100 Techniques

Technique #75: Ferment Pickles the Traditional Way

We've only been doing it for thousands of years. Why mess with it?

Published Aug. 18, 2023.

This is Technique #75 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Though fermented foods are particularly hot these days, fermenting has been around for, literally, millennia. We especially like to use this technique with vegetables to make dill pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut.

How Fermentation Works

Fermentation relies on the cultivation of natural microorganisms, including beneficial bacteria. These good bacteria outcompete harmful bacteria for food and resources, preventing their growth. They consume sugars present in the ingredients being pickled and in the brine, and they produce byproducts, including lactic acid, acetic acid, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds. 

While the acids are “pickling” our ingredients, the other byproducts are equally important, inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria and spoilage enzymes. They also provide a fascinating array of fermented flavors and taste sensations.

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Salt is The Safety MVP

To ferment, items are often salted or submerged in a salty brine and left to sit for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or longer. The salt creates an inhospitable environment for bad microbes, seasons the pickles, and gives them their texture. This all happens through diffusion. Since the salt in pickle brine is more concentrated than that inside the cells of the vegetable, the small salt molecules diffuse into the cells and cause their walls to soften. 

Larger flavor molecules from other ingredients slowly make their way into the vegetables as well. As the cell walls continue to soften, it becomes easier for the flavors to move into the pickles. Using canning and pickling salt rather than regular table salt is important, as table salt contains additives that give the brine unwanted chemical flavors.

In addition to disliking salt, bad microbes are also vulnerable to highly acidic environments. Whereas vinegar pickles simply use vinegar as the acidic means to produce quick pickles, fermented pickles rely on the help of the good bacteria and storage conditions to create the proper acidic environment.

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Step By Step: How to Ferment Pickles

Now that you know the science behind fermenting, follow these steps to achieve crisp and perfectly briny pickles.

Step 1: Trim and Salt Your Veggies

Trim vegetables. Toss vegetables with salt in bowl and let sit to draw out moisture. Drain vegetables in colander; do not rinse.

Step 2: Make and Cool Brine, Then Jar

Make brining mixture and let cool completely. Tightly pack vegetables and spices or seasonings into jar. Add cooled brine.

Step 3: Top With Parchment

Press parchment paper round flush against surface of brine.

Step 4: Weigh It Down With a Brine Bag

Fill zipper-lock bag with excess brine and place on top of parchment in jar to weight down vegetables and keep them below surface of brine.

Step 5: Cover With Cheesecloth

Cover jar with triple layer of cheesecloth and secure with rubber band. Place in cool location away from sunlight and let ferment.

Step 6: Maintain, Remove Toppings, and Refrigerate

Check jar daily, skimming residue from surface and pressing to keep pickles submerged. After initial fermenting time, taste pickles daily until desired flavor is reached. At that point, discard cheesecloth, brine bag, and parchment; skim off any residue and refrigerate pickles.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Ready to put your newfound knowledge of traditional fermentation to use? Try it with these recipes.


Sour Dill Pickles

When it comes to “full sour” dill pickles, it's all about the tang—and the crunch.
Get the Recipe

Cabbage Kimchi

Make real-deal, crispy, tangy, spicy kimchi at home.
Get the Recipe


A classic pairing with bratwurst and in Reubens, sauerkraut packs a tangy, sour punch.
Get the Recipe

Bread-and-Butter Pickles

We wanted a bread-and-butter pickle with a crisp texture and a balance of sweet and sour—perfect for adding to a char-grilled burger.
Get the Recipe

Bloody Mary Pickled Asparagus

With all the kick of the feisty brunch cocktail, minus the vodka, these refrigerator pickles are a thrill to eat, whether on their own straight from the jar, alongside pâté on a charcuterie board, or as a garnish in their namesake drink.
Get the Recipe

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