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Fermented Half-Sour Pickles

I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with canned pickles. While I love them in theory--the taste of late summer in a jar--they usually fall far short of the crisp, briny platonic ideal, becoming increasingly soggy and insipid over time.

This summer, to preserve a bit of the season without robbing it of its just-picked crispness, we started making half-sour pickles. Our first attempt at half-sours a couple years ago was ill-fated. We wrongly assumed that fermenting whole pickles would take quite a while, so we packed a crock full and didn't check them for about ten days, at which point they were far too soft.

This summer's pickle trials, however, have been resoundingly successful. Armed with the knowledge that fermentation can progress very quickly, especially in the summertime, we've taken to testing our half-sours after two to three days. Our most recent batches of pickles have only needed about five days at room temperature before they're ready to go into the fridge, where fermentation slows considerably.

Traditionally, half-sour pickles use a fairly light brine of about 3.5% salt by weight. This translates to about 2 tablespoons salt per quart of water. We made a brine with 1/2 gallon water and 5 tablespoons kosher salt. If you're using canning and pickling salt or sea salt, use slightly less--about 4 tablespoons for 1/2 gallon of water.

We also like to use grape leaves in our pickles. Grape, oak, or sour cherry leaves are often used in old pickling recipes because they contain tannins that prevent the pickles from going soft. Enzymes from the blossom end of the cucumber can cause pickles to soften undesirably during fermentation. Grape leaves are a way of counteracting this. However, you can also just cut off the blossom end of the cucumbers if you prefer or don't have access to grape leaves.

Finally, we've started fermenting in mason jars using airlock lids. We find this to be a great system for a few reasons. One, you can actually see what's going on in the jar--bubbles from fermentation, how the liquid looks, etc. Two, when fermentation is complete, all you have to do is swap out the airlock lid with a normal mason jar lid and put it in the fridge. Three, the curve of the jars helps keep the pickles below the brine. For this to work, you have to wedge them in tightly, but its a nice system nonetheless.

Use smallish pickling cucumbers for this ferment--they should be about 4 inches long (smaller is okay, but because they will ferment faster, be sure to check on them sooner). Try to use cucumbers that are all about the same size. If you have some smaller and some larger cucumbers, pack the smaller ones in at the top of the jar so you eat those first.

The most important thing to remember with pickles like this is that times given are just a guideline. Your pickles may take longer than mine did (we don't have air conditioning, so our ferments happen in a warmer environment). Be sure to taste the cucumbers as they ferment. When you like the way they taste, they're ready. You may prefer them to be quite sour, in which case you'll be fermenting them for a longer period of time. If you like them less sour and a bit firmer, you won't need to ferment as long. It's all about preference.

Other articles you might enjoy: Brine-Fermented Sauerkraut, Fermented "Louisiana-Style" Hot Sauce, Kombucha

Fermented Half-Sour Pickles
Makes 4 pounds of pickles

Clean and trim off any blossoms (or trim off the blossom end) from:
     4 pounds small to medium pickling cucumbers (about 4 inches long)
Stir together to dissolve the salt:
     1/2 gallon cool water
     5 tablespoons (90g) kosher salt

Place in the bottom of each of two sterilized, 1/2-gallon mason jars or in the bottom of a crock:
     Peeled cloves from 1 head garlic (2 heads of garlic total)
     4 to 5 grape leaves (8 to 10 total)
     4 to 5 dill sprigs (8 to 10 total)
     1 teaspoon black peppercorns (2 teaspoons total)

Wedge the cucumbers into the jars tightly, starting with larger cucumbers and filling in with smaller ones. Wedge small cucumbers in at the top so that the curve of the jars will hold them under the brine.
Fill the jars with enough brine to cover the cucumbers completely. If using airlock lids, fill the airlock with water, and screw on the lid. If using a crock, use a plate or a doubled zip-top plastic bag filled with water to keep the cucumbers under the brine, then cover the crock either with a lid or a piece of cloth tied tightly to keep out dust and flies.
Check the progress of the fermentation daily. The brine will start to get cloudy and smell slightly sour, and the cucumbers will begin to soften. You can taste the cucumbers as they ferment to see how sour you want them. Remember that in warmer weather fermentation tends to happen faster than in cooler weather. Half sour pickles may be done in as few as 5 days, or they may take weeks. 
When fermentation is done (or the pickles are as sour as you want them), replace the airlock lids with normal lids, and transfer the jars to the refrigerator. If you used a crock, transfer the pickles to jars, cover with brine, and refrigerate. 


Pamela's picture

I have tried fermenting pickles before. They came out pretty bad. After doing a bit of research, I think I know what happened. My default way of cleaning veggies is soaking them for 10-15 minutes or so in vinegar water. I think the vinegar killed the lacto microbes that make the fermenting happen. My latest batch using your recipe came out wonderful. They took 9 days. Thank you so much for posting this - it really made all the difference for me (and my pickles)!
meg's picture

I'm so happy to hear that our recipe worked for you! It's always refreshing to hear the success stories :)
joseph's picture

hi i would like to know if i want to make full sour pickles do i just add salt? or just let ferment longer? thanks
meg's picture

You simply let the pickles stay in the brine longer. I'm all in favor of tasting the pickles throughout the process--when they get to the point where you like the flavor, refrigerate them.
Betsy's picture

Just wondered how long they last once they make it to the refrigerator. Thanks
john's picture

I would say 2 to 3 months Betsy. They will continue to sour a little in the fridge.
Dee Messino's picture

Pickles wouldn't last 2-3 months at my house. My daughter, who is in her thirties, has been eating dill pickles since she was about a year old. She was given a deli pickle on a whim and loved it. And no sweet pickles for her.
Mr. Charley's picture

Hi! I made half sours last year in a plastic bucket. They turned out really well but when I transferred them to jars and put them in the fridge I had trouble keeping them submerged in the brine. The result was that they developed mold all over the top and I ended up throwing a lot of them out. I was using wide mouth jars. Do I have to use narrow mouth jars and pack them in tight or is there another way you would suggest to keep them submerged? I couldn't find anything small enough even for the wide mouth jars to put on top to hold them under the brine. Also, where can I buy the airlock tops? Thanks
john's picture

Hello Mr. Charley. Narrow-mouth jars and tight packing will definitely help. One idea for keeping them submerged in a wide-mouth jar: cut off the bottom 2 inches of a small plastic water bottle or a 1/4 pint narrow-mouth jar, place over the pickles, and press down with the lid. Anything non-reactive will be fine... plastic, glass. As for the airlocks, you can find a few different sellers on the internet, but we purchased these: They work great and are easy to clean. Happy fermenting!
Shervin's picture

Hi, I am going to try this recipe out. I don't have grape leaves so I will cut the blossom ends like you suggested. I just bought a 6 pack of half gallon mason jars to do this. Do I need to sterilize them before using them? and what if I don't have the regular lids, I only have the 2 piece lids. will that still work when I place the jars in the refrigerator?
john's picture

Hello Shervin. Sterilizing jars is always a good idea, including new ones, which often have an odd factory smell. Regarding the lids: for the fermenting, you need to use an airlock or 1.) weigh the cucumbers down with a non-reactive object to keep them submerged 2.) securely cover the top of the fermentation vessel with cloth or a paper towel to keep insects out (rubber bands or the ring piece of standard mason jar lids do the trick). Once they are done fermenting, the two-piece lids are just fine for storage. If you want to use airlocks with the jars you purchased, they are easy to find on the internet. We found ours here:
Jerry's picture

Just a Quick Tip about tannins since many will not have access to grape leaves. I use Tea, for a 1 gallon jar of pickles I use about 1/2 a tea bag. Just pinch it at the fold and snip off 1 end and add it with the rest of your dry spices. Works great.
Mattycakes's picture

If you insist on tannins or alum, skip the black tea as it is simply too aggressively flavorful even if using small amounts of weak tea. If you don't have access to grape leaves, oak leaves will supply your completely unnessecary tannins (you really don't need them). More importantly- tannins are really only needed for vinegar pickles that you intend to keep for a long time. Natural pickles which have been lacto-fermented in a simple brine with the freshest cucumbers will inevitably be crisp and lovely with no softness at all for weeks and weeks, provided that they go into the refrigerator as soon as the fermentation has ceased or has reached the level of sour that you prefer.
john's picture

Snacking on a tannin-free batch right now :-) You're absolutely right: the tannin-bearing ingredients are not strictly necessary to get a crispy result, but their use has nothing to do with whether or not you use vinegar. The softening effect tannins counter has to do with enzymes that emanate from the blossom-end of cucumbers, not countering the effects of an acidified environment.
Jaz's picture

I have a question about fermenting pickles. Mine have been in for 7 days and taste delicious! There are no more air bubble rising; will they continue to ferment or should I just assume they are done and refrigerate? Thanks!
john's picture

If they taste good, refrigerate them! They will continue to ferment in the fridge at a much slower rate, so if you like what you're tasting, slow down the fermentation immediately.
cathy ellis's picture

My grandmother used to make sour pickles with just vinegar and salt. I have lost her recipe and wondered if you knew of one with just these 2 ingredients. She may have added alum.
john's picture

No water? That would be pucker-your-mouth sour... Plus, it would be a "quick" pickle, i.e. not fermented. We have a recipe for Quick Dill Pickles in the latest edition of the book on page 947... perhaps that what you're looking for. The sourness in this recipe comes from the lactic acid produced by fermenting the cucumbers.
Lawrence Miller's picture

You can find all supplies necessary for fermentation such as lids, gaskets, glass weights for keeping the cukes submerged in the brine, air locks, etc. at
Toby's picture

I am planning on making a batch of Full Sour Pickles. Can I slice the cucumbers before fermentation or should I leave them whole Thanx
john's picture

Hi Toby! Just slice them after they've fermented to your liking.
andre from MA's picture

You do not say anything about rinsing the cukes and brushing off the glassy spines. Can I assume this is too obvious to mention? Do all cukes have spines? These are some variant of Kirbys designed for pickling.
john's picture

Spines? We have yet to find Kirby cukes with spines. In general, if a cucumber has "warts" or bumps, it is good for pickling. Varieties with smooth skin are no good. As for washing, you're absolutely right... That's what we were trying to get across by starting the recipe with "Clean and trim...".
MicheleMyBelle's picture

unfortunately i cant get my hands on the kind of leaves that you mentioned but I do have pumpkin and green squash growing in my garden, would either of those work?
john's picture

The leaves have to be high in tannins. Walnut leaves or tea leaves work too, though the latter might add flavor.
Jody Kinney's picture

Oak leaves are tannic too and work well.
josef novak's picture

If I use a gallon mason jar, can I fill it 3/4 of the way with cuks and have a 4-inch gap from the cuks to the waterline and still have success? A recipe I found called for 3/4 cup of salt to one gallon of water - that ratio is much higher than yours - what gives with that? Thanks.
meg's picture

Yes you can do that--the important thing is that the cucumber stay submerged beneath the brine. If they are allowed to float, they will oxidize and mold is more likely to occur. Our brine ratio is calculated thusly: 1/2 gallon of water weighs 1,890 g (or 1.89 kilograms). For fermenting in brine, you need about a 5% salt brine. 5% of 1.89 kilograms is 94.5 grams. We rounded down to 90 grams, but you could round up to 95. Either way, there is absolutely no need to use any more salt than 5%. To our tastes, that's too salty and from a food safety perspective, you just don't need more than 5% salt. The easiest way to make a 5% brine is to place a jar on a scale then tare the scale so it reads zero. Then fill the jar with cool water. Record the weight of the water and multiply that number by .05. The resulting number is how much salt you need to add to the water to get a 5% brine. Add the salt to the water, put the lid on the jar, and shake to dissolve the salt. Viola! You have a 5% brine.
JOSEF NOVAK's picture

I have some spices floating at the top of my jar - is that okay? Cuks are submerged.
meg's picture

Spices floating is totally fine. As long as the cucumbers are under the brine, you're good!
Morgan's picture

I fermented my pickles for about 4 days in a warmer environment. There were air bubbles and I tried half a pickle and a tasted great (a bit salty). So I put them in the fridge and checked on them and there is a white-flaky solids on the bottom of the jar. Is that mold or okay? Thanks!
john's picture

Hi Morgan. If they've been under refrigeration the whole time, I wouldn't worry about it, especially if they tasted sour. We see wisps of white in our pickles sometimes, but not solids. I'm not quite sure what it is, but I haven't noticed any difference in flavor when it appears.
Judy P's picture

Thanks for this recipe with just garlic and dill, perfect!! I did a batch in a tall,bowl and covered with plastic wrap. After 6 days, a thin layer of white mold formed on the surface. So I took the pickles out ( they were all OK and taste great), but can I skim this mold off and use the brine in the refrigerator with the pickles, or make a new brand new brine solution to store the pickles in?
john's picture

Hmmm... I would try to skim off the mold and use the brine, but storing then in a fresh batch of garlic-dill brine will not hurt anything.
Franziska's picture

If I wanted to preserve these for longer, could you waterbath can them afterwards? I use raspberry leaves for tannins, which works great.
john's picture

Absolutely Franziska! Unfortunately, if you can using a boiling water bath, they lose a lot of their crunch. We have had success processing quarts in a 180F water bath for 30 minutes. That time and temperature will help retain crunch, and is deemed safe for canning acidified foods by the USDA.
tammy's picture

My pickles are in a clear plastic food bucket. I am keeping them submerged with a plate and a plastic chinese food soup container filled with water. It's been 3 days and there is mold forming on top of the brine. I also cut the cukes first. Is this normal or do I throw the batch away?
john's picture

If it's white mold, I would scoop it off and keep going.
Bill's picture

Have made about 3-4 batches so far and all have been excellent. Just do exactly what it says. I use the silicone waterless Pickle Pipe airlocks, available on Amazon; simpler than the the water kind and work well. Last batch produced good pickles but surfaces were slimy and the brine as well. After fermentation I repacked in fresh brine, which solved issue, but wondering what conditions would produce the sliminess. Shame to lose the original brine which is one of my favorite things to drink. Other than this recent glitch, this recipe has been golden in producing a favorite food.
john's picture

Hmmm. That's an odd one Bill. I suppose it could have something to do with the freshness of the cucumbers, but it's likely that some type of bacteria sabotaged the ferment. Your fix is definitely what we would have done... I guess just sterilize everything good and cross your fingers next time. I'm glad the other batches turned out so good!
Anonymous's picture

Hello, If I put together four - 1qt mason jars of sours and test them for doneness, can I test one jar and assume that all four are at the same stage given that they share same brine and temp. conditions?
john's picture

I think you can safely gauge the progress of all of them by tasting from one jar. You might want to alternate between jars, or at least try the others before you put them in the refrigerator.
gary thorpe's picture

Hello tell me whats which end is the blossom end thanks
john's picture

Opposite the stem end :-) If the stems have been removed, chances are there is a small, pitted crater or cut surface where the stem used to be. The blossom end might have a small, discolored spot as well, but it should be pretty easy to tell which was done by pulling off the stem. Blossom ends are usually lighter in color too.
Bill's picture

Great recipe. Have made over 8 quarts this way over the past year. DO cut off the blossom tip. When I forgot, they got soft. Still tasty but not crunchy. I have made them in both Florida and Washington State. I have wild grapes in Florida so I use those leaves, and in Washington I use leaves from Oregon White Oak, which also works great. So try oak leaves if grape not available. Either really dramatically increases crispiness.
john's picture

Awesome Bill! Glad you have gotten so much value out of this blog!

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