Killer Dill Pickles

The first kirby cukes of summer just arrived at my farmer’s market, and I’m excited! I love making old fashioned sour dill pickles, and I hope you’ll give them a try, too. This is how dill pickles were made for hundreds of years, before the advent of modern canning. The flavor is fresh and tangy, without the harsh pucker you get from eating vinegar pickles. It is important to make these with kirby cucumbers – sometimes sold as pickling cucumbers – which are small and bumpy, very firm, and less seedy and watery than cucumbers meant for slicing into salads. The cucumbers need to be very fresh to make a nice, crunchy pickle so please wait to try this until cukes are in season in your area. I recommend buying yours at a farmer’s market or farm stand – the fresher, the better! I’ve given the quantities for a single quart (or liter) but I usually make double or quadruple this amount and ferment them in 2L jars. Below is a recipe as well as detailed information and photos describing the stages of fermentation. Time to take some of the fear and mystery out of fermenting!


Killer Dill Pickles – made the old fashioned way.

Killer Dill Pickles
1 quart or liter

1lb. kirby cucumbers (approximate)
2 grape leaves
2 dried chiles (or 1t crushed red pepper)
1 dill frond
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 heaping teaspoon mustard seed
1 heaping teaspoon coriander seed
1/2t peppercorns
2 allspice berries
1 bay leaf, crumbled

Brine: 1 1/2T salt dissolved in 2c water for full-sours. 1T salt dissolved in 2c water for half-sours.

Wash the cucumbers well in cold water to remove any dirt, scrubbing gently if necessary. If the cukes aren’t just-picked from your garden, soaking them in ice water will help retain their crunch. Give them an hour or two in the ice water while you prepare your jars and the other ingredients.

Cucumbers have a blossom end and a stem end. The blossoms have enzymes which can cause the cucumbers to soften as they’re pickling. Be sure to scrub this end well to remove all traces of the blossom, or use a sharp knife to take a very thin slice off that end. The blossom end looks sort of yellowy-brown (on the left) while the stem end is usually still bright green, having been recently picked (on the right).

Left – Blossom. Right – Stem.

Place 1 grape leaf in the bottom of the jar, and add the chiles and the dill frond. Begin layering the cucumbers, packing them in as tightly as you can. When the jar is about half-full, add the remaining spices.

Cukes and spices.

Continue packing cucumbers until the jar is full. Place the 2nd grape leaf on top, folding it over if necessary. Placing a grape leaf on top will help to keep the cukes from sticking up out of the brine. Fermentation occurs in the brine, and anything exposed could get moldy. Add enough brine to cover the grape leaf completely. Place a small weight on the top to keep the cukes submerged. Ideas for a weight are: a small shot glass (allow a little more room), a cleaned and boiled rock, glass marbles or decorative stones. (For this batch I used a glass lid from a small Weck jar in the mason jar, and a 4-ounce quilted jelly jar in the Fido jar.) Secure the lid. For a mason jar, place the lid on top and screw on the ring. Then loosen the ring about a half-turn. Fermentation creates gases, and if the lid is screwed on tight the pressure could build to a point where the jar might break. If using a wire-bale jar, clamp down the lid. The gasket will allow gases to escape. With either kind, if you are worried about excess pressure you can “burp” the jar daily in the early stages to release some of the gas (simply loosen or unclamp the lid briefly until you hear a “pffffft” of gas and then reseal). After the jar is sealed, write the date on the glass with a marker.

Now we wait. . . .

The jars should be placed in a cool spot out of direct light. High ambient temps can cause problems with vegetable fermentation, so if you live in a warm climate try to find a cool place in your house, such as a closet, where temperatures won’t rise above 75ยฐ. Don’t set the jars on the fridge or next to a window or stove. The jars should be kept out of the light – I usually drape a kitchen towel over mine. On day 1 your jar of cucumbers in brine will by bright and pretty; the progression to pickled goodness will be slow and gradual over the next few weeks.

Day 1: Bright green cukes in salty brine.

Within a day or two the brine will start bubbling. You may see some foam at the top. The color of the cucumbers rapidly changes from bright to a more drab, olive green. If you tasted the brine now you would notice it has a bit of a tang already, but still tastes mostly like salty water. The rapid production of carbon dioxide will also make the cucumbers float. Good thing you put a weight on them!

Day 3: Brine is bubbly and color is fading.

Day 3: Close up of bubbles.

One week later the cucumbers have taken on a more “pickly” appearance. The cucumbers have lost all their vibrant color, and now the brine has turned cloudy. This cloudiness is normal for naturally fermented pickles, and a good sign that things are proceeding well. Some of the cloudiness will also settle on the pickles or the bottom of the jar as a white film. This is a natural, healthy phenomenon – it doesn’t taste bad and it won’t harm you in any way. It is simply an accumulation of expired bacteria or yeast. (And if the thought of consuming dead yeast creeps you out, then you’ll have to give up eating bread!)

Day 7: The brine is turning cloudy.

Day 7: Close up of white film on pickles.

By two weeks, the bubbling will be reduced, or may have ceased altogether. There might be a thick layer of sediment on the bottom. The brine is cloudier and darker and they’re starting to look like real pickles! You may wish to sample one now. If you find that it is pickly on the outside, but still seems like a raw cucumber on the inside then it needs more time. Or maybe not! The great thing about making your own pickles is that you can eat them however you want. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Day 14: Brine is dark and cloudy.

Day 14: White sediment on bottom is normal and healthy.

Day 14: Give this pickle some more time!

I gave these pickles another few days after the last photo and in that time something magical happened! They transformed from “pickle-flavored cucumber” to full-blown pickle. And, YUM! These are tasty. You can see in the photo below that they are now pickled all the way through. The flavor is tangy and pleasing, without the pucker you get from eating a vinegared pickle. At this point you’ll want to transfer your pickles to the fridge or a cool place such as a basement or cellar. Left out at room temp they would keep fermenting and their awesomeness would eventually fade. These pickles have all their vitamins intact, as well as enzymes and beneficial bacteria – health food! – so feel free to let your kids snack on these as much as they want. If you have a baby, pickles make a great old-timey teether. You might want to take a picture to show off your pickles to all your friends – if so, do it fast before a little person makes off with your photo subject like mine did!

Day 18: Perfect pickles!

When all your pickles are gone, don’t toss that brine! It is teeming with beneficial probiotic bacteria. It’s excellent for sipping, or mixed with vodka for a dirty martini. You can also use it in salad dressings or as a marinade for meat.


Additional Info

When shopping for kirby cucumbers, select the smallest ones you can find. But the most important thing is to try to pick ones that are equal in size. Small cukes will pickle sooner than large ones, so putting a mix of sizes in one jar will give you uneven results. If you have to use a mix of sizes, put the largest ones at the bottom of the jar – they’ll keep pickling after the jar is moved to the fridge while you’re working your way down through the smaller ones at the top. Occasionally you might find a pickle that is hollow in the middle. This is not caused by fermentation: the cucumber grew that way, probably due to irregular watering.

The spices I listed in the recipe above should be treated as guidelines only – feel free to substitute or omit as needed. You can even make pickles without the dill! A big part of the fun with fermentation is playing around with the flavors you get from different herbs and spices. You can also use a “pickling spice” mix. I happen to think these spices give excellent flavor, but a few more peppers would be a great addition if you like some kick. You can also add grated horseradish.

Yummy spices.

You might be wondering what the grape leaves are doing in there. Grape leaves provide tannins, which help the cucumbers stay firm and retain their crunch. Many plants have tannins in their leaves, bark, fruit, and seeds. If you don’t have access to grape leaves you can substitute: oak leaves, horseradish leaves, cherry leaves, or even blackberry, strawberry, or currant leaves. A pinch of green or black tea will also work. Beyond that list, you can experiment with other kinds of leaves, but they may not provide enough tannins, or could even impart too much, which would give your pickles a bitter, astringent taste. If you find some grape leaves for sale at a market you can buy them and freeze them in aluminum foil for future use.

Many leaves provide tannins for crispness.

Sometimes a powdery white film can form on the top of pickles or other ferments, such as sauerkraut. This film is commonly referred to as kahm yeast, and is an overgrowth of an undesirable (but not harmful) bacteria or yeast. It smells a little bit like a cross between beer and bread. The best way to prevent it is to use a lid, since it needs oxygen to grow and fermenting veggies quickly use up the oxygen and replace it with carbon dioxide. If you notice some growing in your jar I recommend leaving it alone until the pickles are done fermenting. If you open the jar to scoop it off you’ll introduce fresh oxygen and it will just grow back thicker each time. Best to leave it until the pickles are done, and then scoop it off before refrigerating.

Kahm yeast on pickles.

If you’ve been surfing the web looking for fermented pickle recipes, you’ll probably find some that suggest adding things like whey, apple cider vinegar, or a powdered starter culture in the beginning. I urge you not to try this as you are more likely to have problems; adding starters interferes with the natural fermentation process, and can lead to mushy pickles and undesirable flavors. This recipe is how our great-grandparents, and their great-grandparents for many generations back made pickles. It works because all fresh vegetables carry exactly the bacteria they need to be transformed into tasty pickles when submerged in salt water. However, sometimes despite your most careful efforts a batch will turn out a little soft. Don’t throw those out! They still have good flavor and are full of probiotics. Instead, mince the pickles and cover them with a bit of the brine for a delicious relish.

Killer Dill Relish.


Happy Fermenting!

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39 Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    I just made the first batch of pickles from my garden yesterday. I have yet to make the ‘perfect pickle’ so read your thoughts with great interest. Thank you for posting this wonderful information for newbies like me. I’ve always used raw whey or starter culture so will take your recommendation of using only a brine in the future.

  2. Kelli says:

    Hi Sarah!
    I am relatively new to fermenting. I have fermented sauerkraut, and this summer pickles and also kimchi. I am leaving for Maine this weekend for several weeks and I would love to put the pickles in the fridge. The problem is I used my Granny’s huge Redwing 2 crock. Beautiful, super useful, she always had something fermenting in it. But it’s not practical for a fridge. I have lots of Mason jars (I also can) — can I safely just sterilize the jars and put them in WITHOUT processing? Meaning – they will not be anaerobic and therefore safe in the fridge for a few weeks? Or, Option B, what about in a few jars in the fridge, with cloth tied on top with string? Thank you!!! xo

    • Sarah says:

      It’s safe to ferment in jars, with or without the lid. The pickles would benefit from sitting out on the counter for a few days to get fermentation started before transferring to the fridge. Once they are bubbly and the brine has turned started to turn cloudy you can put them in the fridge for as long as you need to. (Mine usually take about 3 days to get to that point.) Fermentation will proceed in the fridge, but at a much slower rate. If you find when you get back that they aren’t quite “pickly” enough for your taste, you can put them back out on the counter to ferment some more. I never bother with sterilizing my jars or utensils when fermenting because the good bacteria will overpower any pathogens and anyway the vegetables themselves, plus your hands and your workspace are not sterile. Just make sure the jars are clean. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Kelli says:

    Hi – I should have been more clear. They’ve been in the crock 10 days and are tasting really good! Brine is cloudy. I guess my question is about transferring from the original fermentation vessel into different storage vessel (aka some quart jars) to slow things down while we’re gone. Physics problem – crock doesn’t fit in the fridge! k

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, that will be just fine. It’s really hard to mess up fermentation once things get going. I would go ahead and use the lids when you put them in the fridge, but leave the rings a little loose.

      P.S. How nice that you have your grandmother’s crock! I wish some of us had thought to keep my Grammy’s. Nobody else knew how to ferment then! ๐Ÿ™

  4. Sandy says:

    Sarah, I was given 4 pickling cucumbers of varying sizes, so I want to slice them for pickles. I will still have about 1 qt. I was wondering if you would change the quantities of any of the ingredients for slices. Are there any other changes you would make? Thanks.

  5. Donna says:

    Have you had any issues if you open up the jar to see if they are done– then decide they are not and ferment longer? I’d hate to break the “seal” but there’s no other way to tell if they are done. Just wondering what your experience has been on that.

    • Sarah says:

      I have fermented many batches of pickles, kraut, etc. in open crocks covered only with a towel. It’s perfectly fine to peek now and then. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Kristin says:

    Hello! I found your blog through Wild Fermentation on Facebook and I just made up this recipe. Strange question (maybe?): The only dark and cool place in my apartment is my pantry, which is also where I brew my kombucha. Is it okay to store them together? If not, if I stash them in a cabinet, would the lack of air flow be a problem? Thanks!

    • Sarah says:

      Hello! It is fine for them to be together if you’re using a lid on the pickle jar. If it is open, they need to be separated as kombucha has a tendency to travel and people have reported SCOBYs growing in places where they shouldn’t be. Kombucha likes heat (85 is an ideal temperature) so you might consider taking it out of the pantry. And since it is an oxygen-loving ferment, it would be happy in a more open space.

      • Kristin says:

        Oh! My pantry is open to the air – it’s just shelves on the wall. I hang a curtain around it for guests and ferments and so far the KT is loving it (I’ve gotten 3 batches of KT from a continuous brew for the last 4 weeks successfully). I checked out the pickles today and I’ve got some bubbly action and it smells amazing. Thank you so much for writing the recipe and helping me out with this. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. kat says:

    I loved the recipe Sarah and I also really love hot food a LOT but the pickles seemed a bit hot even for me. Next time I am going to decrease the red pepper flakes to 1/2 a teaspoon. I also tried 3 batches as an experiment. One quart had a few bay leaves, one had fresh grape leaves and one had a Lipton tea bag. The crunchiest BY FAR after 5 days (and I think they still need a few more days) was…….the one with the tea bag. I am sold now on using tea bags and next time I will use decaffeinated tea!

  8. Jill says:

    I made a jar of pickles last week and the brine ended up becoming really cloudy and kind if thick–almost slimy. It smells and tastes pickley, but I am wondering if it’s still ok to eat with the weird brine and all.

  9. Eliette says:

    I have dried bay leaves at home as well as tea bags. How many bay leaves should I use altogether and if I use the tea how much tea do I use? Would the pickle juice get a tea flavor if I use the tea? I would much prefer a neutral flavor. Thank you.

  10. Eliette says:

    I have dried bay leaves at home as well as tea bags. How many bay leaves should I use altogether and if I use the tea how much tea do I use? Would the pickle juice get a tea flavor if I use the tea? I would much prefer a neutral flavor. Thank you.

  11. Brenda says:

    I’d like to use a cloth spice bag to prevent the seasonings from floating and creating a mold pathway. Will a new spice bag work okay in ferments??

  12. Katie says:

    “Killer pickles” is a great title for this recipe. I wonder how much histamine you’re creating by holding the oxygen in the container. And every time you “burp” them, that little “pffffft’ is letting oxygen in. And when you close it up, the oxygen is locked inside the container, making even more histamine. My children are histamine intolerant – lots of rashes, upset stomaches, food intolerance. It took us awhile to figure out what was going on.. Our doctor warned us about toxic ferments. You may not be bothered by the histamine – yet – but it would be a shame if others, who don’t know what they’re battling, followed your technique.

    • Sarah says:

      Histamines are biogenic amines created by the bacteria during fermentation as they metabolize the nutrients in the vegetables, and is particularly associated with the bacteria involved in the early stages of fermentation. It is not in any way related to the presence, or lack of, oxygen, since the lactobacillus bacteria responsible for fermentation are facultative anaerobes, meaning they do not utilize oxygen at all but are also not inhibited by its presence. Histamine production peaks in the early stages of fermentation, and gradually wanes, so if you are sensitive it will be better to ferment for a longer amount of time. I suggest you do some more reading on this topic. The Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods is a good place to start. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Jack says:

    Greetings from western Finland!

    Just made six jars with this recipe (a bit modified, using beer + apple cider vinegar as the liquid), I wonder how they will turn out….

    I will keep you updated.

  14. Paula says:

    I need to harvest my jalapenos and I was looking for a great pickling recipe, of course I came here. My problem is we have an “underlying mold issue” in our new home we bought. I cant ferment currently. Can I use this recipe and just substitute vinegar?
    Thank you for all of your help,

  15. Leslee says:

    So, can i do this in a large crock for a big batch….like my grandparents corner store had….the old pickle barrel?
    If yes, can i just keep them submerged by using my sauerkraut method if filling a zip log bag( super large) with saline water as weight and ” lid”???
    When done transfer to jars or leave in barrel and remove as desired?

  16. Linda says:

    Where is the recipe for the brine?

  17. Eddie says:

    Previous commenter posted this (twice), and I’d love to know the answer “I have dried bay leaves at home as well as tea bags. How many bay leaves should I use altogether and if I use the tea how much tea do I use? Would the pickle juice get a tea flavor if I use the tea? I would much prefer a neutral flavor. Thank you.”

  18. Eddie says:

    For the previous post: I basically dont have access to horsradish leaves, grape leaves, current leaves, etc and I’m trying to find an alternative for tannins to maintain the crispiness of the pickles.

  19. Randy says:

    My pickles went for 11 days in a one gallon jar with a air lock but half of them are hollow and mushy. I used dry oak leaves for a tannin because there are no green leaves on the oak trees yet. Can I put the good ones in quart jars and cover with left over brine and what should I do with the hollow ones?

  20. Tami says:

    Can you use the powdered pickle crisp in fermented pickles?

  21. Shelley says:

    Sarah, I have large picking cucumbers. Can I spear them or slice them and still have good results fermenting them? I’ve done your Killer Pickles in the past with smaller cukes and they turned out great. I got a super deal on cucumbers this year but they are much larger than I prefer. Hoping they will work. Also, I have a glass crock-style jar (2 gallon) with a lid that does not seal (just sits on). Will that be okay for fermenting? Thank you for your help!

  22. deb says:

    I have green mold on the top of my fermenting pickles, they have been fermenting for 8 days, are they safe to eat?

  1. August 6, 2016

    […] We have already harvested a bunch of rather largeย pickles (Northern Pickling). The plan is to ferment them for later on. As you might be able toย see their is added dill, horseradish, chili flakes, mustard seeds and garlic. I use refillable tea bags to help keep the spices submerged and I have a combination of glass lids (weck brand) and some ceramic pickle weights. If anyone is looking for a reliable recipe for fermenting pickles I can recommend this recipe. […]

  2. October 29, 2017

    […] Killer Dill Pickles by Sarah Miller […]

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