Lacto-Fermented Vinegar-Free Cucumber Pickles (gluten-free, vegan, raw, ACD)

'Tis the season to preserve, friends, so I'm posting another recipe for pickled vegetables.  You can't escape the natural cycles of the growing season.  So, I'm offering this one up for Summerfest 2010, a community blog event celebrating summer ingredients.  This week's theme is cucumbers and zucchini, so it was perfect timing for my pickles.

I have to say that these are the best dill pickles I have ever tasted. Granted, I'm partial, but seriously, these are crunchy, not too salty, and full of garlic, dill, and spices. And best yet, there isn't a drop of vinegar to be found - they are naturally pickled and fermented in a salt brine, and are full of beneficial bacteria. 

Lacto-fermentation is a process of preserving foods that relies on lactic acid, a naturally occurring preservative that is produced by lactobacilli. Lactobacilli are live bacteria that exist on the surface of every living thing. At the most basic level, you create a brine of water and salt, which preserves the food long enough for the lactobacilli to catch up and produce lactic acid, which then preserves the food for the long-term. In addition to being preserved, the food is live, meaning that the healthy bacteria are still thriving in the finished food product and are available to your body. Live beneficial probiotic bacteria - like those found in these pickles - help strengthen immune system function, aid in detoxification, and regulate digestion. When you learn to control the production of lactic acid, you are able to protect against putrefying bacteria and safely preserve all kinds of foods, from meats, to vegetables, to fruits, to beverages. Unlike vinegar-cured and canned pickles which are shelf-stable, most lacto-fermented foods require refrigeration or cold storage.

I make a lot of fermented food and find it to be very beneficial to my overall health, especially because I take so many antibiotics for Lyme Disease treatment.  I've been playing around with cucumber pickles since last summer, but just hadn't hit the right combination of factors until now. I think I finally nailed it, and have concluded that it comes down to a few decisive factors...

Small-sized pickling cucumbers. When choosing pickling cucumbers, I prefer smaller ones, which fit in the jar better, stay crispy, pickle more quickly than large ones, and are rarely tough.  You can find pickling cucumbers at well-stocked grocery stores and farmers markets. If you can, get organic.

Kombucha.  Kombucha added to the pickling brine seems to improve the overall flavor and allows it to ferment more quickly.  It also adds a powerful punch of enzymes, amino acids, and antioxidants.  I brew my own kombucha, but if you don't, find it bottled at natural food stores and co-ops.  

Fresh grape leaves added to the jar. The tannins in grape leaves help to keep the pickles crunchy. This is a trick I picked up from Sandor Elix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation.  You can find grape leaves all over the place (along railroad tracks, on the sides of buildings, in parks, in your neighbor's backyard, etc), so I recommend looking for some, grabbing a few, and adding them to the jar. If you can't find them, that's okay - I have made pickles with and without grape leaves with success, they just aren't quite as crunchy without.  Katz also suggests using sour cherry leaves, oak leaves, and horseradish leaves in place of grape leaves.  

A well-spiced brine. A good mix of spices adds the finishing touch to any good pickle. I added fresh garlic, coriander, fennel, allspice, bay leaf, garlic, pickling dill, and red pepper flakes to the brine. If you prefer a more streamlined pickle, feel free to pick and choose your additions based on your tastes and tolerances.  I think some grated horseradish root would also be darn good - I am going to try that in my next batch.

If you've never fermented food before, check out this post for some helpful tips and tricks before you start. It is just basic stuff, but makes a difference.  Eventually, I am going to try canning some of these pickles after they ferment and see what happens.  I know that the heating process of canning would kill the live bacteria, but it would make them shelf-stable and not require refrigeration. I will let you know how all of that turns out.  In the  meantime, these will just need to take up space in your refrigerator or very cold root cellar.

Okay, go forth and ferment! Embrace bacteria and make some awesome food. Like they say, “Support bacteria - they're the only culture some people have.”

Happy pickling, friends!  And be sure to check out the hosts of Summerfest 2010 for the schedule and all the great recipe submissions: Tea and Cookies, In Jennie's Kitchen, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef


smallish pickling cucumbers make better pickles

create a flavorful mix of spices for the brine

throw in a few heads of flowering pickling dill

pack it in! this is just after packing the jar - aren't they lovely?

reusing big gallon pickle jars is the easiest way to do it

the brine becomes cloudy as the pickles ferment, don't be alarmed

Lacto-Fermented Vinegar-Free Cucumber Pickles

yield 1 gallon

When choosing pickling cucumbers, I prefer smaller ones, which fit in the jar better, stay crispy, and are rarely tough.   The fresh tannin-rich grape leaves added to the jar help to keep the pickles crunchy. Sandor Elix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, also suggests using sour cherry leaves, oak leaves, and horseradish leaves.  I have made with and without grape leaves with success.  I like adding kombucha; I think it makes for a better flavor and quicker fermentation, however, if you do not have it or do not tolerate kombucha, feel free to omit.  Pick and choose whichever spices you'd like to include, based on your personal tastes and tolerances. 

about 4 pounds small to medium-sized pickling cucumbers

1/2 cup unrefined sea salt (RealSalt, Maldon salt, Eden sea salt are excellent)

4-5 cups filtered water

1 cup plain kombucha (optional, if not using add more water)

3 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds

1 Tbsp coriander seeds

2 tsp red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp allspice

1 bay leaf

4 heads fresh flowering pickling dill, 6 large sprigs dill weed, or 4 Tablespoons minced fresh dill or dill seeds

1 head fresh garlic, cloves separated and peeled

handful fresh grape leaves (optional, if available) 

1 1-gallon glass jar

Wash cucumbers well and let soak in cool water for about an hour to freshen up.  While cucumbers soak, sterilize your jar.  Place grape leaves, garlic, dill, and spices at the bottom of the jar.  Dissolve salt in 2 cups of filtered water and kombucha.  Layer cucumbers into jar, packing firmly, then pour in brine, adding additional water as necessary to cover pickles, leaving 1" space at the top of the jar. Close jar firmly, and place out of the direct sunlight.

Ferment 3-4 days (it will ferment more quickly in hot temperatures),  then open the jar and try a pickle.

The fermentation time will vary based on the temperature, the size of your pickling cucumbers, the bacteria in your kombucha, and the amount of naturally occurring lactobacilli on your vegetables, so trust your gut and follow your intuition.   Each batch may be a little different - this is not an exact science. Basically, if you like how it tastes, they are done! Pack into smaller jars as desired and store in the fridge. If you desire a more sour, tart pickle, or they don't seem cured all the way through, recover and let ferment an additional day or two, sampling to check progress. I let mine ferment for 3 1/2 days in a kitchen that is about 78º-80º F, and they were perfect. 

Once refrigerated, pickles will continue to cure over time, and their flavor will improve with age.  Will keep up to 6 months refrigerated.

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