Making Sour Pickles

Excerpted from Wild Fermentation

Growing up in New York City, experiencing my Jewish heritage largely through food, I developed a taste for sour pickles. Most of what is sold in stores as pickles, and even what home canners pickle, are preserved in vinegar. My idea of a pickle is one fermented in a brine solution. Pickle-making requires close attention. My first attempt at brine pickle-making resulted in soft, unappealing pickles that fell apart, because I abandoned it for a few days, and perhaps because the brine was not salty enough, and because of the heat of the Tennessee summer. And and and. “Our perfection lies in our imperfection.” There are, inevitably, fermentation failures. We are dealing with fickle life forces, after all.

I persevered though, compelled by a craving deep inside of me for the yummy garlic-dill sour pickles of Guss’s pickle stall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Zabar’s on the Upper West Side and Bubbie’s in upscale health food stores elsewhere. As it turns out, brine pickles are easy. You just need to give them regular attention in the summer heat, when cucumbers are most abundant.

One quality prized in a good pickle is crunchiness. Fresh tannin-rich grape leaves placed in the crock are effective at keeping pickles crunchy. I recommend using them if you have access to grape vines. I’ve also seen references in various brine pickle recipes to using sour cherry leaves, oak leaves, and horseradish leaves to keep pickles crunchy.

The biggest variables in pickle-making are brine strength, temperature, and cucumber size. I prefer pickles from small and medium cucumbers; pickles from really big ones can be tough and sometimes hollow in the middle. I don’t worry about uniformity of size; I just eat the smaller ones first, figuring the larger ones will take longer to ferment.

The strength of brine varies widely in different traditions and recipe books. Brine strength is most often expressed as weight of salt as a percentage of weight of solution, though sometimes as weight of salt as a percentage of volume of solution. Since in most home kitchens we are generally dealing with volumes rather than weights, the following guideline can help readers gauge brine strength: Added to 1 quart of water, each tablespoon of sea salt (weighing about .6 ounce) adds 1.8% brine. So 2 tablespoons of salt in 1 quart of water yields a 3.6% brine, 3 tablespoons yields 5.4%, and so on. In the metric system, each 15 milliliters of salt (weighing 17 grams) added to 1 liter of water yields 1.8% brine.

Some old-time recipes call for brines with enough salt to float an egg. This translates to about a 10% salt solution. This is enough salt to preserve pickles for quite some time, but they are too salty to consume without a long desalinating soak in fresh water first. Low-salt pickles, around 3.5% brine, are “half-sours” in delicatessen lingo. This recipe is for sour, fairly salty pickles, using around 5.4% brine. Experiment with brine strength. A general rule of thumb to consider in salting your ferments: more salt to slow microorganism action in summer heat; less salt in winter when microbial action slows.

Timeframe: 1-4 weeks

Special Equipment:

  • Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket
  • Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
  • 1-gallon/4-liter jug filled with water, or other weight
  • Cloth cover

Ingredients (for 1 gallon/4 liters):

  • 3 to 4 pounds/1.5 to 2 kilograms unwaxed
  • cucumbers (small to medium size)
  • 3⁄8 cup (6 tablespoons)/90 milliliters sea salt
  • 3 to 4 heads fresh flowering dill, or 3 to 4
  • tablespoons/45 to 60 milliliters of any form of
  • dill (fresh or dried leaf or seeds)
  • 2 to 3 heads garlic, peeled
  • 1 handful fresh grape, cherry, oak, and/or
  • horseradish leaves (if available)
  • 1 pinch black peppercorns


  1. Rinse cucumbers, taking care to not bruise them, and making sure their blossoms are removed. Scrape off any remains at the blossom end. If you’re using cucumbers that aren’t fresh off the vine that day, soak them for a couple of hours in very cold water to freshen them.
  2. Dissolve sea salt in ½gallon (2 liters) of water to create brine solution. Stir until salt is thoroughly dissolved.
  3. 3. Clean the crock, then place at the bottom of it dill, garlic, fresh grape leaves, and a pinch of black peppercorns.
  4. Place cucumbers in the crock.
  5. Pour brine over the cucumbers,place the (clean) plate over them, then weigh it down with a jug filled with water or a boiled rock. If the brine doesn’t cover the weighed-down plate, add more brine mixed at the same ratio of just under 1 tablespoon of salt to each cup of water.
  6. Cover the crock with a cloth to keep out dust and flies and store it in a cool place.
  7. Check the crock every day. Skim any mold from the surface, but don’t worry if you can’t get it all. If there’s mold, be sure to rinse the plate and weight. Taste the pickles after a few days.
  8. Enjoy the pickles as they continue to ferment. Continue to check the crock every day.
  9. Eventually, after one to four weeks (depending on the temperature), the pickles will be fully sour. Continue to enjoy them, moving them to the fridge to slow down fermentation.

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87 thoughts on “Making Sour Pickles

  1. My family has been making “Romanian pickles” for years. My grandfather started pickling in 10 gallon wooden barrels. We use the recipe that you mention, without the grape leaves or black pepper seeds, and with the addition of 3 dried chili peppers per gallon. They are by far the best pickles I’ve ever had.

    We also pickle green tomatoes, cauliflower, celery, and small watermelons with the same recipe.

    I had to learn the “taste” of the salt water. We also only use koshering salt. There is no iodine, and it does the best job.

    Also, the container HAS to be airtight. If not, the pickles will decompose, making little pickle-mush bags instead of crunchy pickles. We also pickle them for at least two weeks. Constant attention has to be paid to any leakage of the gallon jars (or quart jars).

    I’ll check out the salt concentration that you wrote, and see how it compares to my learned taste.

    Take care

  2. I am in the process of making your pickles I started them 3 days ago and bit into one of the smallest ones today and it was perfect. I think I will leave the larger ones in longer. Now that they are to my liking how do I store them? Should I make up a new batch of brine? Can it just be the brine with out the garlic, dill and leaves? Can I use the old brine to start new picles? So many questions.

    • I usually store in the fridge in the original brine. Many people add a cup of the old brine to a fresh batch as a starter. In Russian cuisine, extra brine is used in summer soups. Yum!

      • Exactly the info. I was looking for. I have just finished my first batch of cucumber carrot combo. I had to put them in smaller containers so have some brine left over. It seems a shame to dispose of it but I wasn’t sure if I could reuse it. I will keep it as a starter. I added some curry leaves to the mix along with garlic and some dill. Really interesting flavour! My cucumbers were not the freshest to start. I had an excess of English cucumbers given to me so thought i could use them in lacto-fermentation. I am happy with the outcome but will certainly use the freshest produce next time.

  3. hello everyone,

    my problem is that when we do pickles we use vinegar and pasuerize them so that we can store them till/through winter without spoiling in a storage room, not refrigerator because there isn’t that big a refrigerator to hold the season worth of cucumbers. are you saying that traditional fermented cucumbers (or other vegetables) cannot be kept without refrigeration in a storage room from now till late fall or winter when the temperatures go down? if that is so I will have to continue using vinegar and pastuerization

  4. I used a similar recipe last year but the pickles went bad. I was so dissapointed. I put them in a 1/2 gal mason jat this year. I am afraid to leave them out. Will leaving the jar in tje fridge sumply sloe the process or cause it not to work at all? I dont know what went wrong last time.

    • Ferment at ambients temperatures for a few days, then as soon as pickles turn olive green move to fridge to slow down progress and keep from getting mushy.

  5. Thank You Sandor, Making Lacto fermented pickles from these guidelines has become a very satisfying hobby. I am happy to find that the process ameliorates any bitterness you may find in batches of cucumbers too.

  6. are these what I know as dill pickles that my non jewish farming grandparents used to make? Will they keep in the brine all winter. I seem to remember them going down to the cellar all winter to grab pickles.

  7. With a half gallon jar of pickles in the fridge and two more jars fermenting in the wings I absolutely love this method.

    But I do have a practical question. We will be on vacation and I know that the garden will produce enough cucs for at least one more jar of pickles before we go but I will not have enough time to let them sit on the counter the two weeks or so necessary for the fermentation to work. Can I prepare the jar and toss it into the fridge and let it ferment slowly there or should I add whey to speed up the process (I really like the flavor using a salt brine only and would prefer not to alter my technique)?

    Any suggestions would be extremely helpful.

  8. The cucumbers in my garden are not coming in all at the same time. So I can’t pickle them all together. I am thinking of starting a gallon krok and just adding the cucumders as they are ready to pick. Do you think this will work?

    • The only problem is the cucumber pickles can ripen fast in hot weather and then get mushy so different ones will be ready then gone-too-far in the same batch. Better to accumulate them in the fridge then pickle a bunch at the same time.

  9. I have a batch of sour pickles that have been on my counter in a ceramic crock for a week now. I live in NW Florida and my house temp stays between 75-77degs. I started sampling the pickels after four days and as of today they seem to be loosing their cruch and I plan on moving them to the fridge.

    My question is, do I leave them in the crock weighted down, or can I transfer them to sealed jar without a weight? I think I’ve seen the latter suggested, but only after straining the brine and boiling it to kill any organisms. Thoughts?

  10. I’ve been making kraut for a few years using Wild Fermentation as a reference. Last year I tried making sour pickles, but I messed up. This year I have a bumper crop of pickling cukes, so I am at it again. The jar went into the basement a few hours ago, and Tuesday morning can’t come soon enough. I also made a batch of garlic sausage and marjoram kielbasa. Thank so much for writing about fermentation. I just love the taste of my home made ferments.

  11. great great blog. only a recommendation… if you could introduce at least one image or photo into the bigger texts like that, could be easy to read, because the (nice) dessign of the web has strong images, and only -long-text ask the eye for some point of refresh

    the theme -vegs, foods, ask for some example, maybe, too-

    maybe im too much “optical perfectionist”… well, it smy work

    nice nice web again,

    another fermentators

  12. pickles and fermentation are big in big old muslim culture´s cook, and it was passed -as millions of useful knowings in gardening, mathematics, chemistry….- to the tradition of the south of Spain, where i live.

    search for Morocco´s “limones en conserva”, they taste fantastic, they are used as a perfumed acid touch for lot of recipes

    Musulmanes in Andalucía used lacto-fermentation and land-bacteries cultives in agricultura, it was ancestral effective and natural process was kept and improved for siecles and was stopped and boikotted by big chem u.s. corporations in the 80´s

  13. Fresh grape leaves or fresh ANY leaves N.E.Ohio are hard to come by most of the year. Any substitutes, or can they be frozen and used after thawing. I think Sandor mentioned in one of his videos that you could use tea. I generate a lot of used teabags. Is that any good?

    • I would point out that any time cucumbers are growing, leaves are on the trees. And in cool weather, crunchiness is not much of an issue. But yes, you can use tea bags.

  14. I was using a this recipe and another one combined and I added too much salt by accident. I only started my pickles a few day’s ago and just tasted them and they are waaaaay to salty. Is there any way to fix that issue now? Can I pour out half of the brine and just replace the liquid with water to reduce the salt?

  15. My Wisconsin booklet mentions removing the scum daily. You are the first I’ve seen mention mold. I tossed my first batch because of the white mold forming around the edges of my weight. So are mold and scum interchangeable words? After sterilizing my crock etc. and starting a new batch, the mold is back and I’m worried because it’s the end of cucumber season.

  16. Hi! I love fermented pickles, but I’m a little concerned that I may poison myself with the batch I just made.

    I used 4 tbsp of kosher salt for the four cups of water I used, and let the pickles ferment for a week and one day. The pickles themselves are fine, if not a little salty; they aren’t soft or anything. The brine, however, is really viscous in ways that it never has been the previous times I’ve fermented pickles. Would they still be safe to eat, or should I toss them?

  17. I am starting a pickle pot with “Out of this world UFO Flying Saucer Patty Pan” squash and zucchini, some of my neighbor’s grape leaves and some of my oak leaves, garlic etc. If the Tatume squash hurries up it might get to jump in the crock too. I put a couple tablespoons from some previous ferments to jump start the process and tasted a sip as it went in. The sip from the cauliflower, carrot, onion, garlic, hot pepper thing I made a couple months ago was one of the best things I have tasted ever. Divine!

    God Bless Sandor Ellix Katz and buy his books, you will thank yourself and him too.

  18. I started a batch on sunday 8/4/13, used sea salt (2 tbsp per quart water), garlic, fresh dill, peppercorns, mustard seed, and wild grape leaves. Had to peel some because skins were bitter. I used a gallon size glass container with a lid that tapered a bit. Instead of a plate, I used a few very small glasses to keep some from poking up. Covered the top with window screen, rubber band. Then covered with a dishtowel. Air temp was around 75 degrees. By Wednesday 8/7/13, they were done (1/2 dill) and delicious. Thanks for the great info!

  19. Instead of a pickling crock I use 2 qt. Ball jars. Since gas develops during fermentation, I’d like to leave the screw on metal lids snug, not tight to permit the gases to escape. Is this permissible? I don’t want to create an air tight situation by screwing the lids on really tight,

    • You can do this but you need to release pressure manually or else the pressure will force its way out by contorting the lids (with canning jars) or with weaker jars potentially exploding the jars.

    • I made them in quart jars the last two years since I’m the only one in the household who likes pickles. I just put the plastic screw-on lid on loosely. They’ve all turned out fine.

  20. I live in the desert in Arizona where it’s hard to find oak and grape leaves, etc, are there any substitutions besides tea bags that you know of for tannins? Also temperature controll in the summer is hard here, the house will stay in the high 70’s to low 80’s for a few months. How do the constant higher temps affect fermenting pickles, sauerkraut and other ferments? Thanks for being the Pied Piper of fermentation, and for your spirit of giving to us your wisdom.

  21. Thanks Sandor, that’s good to know. I just got your book, “The Art of Fermentation”, in the mail today, I love that it’s so thick, who knew fermentation could be so exciting! I’m so glad you continue to revive this lost art and share what you’ve learned.

  22. Thanks so much for this amazing recipe! I just jarred up and refrigerated my very first batch, which I made by halving this recipe since I had limited access to pickling cucumbers. They turned out great after sitting for two and a half weeks–so flavorful and very crunchy (without adding leaves or anything else)!

  23. is it ok to use a stainless steel pot? I’m overflowing with cukes, no funds to buy a ceramic crock, and don’t have a plastic bucket. but i DO have a ginormous stainless steel cook pot that seems perfect size for a plate. and i want pickles. so. what do you think.

    • Best to avoid any metal, as salt and acids can corrode metals, and most household stainless steel has only a thin non-corrosive coating and can corrode where scratched.

  24. I just finished a 1/2 gallon ball jar of fermented pickles.

    My first try.
    I did use a heated brine of 1/2 qt. vinegar, 1 qt. water and 1/2 cup salt.

    I screwed on the lid hand tight and set them in my pantry for about 3 weeks.

    The pickles turned from dark green to a yellow green pickle color but the liquid appeared a bit cloudy.

    I decided they must be done so I opened the lid and the liquid fizzed up and out of the jar like opening a bottle of soda pop.

    Are we all about to be poisoned or is this fizzy nature what I was aiming for?

    No mold at all.

    • When you ferment in a sealed jar, carbon dioxide accumulates. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about. If you use an “open crock” method, the carbon dioxide will be released as it is produced.

  25. Wondering… I live in the desert. We don’t have the leaves you mentioned readily available. Do you know of desert tree equivalent? Could I use grape leaves that are ready to made into dolmas? Thanks 🙂 Love the site and ideas – so helpful.

  26. Hi, also I just wanted to confirm that your recipe is saying to use 2-3 heads of garlic? Not cloves? Each gallon should have 2-3 entire heads of garlic? Just hoping to clarify that, I am a newbie. Thanks!

  27. Hi there. How nice of you to take the time to answer folks’ questions here! Mine is: how long would you say half-sours last in the fridge? Do they really go mushy and lose their appeal as fast as they say? I recently made a batch of your full-sours (about a two-week fermentation) which are incredible and crispy and perfect. But then I started a half-sour batch today and keep reading that they will likely be ready (then need to be refrigerated) in 5-7 days – which is fine – but are best eaten within about two weeks? I was hoping to keep them around for a few months… Thank you!

  28. yummy! what great pickles….i made the mistake of putting WAY WAY to much salt in the original brine..I realized 2 days later took all the cucumbers/pickles out of the crock and rinsed them put them back in with fresh water< with no extra salt… waited two weeks, they turned out just fine crunchy and not to salty at all.. I'm going to try green beans next
    (with less salt this time).

  29. I have been making pickles that call for dill on bottom fill with pickles I put garlic and hot pepper in and grape leaf then add 1 cup cold water 2tablespoons salt 1 tablespoon sugar then fill quart jar with n\]vinegar seal shake to disolve salt sugar open add more dill they keep for a year or better no refrigeration question are they fermented pickles they are really good on sandwiches

  30. In Harold McGee’s book (On Food and Cooking) he reproduced/adapted a table from G.Campbell Platt’s “Fermented Foods of the World”. For pickles (cucumber), it is indicated the amount of salt should be 5-8%.

    From this, I am assuming that percentage amount relates to the weight of the cucumbers. A USDA reference additionally indicates that cucumbers are 95.1% water.

    The problem I am trying to understand relates to the equilibrium point where the salt concentration in the cucumber will become equal to the salt concentration in the brine. In the beginning of the pickling process the salt concentration in the brine is high and in the cucumbers it is virtually zero. Thus there is a concentration gradient (of salt) that over time will equalize/equilibrate.

    The approach I am currently trying (experimenting) involves weighing the cucumbers and then multiplying that figure by 0.95 to determine the amount of water in the cukes. I then measure an equal weight of water that will become the brine solution.

    I am using the lower 5% figure McGee cites; so I weigh out an amount of salt that is 10% of the weight of the water. I opted for 10% because since the weight of the water in the cukes is equal to the weight of the brine water; so at theorethical equilibrium, half the salt will migrate into the cukes and half will remain in the water (brine). The pickles will have a salt concentration level of 5% and the brine concentration will be lowered to 5%.

    Whether this theory actually works in the real world is anybody’s best guess. It may require testing at differing salt percentage amounts to determine the best percent salt level; but as a point of fact, it should be eventually foolproof — because it is not the amount of salt that is added to make the brine but instead a desired salt equilibrium point between the cukes and the brine solution. More water for a given amount of salt equals a lower brine salt concentration and thus a lower salt content in the pickles.

    Any thoughts or comments???

    I’ll post my results in the future . . . . .

    • I pickle cucumbers in a 5% brine. 5% salt is generally too salty for anyone to enjoy eating. If you use as little brine as possible to cover the cukes, you end up somewhere around 2% salt. Don’t get too caught up in precision; fermentation is not rocket science.

  31. Sandor:

    I was just using information from the sources cited above as to the salt ranges.

    What I was attempting to convey in my above message is that the amount (percentage) of the brine solution does not completely determine the end results because it does not consider the volume (weight) of the water in that brine solution as it relates to the volume of the water in the cukes (as measured by weight [eg. 95% of cukes weight being water]).

    The other issue at hand is the variable of time. If the cukes/pickles are removed before perfect equilibrium is reached, then the salt concentration in the pickles will be less than that of the brine, and thus less salty.

    On reflection, my next step will be to make up salt brines of various percentages and taste them. In doing so, I should get a better understanding of what is too salty (at least to my taste preferences).

    It then will become as issue of what is the minimium level of salt (by percentage) in a brine necessary to prevent rot.

  32. i went on a bit of a pickle making orgy a few weekends back. I did a 2 gal crock of full sours as above and 6 qt batches (in jars) of three variations of a recipe that was said to make pickles like the now gone Mrs. Neusihins pickles formerly made n Portland, OR.

    All are developing nicely with one of the versions of the Mrs. N’s recipe being a credible version of the original.

    The full sours have developed a bit of a funky character so I am going to get them into jars and into the fridge ASAP. Will probably rinse them and pack with fresh brine to try and mitigate the bathroom odor problem. I must have let the surface mold/slime go a bit to long between skimmings.

    Quite and interesting exploration. Thanks again Sandor for the inspiration and education.

  33. I have just finished up last year’s pickles, and although they were not super crunchy, they were still delightful. I have found that placing wild grape (or whatever tannin laden leaves you have) at the bottom, in the middle, and on the top of the cucumbers (or beans, or whatever) keeps them crunchy for a very long time. These fermented on the counter for 4 days, and then went into the fridge until the root cellar got cold enough.

  34. I tried this method this year a found the pickles tasty a fairly crunchy. However, after 8 days or so, my pickle brine turned cloudy. Didn’t appear to affect anything, but I’m wondering if that’s normal.

  35. Living in the tropics and grape leaves are not an option. In my reading, looking for available plants with tannins, I have found that oregano has tannins. I am thinking I could possibly like the favor it would lend to the pickle as well. My question to you, Sensor, is oregano has an antibacterial quality, do you think it would affect the fermentation process or it’s benefits? Thanks for sharing all of your valuable information on fermenting!

    • You can add oregano, no problem. Many plants have antimicrobial action at high concentrations, but are fine to use as a seasoning without inhibiting fermentation at all.

  36. Hi,
    I’m new to this and I made some pickles, seemed fine smelled good when I refrigerated them. About a week later I went to eat one and noticed it tastes fizzy, not pleasant, is that okay? Can you let me know what happened and if I leave it in the fridge will the taste get better , or should I just throw the whole thing out? Thank you.

    • In the early stages of fermentation, lactic acid bacteria produce a significant amount of carbon dioxide, hence the fizziness. Generally as the ferment matures it gives rise to more specialized bacteria that do not produce much carbon dioxide. Don’t worry, your pickles are fine. Wait longer and the fizziness should subside.

  37. Sandor,
    I’m getting confused about brine strength here. In the second to last paragraph it says that 3 tablespoons salt/qt of water is a 5.4% brine but the recipe calls for 6 tablespoons/gallon which is half of that and that’s supposed to be about 5.4% as well. Which is the correct concentration for pickling cucumbers?

    • Hi Holly, The recipe is for a gallon vessel, meaning that the amount of brine is less than half that. so six Tbls salt in half a gallon of water is roughly 5.4% brine, as is the “top-off” mix. Pickles that are 5.4% salt would be too salty to enjoy; a ~5% brine over the veggies, once that salt absorbs into the veggies, results in a salt concentration closer to 2%. Sorry for the confusion!

  38. Sandor,

    What is your definition of “cool”? Would a 50F enviroment be good for keeping the pickles viable?

    Love your book. Been making kraut for a few years now, only lost 1 fingertip so far. 😉

    This is my first year for sour pickles, luckily we have a vineyard just down the road, they hooked me up with leaves. Going to add some veggies to the mix soon. 😀

    • Yes 50F/10C would qualify as cool. I’d say 60F/16C or below qualifies as a cool environment for storing pickles, though the cooler you go, the longer they’ll stay crisp.

  39. Hi I am making salt brine to make pickles and I have a salt reader do you know what the percentage of the salt should be should be 1.3 or 1.6 or 1.8 the salt made her after it is mixed up mine is at 1.3 seems a little low I am one day into it about 12 hours In making the Kirby pickles which might have a lot of water I had used 16 ounces for 2 tablespoons of diamond crystal salt
    Thanks for your reply in advance

    • I typically work with a 5% brine, adding just enough brine to cover tightly packed cukes, so the finished pickles end up around 2% salt.

  40. I have very large cucumbers given to me. Can I ferment them whole? Or can I quarter them and then ferment them?
    First time to try this method. Very new to fermenting foods.

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