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Lacto-Fermented Cucumber Pickles

Can you handle another pickle recipe?  This will be the last one, I promise (for a while, at least.)  Since it's the year of the cucumber, I've been doing a lot of pickling.

I've done brine pickles and refrigerator picles, dill pickles and sweet pickles.  I've even done squash pickles (not cukes, but so good.)

What I've never done is lacto-fermented pickles.  I've always been a bit unsure.  Would they really taste good?  Could I convince anyone else in the family to try them?

Unlike typical pickles, lacto-fermented pickles don't get their good, sour taste from vinegar.  Instead, they're fermented (hence the name) but not in a bad way.  Kind of like sour kraut or Korean kimchi.

Salt, and sometimes whey, is used to allow good bacteria to grow and keep bad bacteria at bay.  This good bacteria is actually super healthy and good for the gut.

Historically, lacto-fermentation is how people pickled foods.  It helped food keep.  And even though I know humans have done this for centuries, and lots of people still pickle this way today, the back of my mind still harbored the "yuck" factor.

But, I decided to cowgirl up and just try it.  I didn't have much to lose, considering I'm currently drowning in cucumbers.

And I liked them!  They were crunchy, salty, sour, and super good.  And my kids did too!  In fact, we gobbled up one full quart jar already and I'm ready to make another.    

I encourage you to try them!  They really were very easy to make.  In fact, I liked them so much I'm experimenting with other things I can lacto-ferment.  But that's a recipe for another day!

Lacto-fermented Cucumber Pickles

Approximately 1 lb. pickling cucumbers
2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt (sea salt or canning salt preferred)
1 teaspoon dried dill or 2 heads fresh dill
1 teaspoon pickling spices
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon whey (optional)
3 grape leaves (or raspberry leaves, blackberry leaves, or 1 teabag of black tea)
1 quart-sized jar with lid
1 smaller jar that will fit inside the first, or a small bowl or, in a pinch, a really clean rock

First, boil your jar for 10 minutes to sterilize it.  You don't want any beasties growing in your pickles.

While the jar is on to boil, prepare your cukes.  You can slice them into rounds or spears, or just leave them whole. 

After the jar is squeaky-clean and cool, filled it with your prepared cucumbers.  Add in garlic cloves and spices.

The leaves or tea bag goes in at this point too.  It sounds like a strange addition, but the tannins in the leaves helps keep the pickles crunchy.  And, since no one likes a mushy pickle, it's important not to leave these out.  I have several grapevines, so I always use grape leaves in my pickles and it works great.  Black tea will give similar results.

Next, the water and canning salt goes into the jar.  It seems like a lot of salt, and it actually is a lot of salt, but it's necessary.  The super salty water helps keep the bad bacteria from growing, while allowing the good ones to live.

Put a lid on the jar and give it a real good shake.  Now, open the jar back up. 

You absolutely want to keep everything submerged in the brine.  Anything exposed to air will rot.  You can take your small jar or bowl, fit it inside the larger jar, and use it to keep everything submerged. 

Since my cukes were trying to float to the surface, and I didn't have anything that fit inside my jar, I covered them with a grape leaf and then set a small rock on top to keep everything submerged.  I found the rock in my garden, scrubbed it clean with goat's milk soap and a stiff brush, boiled it, and soaked it undiluted white vinegar just for good measure.  In short, it's the cleanest rock around now.

Once you have everything down in the brine, put the lid back on and set your jar in an out-of-the-way spot (not the refrigerator).

You can see just a bit of kahm yeast in my jar on day 3.

You may see a white film or scum developing on the top.  This isn't mold.  It's called kahm yeast.  It looks yucky, but it's harmless.  Still, you'll want to skim this off as it can affect the taste of your pickles.

Also, as the fermentation process gets going, you'll see bubbles rising in your jar.  Horray!  This is the fermentation process taking place.  It's a good thing, trust me.

After four days to a week, taste one of those little buggers.  If they're sour enough for you, put them in the fridge (this slows the fermentation process).  If they're kind of bland, let them set out longer.  I've found that once the brine stops bubbling, the pickles are basically done, so you can put them in the fridge after that too.

Enjoy your pickles!  I must say, I like these so much better than the vinegar pickles.  I'm a fermentation convert. 

*** Note:  Some fermented pickle recipes call for whey.  Whey contains lactobacillus (sound familiar?  It's the same active culture in yogurt.)  Lactobacillus is the "lacto" in lacto-fermentation, and it's the bacterium you want to grow in your pickle jar.  Adding whey can give the good guys a head start.

When I was making cheese all the time, I had an abundance of whey.  I don't have any at the moment, so I just leave it out and hoping the good guys find their way to my jar.  It worked, but I'll try whey next time just to compare.

You can make your own whey by lining a mesh sieve with cheesecloth (or even a coffee filter) and placing it over a bowl.  Add 1 cup plain yogurt to the sieve.  Let this drain for several hours.  The liquid that collects in the bowl is whey.  Use that in your pickles and eat the yogurt.    

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