Notes to newcomers to fermentation:
- If you’re new to the fermenting game, these aren’t vinegar pickles you see on grocery store shelves. These are the half-sour and full-sour deli pickles you may have had that eventually need to be kept in a refrigerator. Unlike vinegar pickles which can be called “dead pickles,” these sour pickles have gut-healthy probiotic bacteria and a remarkable flavor all their own. Similarly, authentic sauerkraut is very good for you and so delicious, unlike the pasteurized mush in the stores that passes as sauerkraut.
- I plan to add a low-sodium sauerkraut and kimchi recipe soon too, so stay tuned!
- You don’t need to buy the fermentation lids and equipment I link to below. You can use a paper towel with a rubber band to cover the jar lid during fermentation. However, optimal results are usually achieved with the suggested equipment. Something like this will serve you well for years to come:
If you want to get right to the recipe now, you can skip past this background discussion.
A friend of my family once commented on how delicious my fermented classic garlic dill pickles looked. So I offered to make him a batch, but to my surprise, he declined, saying he was on a strict low-sodium diet on doctor’s orders. This got me very interested in making a low sodium version of my pickles.
Shortly after that encounter I remembered someone once telling me how his elderly mother would make 100% salt-free dill pickles for her husband who was also on a highly restricted diet due to hypertension. (They were described as water pickles, actually.) Although this may sound strange, let’s not forget that although lactobacillus thrives in the right salt conditions, all it takes is an aqueous anaerobic environment for this healthy bacteria to start converting sugars to lactic acid.
On the other hand, without salt, an anaerobic environment still has its limits in terms of which unwanted microorganisms it can impede. Although I doubt this person was thinking about the bacterial aspects of her pickles, it was explained to me that she would just ferment them at room temperature for a few days. My guess is this had more to do with limiting the mushiness that could ensue with a longer ferment. But this story gave me hope that I could make something edible for my family friend.
Actually, my thought was, it needs to be better than edible. It needs to be something that an eater of “regular” pickles would still be happy to eat, even if it couldn’t compete with the normal salty ones.
Although I considered just trying out my normal garlic dill recipe sans the salt, the challenge is that pickles benefit greatly from salt – in terms of flavor, healthy fermentation, and enhancing texture. So for my first batch, I used my regular recipe but with a 1% salt brine (I’m normally doing between 3.5 – 5%), which is extremely low for pickles.
One percent means, in four cups of water (946g), less than 10 grams of salt could be added. I sampled and reasonably enjoyed the pickles after three days but by the 4th day they had softened up too much. (Simultaneously, the summer heat was starting to really turn up.) I also really wanted a stronger salt flavor. As a salt lover, that part was disappointing.
I needed more salt, but couldn’t add more salt. So I looked into healthy salt substitutes which led me to trying potassium chloride, which also happens to help reduce blood pressure. (Calcium Chloride, which is commonly sold as “Pickle Crisp,” by the way, is another viable option instead of or in addition to potassium chloride, and will further help inhibit mushiness.)
Given the good flavors associated with pickling spices, I decided an increase in spice volume from my regular mix should be tried. I also decided to boil the spices in the brine (which I do anyway if I have the time) to impart more flavor.
To avoid undue softening, especially in this summer heat, I used the technique of refrigerator fermenting. Although I don’t recommend immediate placement of lacto-ferments into a refrigerator (I won’t get into the why now), fermentation doesn’t stop in a refrigerator. So to get that “full sour” flavor, I shelf fermented for three days followed by a few weeks in the fridge. You could let them go on longer too. The texture remained firm!
I thought a lot about adding some previous pickle ferment brine when I put the jar together too, which is another technique (besides using salt) to give healthy bacteria a leg up over unwanted bacteria. However, this technique also can have the effect of softening veggies. Given the short shelf ferment length of my recipe, though, I think it could be a viable technique and you may want to try it.
Since a batch of these pickles takes weeks, you might as well be making a few batches at different times anyway. Trying one with some brine added from a previous batch should be a worthwhile experiment.
Adding celery juice is another known method of enhancing or deepening the flavor of many ferments (and as vegetables go, they’re relatively high in naturally occurring sodium while completely safe for someone with hypertension). I’ll post any updates in the future as I continue to work on this recipe.
Something I’d like to figure out is how much sodium actually is in these pickles. In lieu of lab testing, however, nutritional data calculators online show low-sodium medium-sized pickle spears to contain about 12mg (i.e. around 50mg sodium for a normal sized pickle). I actually would assume that my recipe uses less sodium than those models (my 1% is exceptionally low) but I can’t know for sure, so as with almost anything, I’d advise moderation.
In all, the results were…well… something even a pickle connoisseur such as myself deemed truly worthy!
To get started, you will need:
- Half gallon mason jar (or two quart jars)
- Mortar & pestle for crushing spices (or put spices in ziploc and use a rolling pin)
- Knife & cutting board (for peeling/quartering garlic and optional sliced jalapenos)
- Medium saucepan to prepare brine/spice mix
- Fermentation weight & airlock
- Canning funnel (optional)
- ~8-10 pickling cucumbers, sufficient to fill a half gallon jar
- 4 cups filtered or distilled water
- 2 tsp non-iodized salt (for an exact 1% brine, use 9.46g salt in 4 cups water)
- 1 tsp potassium chloride (or 5g)
- 6-8 cloves garlic, quartered
- 10 sprigs dill
- 1 TBS black or mixed peppercorns
- 2 tsp mustard seeds (optional: I used 1 tsp yellow and 1 tsp brown for depth of flavor)
- 2.5 tsp coriander seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 allspice berries
- 5 cloves
- Optional: 1/2 tsp Ball Pickle Crisp (will add more salt flavor and assist in reducing mushiness)
- Optional: a few slices of jalapeno or other hot pepper (useful for building flavor base given the lack of salt)
1.) Make sure jar(s) and lid(s) are completely clean
2.) Thoroughly wash the cucumbers in cool or cold water (cleanliness is key here given the low salt)
3.) Crush the hard spices in mortar & pestle (or ziploc with rolling pin)
3.) To make brine, place the salt, potassium chloride, and all hard spices in a pot with four cups water (include all seasonings except the garlic and dill). Bring to a low boil, stirring until the salt and potassium chloride (and optional Pickle Crisp) are dissolved. Turn off heat, and allow to cool to room temperature.
4.) Pack the cucumbers as tightly as possible (without bruising them). This is to avoid them rising to the surface. (A fermentation weight will help when you’re ready to cap the jar).
5.) Add the garlic to the jar(s) (divide if using two jars)
6.) Add the dill to the jar(s). Tuck it down the sides of the jar to keep from floating.
7.) If desired, add a pinch or two of red pepper flakes or sliced jalapeno
8.) Pour brine into the jar(s) until filled to about 1.5″ from the top, then add the weight. (The brine can go higher if no weight is used.) Make sure that everything is submerged. You might not use up all your brine but most if not all of it will be used.
Note that the brine level will continue to rise naturally for some time; it is best to avoid an overflow but you may place the jar in a bowl to avoid spillage.
9.) Add a fermentation weight (advised), and then an airlock lid. In the absence of an airlock, burp the jar each day.
When you’re ready to start eating the pickles, simply remove and discard all the dill on top.
Fermentation length: Unlike my standard procedure of fermenting about a week at room temperature, I opt to place in the refrigerator after 3 days. From there, allow fermentation to continue for at least 2-3 weeks to increase flavor and fermentation, resulting in something more like a full sour. The airlock is not needed in the refrigerator, you can replace the lid with a regular one. However, since fermentation will be ongoing in the fridge, just at a slower rate, I advise burping it periodically to avoid spillage.
As fermentation takes place, it is normal to see a cloudiness form in the brine and for sediment to build up at the bottom of the jar.