The perfect dill pickle: the secrets no one is telling you!

Posted on Saturday, June 20, 2020 | By Nicole Easterday |

The perfect cucumber is every fermenter's dream. You had one once on a trip at a roadside diner and you can't seem to shake the memory - so crisp, so tart, so refreshing...

It seems like the most basic thing you could make when you start fermenting - doesn't everyone's grandma have a go-to recipe?

Nope and nope.

Yeah, grandma made pickles. But I'd be willing to bet she made quick pickles - the kind where you add vinegar and dill and spices to get sour, crunchy perfection. Her pickles were not fermented.


What are pickles?

Let's start out talking about what pickles are. The original dill pickles were fermented and if you've ever been to a real New York-style deli you might have seen their big wooden barrel of fermented pickles. These are cucumbers submerged under salt water with dill and spices, fermented to perfection. Probiotic, juicy, crunchy, sour dill pickles.

Somewhere along the line people realized they could approximate the flavor by adding the same dill and spices but instead of fermenting cucumbers under a brine, they could simply pour in vinegar (and maybe some sugar). It kept the cucumber crunchy, was super quick and easy enough anybody would do it.

Fermentation Matters

Probably they didn't realize what they were losing by giving up the fermentation. Quick pickles are not probiotic, they aren't teeming with beneficial microbes, amped up with extra B vitamins and vitamin c. They don't contain the microbial communities praised for doing everything from honing your immune system, to enhancing your mood and controlling your cravings.

My Fermented Pickles Are Squishy!

Let's just put it out there - fermented dill pickles are where it's at. The best of the best. But they're not easy to do and I definitely wouldn't call the a beginner ferment. Most people who try fermenting dill pickles without doing their homework end up with squishy, slimy pickles - a true disappointment when what you're after is a crisp, fresh, crunchy dill.

That said, armed with a few tips and tricks we can all be making incredible, probiotic, fermented dill pickles this summer. So get your cucumbers in the ground now and read on...

All the tips and tricks you need to make the best fermented dill pickles ever
Making amazing fermented pickles is actually easy once you know a couple of simple tricks. I recommend using all of these techniques at the same time for best results.
  1. Start with the best cucumbers you can find
    Garbage in, garbage out as the old saying goes. It couldn't be more true with cucumbers. You can't start with an old, limp vegetable and expect it to somehow become crispy. Likewise, a bitter cucumber will become a bitter pickle. Buy only the freshest, blemish-free, pickling-type cucumbers and ferment them right away while they're still crisp. Better yet, grow them in the garden and ferment the day you pick them! Tasting the stem end can give you a sense of whether the pickle will be bitter since that's the end where bitterness concentrates. 
  2. Soak in ice water 
    Soaking your cucumbers in ice water 30-60 minutes before fermenting seems to help keep crispness. I honestly don't know why this works - it may be pure witchcraft - but it does seem to work so I keep doing it. You can actually see the color of the cucumbers change after 30 minutes in ice water so I'm convinced something happens - I just don't know what.
  3. Remove the stem and blossom end
    The stem and blossom ends of the cucumber contains enzymes that will cause your pickles to soften. You only need to remove the smallest amount (maybe 1/16") so it's really more like scraping or shaving the end off.
  4. Increase herbs & spice quantity
    If you used to longer ferments, you might be surprised by how much more flavoring you use with dill pickles. Because the fermentation period is so short, using extra herbs and spices will help ensure a robust flavor.
  5. Use more salt
    Upping the brine concentration can really help shore up those cell walls, keeping your cukes crisp so don't be shy with the salt. Many ferments do quite well at 2-3% brine solution but cucumbers do best with 4-5% instead.
  6. Add tannins
    Tannins prevent the cucumber cell walls from breaking down and softening your pickle. Tannins can come in many forms so try some of the following and use what works best for you.
     * Grape Leaves - These are my personal favorite and are great if you have access to them. Preserved grape leaves work well if you can't find them fresh. One leaf per quart works quite well.
    * Black Tea - Drop in a black tea bag or 2 (or 2-4 tsp looseleaf tea) per quart of pickles. This has the benefit of being fairly readily available to most people. Make sure it's black tea since it's the tannins you're after.
    * Bay Leaves - Add 2-4 bay leaves per quart to add flavor and tannins to your pickles! A double whammy.  
    * Blackberry or Raspberry Leaves
    - If you're lucky enough to have a blackberry or raspberry bush, try using the leaves in your pickles. They're even full edible when young and tender.
    * Other options - Other options range from red wine to cherry and oak leaves. I put these all in the last category because I don't think they're ideal and I haven't personally tried them. Some cherry and oak leaves can be toxic so please always do your homework before you take advice liberally from the internet.
  7. Shorter ferment time
    Dill pickles don't require a very long fermentation time. 3-4 days for half-sours and 5-6 days for full sours is really all you need. Any longer can cause softening of the cell walls, making you lose that precious crunch.

Happy pickle making, friends!! Armed with these tips, you've got this!!