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Growing up, I watched my aunt do wonderful things in the kitchen.  She made root beer, potato chips, wedding cakes, jam, ketchup, and I could go on for pages.  I helped when I could and watched when I couldn’t help, taking note of her ideas and processes and thinking pretty much constantly that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.  I spent a lot of time with her in the summer, so I saw her canning countless quarts of vegetables and pints of strawberry jam… and I saw her make pickles.

Bread and butter, dill spears, sour mustard pickles… and lactofermented dills.  The most mystical of all the pickles because they took time, and they required the use of a huge vat of a crock, which sat in the corner of the upstairs kitchen.  I can picture it still, and I remember the smell of the brine: salty, sharp in a good way.  When I started my own canning craze a few years ago, pickles were my first venture, but I stayed in the sour mustard realm, branching out to hot dill spears and watermelon rind pickles only last year.  This year, I was ready for lactofermentation.

After a long discussion with my aunt, I realized I didn’t need a multi-hundred dollar crock– I could make these with a pretty basic glass jar.  I got mine at Skagit Valley Food Co-op for $6.99, but could have easily made do with something from Fred Meyer or even Amazon.  I waited until I found some cukes I liked at the farmer’s market– I wanted uniform size, no bendy rubberiness and a decent price– and some dill I liked from R’s job.  I was ready!

On Labor Day, I thoroughly washed my jar and then filled it with boiling water for an extra precaution.  I washed the cukes (about 2 lbs) and cut off the blossom end (cut off both ends if you’re not sure which is the blossom end).  I peeled a few garlic cloves, found some pickling spice and pulled my giant dill stalk apart into more manageable sections.  I put half the pickling spice (1/8 c.), half the dill and the garlic cloves into the bottom of the jar and started placing the cukes in, being careful not to bruise or scratch them.

When the cukes were all in, I put in the rest of the pickling spices (another 1/8 c.) and the rest of the dill.  I made a simple brine of 2 quarts water (distilled is best but I did use tap) and 1/2 c. pickling salt (yes, you have to use this instead of table salt).  The brine went in until the cukes were covered; I didn’t use it all.  It is important to have a weight in the jar, holding the cukes under the brine level so nothing is exposed to air.  Because my jar had a narrow mouth, I couldn’t fit in the plate recommended by many sites, so I improvised by taking a gallon-size freezer bag and filling it with a cup or so of water, placing the zipped bag inside another freezer bag for insurance, and fitting the water weight into the top of the jar.  A few of the spices floated up in a little brine, but all the cukes stayed put, right where I wanted them.  The cover of the jar was placed on top loosely, to keep stuff out but let air/gas escape.  I wanted them in a fairly cool room, so into the utility room they went for the lactofermentation magic to happen.

So we wait.  I checked on them every few days, looking at the color of the cukes and checking for air bubbles (saw them).  You should also check the top and skim off any foam or mold that grows (this is an expected part of the process) but I had very little to remove.

After 19 days, I removed them from the utility room, opened them up, skimmed off a little mold that was on top of my water weight and removed the plastic bags of water.  They smelled like pickles, nothing “off” or acrid, and the brine was a little cloudy, but my instincts told me it was okay.  I pulled out one pickle to check for sliminess or mushiness, and it had a little give to it, but was not slimy and was mostly firm.  Success!  Here is my first-ever jar of lactofermented dills:

At this point, you can move the jar to the fridge and be done, but I wanted to can these.  I drained the brine and boiled it for five minutes; the pickles were packed into hot, sterilized jars, which were then filled with the hot brine.  I processed the jars in a water bath for 15 mins (probably excessive, but I wanted to be sure).

This process was incredibly rewarding.  Looking back on all the details of what I did, I realize that it took very little effort or time, just a lot of waiting.  The pickles are delicious; I got 4 1/2 precious pints from the large jar.  I can’t wait to make more, and now I feel confident enough to try my hand at sauerkraut and kimchi, which are made using similar methods.  I hope you will try these someday, too!

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