Make Old-Fashioned Dill Pickles

Reader Contribution by Ilene White Freedman
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I made dill pickles! I can’t believe it. The transformation of a cucumber to an old-fashioned pickle is a bit of magic. I understand how a jar of sugar and vinegar can integrate with sliced cucumbers for bread and butter pickles, but these dill pickles are a bit of magic. It’s a simple enough process. Find your biggest jar or a crock, pack it with cucumbers, salt water, dill seeds and garlic for flavor, and a grape leaf for crispness. The grape leaf is a mysterious ingredient. You won’t find it in the store, but you need not look there anyway. Ask friends, post it on Facebook, you will find someone who has grapevines on their property, cultivated or wild. Stuff them in the crock, set the crock on the counter, and hope for the best. Ideal counter temperature is 72 degrees, for about a week.

To come back in a week and find pickles makes me think somebody switched up my cucumbers when I was ignoring my crock. I skimmed off some mold layer once (normal) and I checked on it a few times and gave a sniff to the dill concoction. I made sure the jar of water was still holding down the weight to keep the cucumbers under the brine. I waited for a little fizz of bubbles to sit on the surface. That’s it. Those bubbles are the signal that fermentation has occurred. Time for a taste test. If they pass the test, it’s time to transfer the pickles into jars and put them in the refrigerator to slow the process. They should last a few months in refrigeration. I have a little refrigerator in a hiding place to tuck away extra jars of fermented foods, so they don’t dominate my kitchen refrigerator.

That’s the process for magic pickles. Cucumbers transformed into pickles that remind me of deli dills, salty and crispy.

I made it sound easy. Admittedly, cucumber ferments are a little trickier than some of the other vegetable ferments. The process is simple, but delicate. My first batch came out all soft and icky. I tried again with smaller cucumbers freshly picked same day (two important guidelines), and I monitored the crock every day or two. Left too long in warmer weather will make them soften quickly. My pickles had some soft spots, maybe because I used bigger cucumbers than those tiny picklers.

Growing your own cucumbers is important to this process, I think. The cucumbers are supposed to be little and same-day fresh, which makes buying them difficult. Pickling cucumbers are harder to find in the store or market, especially fresh ones, so it’s best to grow your own. If the cucumbers are not fresh, you can try icing the cucumbers for a few hours before processing.

Old-fashioned pickles are worth the trial and error. These are the real deal, fermented crock dill pickles, not vinegar-based canned pickles. Modern day vinegar pickles don’t really work for me. I don’t like the taste of vinegar and I don’t appreciate the amount of sugar it takes to temper the vinegar. Old fashioned pickles are fermented at room temperature in a salt brine, creating a condiment that is very good for the gut, full of lactobacilli, like yogurt.

Pickles and other condiments, even mustard and ketchup, all used to be fermented and good for you, to complement digestion. When lacto-fermenting gave way to vinegar canning for consistency and pantry shelf-life, we lost the beneficial properties of the pickle. (Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon)

Bring the beneficial properties of the condiment back: enjoy old-fashioned dill pickles to aid digestion and improve your burger. 

Check out these books: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News  and, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to