon and wanted to make my own so I just bought some pickles and put them into the same solution that the eaten pickles had been in. It has been a few days and all looks well, except when I tried one the other day their was a weird taste to them that was kind of tangy but not pleasant. There is also a bubbly foam on the top of the solution. I wonder if this is just the fermentation process but the specifics of what I did are this: I bought the pickles, sliced them up and cut off the ends. Then I put them into the old solution, closed the lid and put them into the pantry at room temperature. I never boiled them to create a seal. The top of the lid can still pop in and out if I press hard enough, but the fermenting inside keeps it pretty hard. I also never put the jar in the fridge because I liked them warm and I know that my friend does not keep them in the fridge. The solution itself is also older because my friend found the sealed pickled in her pantry, they were still good to eat, just extra zesty. So are these pickles safe to eat? Do they need more time to ferment? can I save them by boiling them as they are and creating a seal? Can I ever re-use the solution from a former batch of pickles and if so how? Please let me know if you don't have the answer to any of these questions also.

  15. I've tried fermenting with Persian cucumbers as well as pickling cucumbers and much prefer the Persians. They were super super crispy. I used the smallest ones I can find. The only difference was that I added 1 to 2 T. of liquid whey. I also put it in a cool (no more than 70 degrees) place covered loosely with a dish towel. Also, place a weight like a small ceramic bowl so that everything is submerged. I had 1 piece peek out and it tasted funky.

  16. Sea salt naturally contains large amounts of iodine. That is why your pickles arent pickling correctly. You must use kosher salt or pickling salt you can find at any groccery store.

  17. This is a great method used by my family in Hungary. It only works in the summertime when temps rise and the sun gets hot. Sometimes when its REALLY hot outside, these cold sun pickles would be all that we snacked on during the day!

    I have seen the method of cross-crossing lengthwise through the (usually fatter) pickling pickle. That way you end up with spears. They are meant to be a little softer on the inside. Its just the type. As for the Persian cuces, I've used the same method and I leave them outside in the heat, (non-direct sunlight), for about five days. You can tell its "working" once the pickles start to turn a little yellow. They are done when the bubbles stop.

    Its really important to keep everything submerged under the brine.

    Adding whole crushed garlic will not only give great flavor, but you're end up with cute little pickled garlic.

  18. Funny but I just made up my own recipe using only Garlic Cloves and Kosher salt and water and they were terrific. Everyone loved them and they were ready within 24 hours. I bought the small firm cucumbers from the farmers market and they worked fine and I now have them jared and in the fridge since I live in Florida. I was trying to duplicate the pickles I remembered from my youth in front of the Jewish Deli in Brighton Beach Bkln in 55 gallon wooden barrels and these are very close but I remembered that they had some kind of seeds so will try the mustard seeds in my next batch. I made a batch of fresh sauerkraut a few weeks ago and that got me to thinking that that was probably how they made the kosher half sauer pickles. It's fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

  19. OK I want to try this, but what is the ingredient brine?

  20. We have done several different published recipes with great success, but I want to make those Deli-Style pickles that I used to see in the barrel in the Deli. Yes, that was some 60 years ago, but I can never get past the taste and half-done consistency. I now realize that the fermentation method is what they must have used. We just went out and purchased pickling cucumbers and a couple of 1 gallon glass jars to see if we can match the taste. I tend to prefer a more garlic tasting pickle, so we probably go heavier on that than your recipe. Results to follow .......

  21. So can you can these to keep them without refrigeration once they reach the half sour point? Or do they turn mushy from the hot water bath?

  22. I see the reply from july 2010 that someones was cloudy and bubbled, I just made some half sours and they sat on the counter for 4 days, they are cloudy and bubbled so I put them in the frig. In researching I came across a post on a site titled 'poison pickles' and they warned of botulism. so now I am concerned. I didn't have much vinegar in my recipe and I scaled it down but forgot to scale down the salt, so I know it might be too much. would these still be ok?

  23. This recipe sounds great! Can't wait to try it. Thanks for clarifying the salt-to-water ratio. Another traditional trick I've had good results with in the past is adding some fresh picked grape leaves to the brine to keep the pickles crisp. Sometimes they can be found growing near churches if you don't otherwise know where to look for them!

  24. I am a different Anonymous. After following the recipe it is now cloudy and bubbly; I tried one and found it to be very salty. Should I continue to wait or did I do something wrong? It was not sour. Thank you.

  25. I have experimented with naturally fermented pickles for several years now and I love them...I only make them in the Spring and the Fall when a new crop of "pickling" cucumbers hits the farmers market..Wash them very well and make sure to get the bloom end off the pickles...If you don't,that end will be a little pruny and soggy compared to the rest of your pickle...I usually buy a whole case and I try to get them the first day they are picked...If they are the least bit pruny or rubbery skip them and wait for a fresher batch,or if you know where they are grown try and get them to let you pick your own...Diamond crystal Salt is a must for me...I like garlic,fresh dill and whole mustard seeds...I tried pickling spice mixes and did not like the results at all...I think they are OK for a sweet pickle recipe but I haven't tried those yet because I crave the half sours and kosher dills too much!! I also invested in a fabulous heirloom quality pickling crock called a "Harsch" crock...They come in several sizes...I got a smaller one and a huge one and they work fabulously...If you use the open crock chees cloth method you are told to skim the scum daily or it makes the pickles bitter (and it will.) These Harsch crocks have a heavy lid with a well designed water trough which makes the crock air tight so no skimming is needed...Google harsch crocks and check them out...They aren't cheap but these things are made so well they will be in your family for generations and they look gorgeous even when you aren't using them...Back to why I only pickle in Spring and Fall...this is Florida and even with A/C temps can get too warm for pickling...I like to have the pickles at no higher than 72 degrees...people with basements have no problem with this...I usually put them in a dark corner of the coolest room in the house...You know the fermentation is taking place because every once in a while you hear the crock burp...For half sours I start tasting after about 3 just have to get the feel of it...For full sours I go 12 days or more...Good luck...When you get your first great batch of pickles you will be so proud of yourself..this is a lost art so make sure you teach the younger ones in your family so they know how to do it too.

  26. Hi, Used essentially the same recipe except used 1/3 c. salt to 32 oz. water. Also added 2 crushed garlic cloves, bunch of dill, black pepper, and some dried red pepper chips. Fermented in a cool place for 4 days. They came out very salty. To remedy this, I sliced the pickels I was going to use the next day in half and placed them in ice cold filtered water in the fridge overnight. Only removed the pickels that I would use the next day. That did the trick. These were the best half sour pickels I've ever had, bar non.
    The crispiest and tastiest I've ever had. Next batch I will reduce the salt to 1/4 c. to 32 oz. Will report back.

  27. Has anybody had any luck using oak leaves or grape leaves?

  28. So many ridiculous comments and questions here. Oct 2, oak leaves, grape leaves and cherry leaves (among 100's of others) are used to keep the pickles fully submerged. Fistfulls are clumped on top to make sure your cukes don't come up above the brine where other bacteria can get to work on them. This is a Russian tradition and is purely for pushing down the cucumbers - it doesn't affect whether the pickles are crispy or not.
    To the several dummies who want to know why things didn't work out when you used an air-tight lid, it's because you used an air-tight lid. And those of you who wonder if your pickles are safe, probably not, as you don't seem so literate in a general sense. Were you able to make sense of the instructions you were given? If not, you probably didn't follow them. To re-iterate what's really important here,
    1. Keep the cucumbers submerged (that means under the brine - brine means salt water) during the entire process.
    2. These are fermented pickles, that means live bacteria. Vinegar won't produce any, don't use it. If your mother made pickles with vinegar, that's because they're a different kind of pickle, and the author didn't make a mistake when not telling you to use any.
    3. Don't seal the jar. The bacteria making the pickles sour needs to breathe, it gives off C02 and that needs to escape or the bacteria won't do its job well.
    4. Scum happens, don't eat it, but don't freak out if your pickles touch it.

    1. Too bad folks may have stopped reading after dismissing you for being insulting, because your tips were actually decent. Did you really need to deliver them that way?

    2. The best tip for making naturally fermented pickles is to google "naturally fermented pickles" and reading 15-20 of the best and most intelligently written articles you can find on the subject. Take notes. Compare recipes. Form a consensus regarding brine strength, spices, fermentation times and techniques. Take commonsense food-safety precautions when handling all materials. Keep notes on all measurements used and date all the jars. Then go at it and learn from your mistakes and successes.

    3. Since when is asking a question ridiculous. It's how we learn. Shame on you for being so rude

    4. the grape (and some other leaves) contain tannins which help to keep the pickles crispy.

    5. Getting dizzy from ready all this info on pickles, but have been looking for the perfect and yes, easiest half-sour pickle recipe.