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Sep 2, 2011 12:02 AM

FINALLY... a real, honest-to-Hashem method for making real lower east side SALT FERMENTED KOSHER DILL PICKLES, as directed by Moe, a 90+ year old former pickle master

Last month a friend and I attended what turned out to be a spectacular free presentation on the history of the traditional kosher dill pickle, as they were made and sold out of barrels in the Jewish neighborhoods of the lower east side of New York City during the Jewish immigration wave of the early 20th century.

Rabbi Marcus (of tells the story of how he befriended an 90+ year old former lower east side pickle maker named Moe, who wanted to pass on his traditional technique for making kosher dills to the kids of the congregation. Well as the Rabbi explains in the workshop, not only did the kids show up, but the parents did too. He soon realized that this was no longer just a kids activity, and he started to expand his presentations. (Note to mods, I am in no way associated with the Traveling Pickle Factory- I am just an enthusiastic participant).

So as the story goes, sadly Moe passed on a few years ago, but his pickle recipe lives on through Rabbi Marcus and his pickle making disciples. If he comes to your area, I can't recommend his workshop highly enough.

A brief review and photos:

First, let's get a few things out of the way.

- Making Moe's traditional pickles is dead easy. It just takes some time.

- THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER: The salt to water brine ratio. You have to get this right, because this dictates how the pickles will ferment, and how they will taste. (Too little salt and they will not properly ferment. Too much salt and they will become inedible.) All the other ingredients (dill, spice, garlic, etc.) are to taste-- that's the artistry of the pickle. The brine is the science. If you don't get the science right, the art fails automatically.

- I like vinegar. You like vinegar. VINEGAR DOES NOT BELONG IN MOE'S TRADITIONAL KOSHER DILL METHOD! All of the sour flavor in traditional kosher dills is developed strictly by the fermentation of the cucumbers in brine. The addition of vinegar (as well as cooking pickles using canning methods) are relatively modern modifications to traditional recipes initiated by the food processing industry to extend shelf life. But hey, if you really like vinegar, go ahead and try it. But that's not how Moe did it :)

- Whether the pickles turn out to be new pickles, half sours, or full sours depends only on one factor-- time. The longer the cucumbers sit in the brine, the more sour they will become. If you leave them in the brine too long beyond full sour, they will become unappealingly soft in the middle. The window of time to eat a full sour at peak crispiness is only a couple of weeks. This is the reason it's virtually impossible to buy truly fresh traditionally made kosher dill pickles at the supermarket- even the fresh, uncooked refrigerated versions like Claussen contain vinegar and other preservative agents. (This is easily verified if you look at the ingredient label, as I did)

- Rabbi Marcus acknowledged that kirbys are of course the traditional pickling cucumber. However, he advised that as pickle novices we begin with Persian cucumbers. Unlike kirbys, Persian cucumbers give off very little water in the fermentation process and will not throw off the water to salt ratio as much as kirbys can. Once you've made a few batches with Persians with the measurements listed below (and have tasted and gotten used to the proper salt content in a brine), try it with kirbys. You'll eventually be able to judge by taste when the brine is salty enough. My first attempt at making pickles with kirbys turned out great- I added a little additional salt to compensate for the extra water the kirbys would give off.

So without further ado, gather the necessary ingredients and apparatus.


1 32-oz plastic deli container with lid (you'll see why plastic is important below)
16 oz spring water, room temperature
2 tbsp Diamond Kosher Salt (this brand is important-- not all kosher salt is the same shape and volume will measure out differently, and larger crystals may have a harder time dissolving. If you can't find Diamond Kosher salt, you should know that I weighed mine out at about 20g)

(This part is to taste, so modify Moe's recipe as you see fit)

Approx 2 tbsp pickling spice (more on this later-- not all pickling spice is the same)
If your pickling spice does not contain small whole dried red peppers, add a couple to your mix- 1 to 2 for a mild one, and several more for a less traditional spicy pickle.
2-3 medium cloves of garlic
Several Persian cucumbers (try to find ones that are not too long and will fit comfortably in the 32oz deli container. If they are too long to fit, don't worry-- cut them in half. They will pickle just as well.)
1 sprig fresh dill

1. Add water and salt to plastic deli container. Place lid on tightly and shake vigorously to dissolve salt.
2. Add pickling spice, replace lid and shake vigorously.
3. Add garlic cloves.
4. Inspect the cucumbers. Make sure that stems have been fully trimmed, as these can over ferment and cause the pickles to too easily soften. Pack pickles vertically in the container. The idea is to pack them tightly down into the container, so that they will resist floating to the top. You want to keep them fully submerged in the brine, and they will not want to cooperate. Pickle tips that are exposed above the brine level will not ferment at the same rate as the submerged portion.
5. Lay the dill frond ON TOP of the brine! The dill is not a part of the brine and will infuse its essence as the pickles ferment. This is not to say that you should worry if it submerges on its own (it will, eventually).
6. Loosely place the lid on top-- DO NOT SEAL IT DOWN TIGHTLY. As the cucumbers ferment, they will give off gas which will cause a sealed lid to bulge and possibly pop off unexpectedly. You may wish to poke small holes in the plastic lid to help with ventilation.
7. Leave the cucumbers out on your counter top (or in a window) for one day (I left mine out for two, and it helped to speed up the fermentation though I wouldn't leave it out for much longer). The warmer temperature will help to activate the fermentation process. Remember, placing the pickles in the fridge does not stop the fermentation-- it just slows it down.
8. Place pickles in the refrigerator. You may see bits of white scum float to the top as a byproduct of fermentation. I didn't bother to skim mine as there really was very little, and the results were great. But feel free to skim yours if you like. Rabbi Marcus didn't mention anything about skimming.

And now, the results. Please note that these timetables are specific to my experience in Los Angeles summertime weather-- actual time will vary depending on your climate, room temperature and the temperature of your refrigerator.

In my experience, I have new pickles after 3 days, half sours after about a week and a half, and full sours after three weeks.

And that's Moe's method, in an admittedly overly detailed, ungainly nutshell.

One final note on pickling spice. Moe told Rabbi Marcus that no professional pickle maker makes his own pickling spice-- they all buy it in vast bulk quantities the same general suppliers. As a result, the Rabbi basically told us to go to any store and buy some. This turned out to be a little more of a problem than I anticipated. The pickling spice handed out at the workshop yielded perfect pickles. (I don't know who he purchases from.) But pickling spice mixtures are indeed different, and as I found out after buying a quantity of Penzey's pickling spice, cloves really don't belong in a kosher dill brine. (While their spices are incredibly fresh, Penzey's is a midwestern company, and as such I really shouldn't have expected them to have a proper NY kosher dill pickle blend-- theirs is more suited for a sweet bread and butter pickle.)

I'm still trying to figure out what the perfect pickling spice combination for a kosher dill is. In the blend we used at the workshop, I was able to identify crumbled bay leaves, yellow mustard seeds, whole dried red chile peppers (you get a really lovely, spicy dill if you add several of these) and dried dill seed. However, there were other spices I simply was not able to identify).

Go forth and make Moe's pickles, new disciples.

Mr Taster

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  1. Thank you SO much for sharing this! I know what I'm doing this weekend!

    14 Replies
    1. re: Terrie H.

      I suspect that I too will be making pickles this weekend. Thanks Mr. Taster!

      1. re: BananaBirkLarsen

        Don't thank me. Thank Moe!

        The impetus for this long post is that I simply got tired of filtering through all the specious kosher dill pickle info on the internet (ever notice how people like to speak confidently even when they're making things up, or repeating inaccurate information? There are so many websites and blogs out there suggesting that you cook or use hot water, and add vinegar to make kosher dills).

        I realized that we needed some traditional, grounded, practical, verified advice from someone who knew how to make them (Moe & Rabbi Marcus) and someone who grew up in that area eating them and knew what they should taste like (me!). It's always tricky with food blogs... you could be reading a passionate diatribe from a Bhutanian in Omaha who loves their Claussens, effusively declaring their "perfect" method for making fresh kosher dill pickles, when in fact the person's advice and recipe is not rooting in anything other than their own personal taste.

        But again, it's not that vinegared pickles can't be delicious. It's just that they're not traditional. The thing that bothers me is that these methods often are passed off as being traditional out of well intended ignorance, by enthusiastic people who don't really know what they're talking about. And the misinformation is repeated, builds, spins and multiplies until you really don't know what the truth is anymore. My goal for this post is simply to cut through all the clutter.

        One item I didn't clarify was that Moe was an artist. Like many traditional cooks, Moe used no measurements- he just knew when it was right. Knowing that he would need to recreate this recipe for others to follow, Rabbi Marcus developed the recipe I've listed above using Moe's methods. Once he got the stamp of approval from Moe, he moved forward with it. So the recipe is Rabbi Marcus', but the method is Moe's.

        Mr Taster

        1. re: Mr Taster

          Ah yes. I write web content for a living and am very familiar with talking confidently about things I know crap all about (seriously - do the job for a week and you'll never believe anything you read online again).

          In any case, thank you to Moe and Rabbi Marcus for passing on some correct info for once!

          1. re: Mr Taster

            I love pickles and miss good NY area kosher pickles. I am hoping to go to Bhutan next year actually - did you get the Bhutanian in Omaha's name, maybe he can help me find good pickles in Bhutan while I'm there. (hehe)

            1. re: thimes

              Make your own! Surely they have salt and cucumbers and a crock. Part of living in distant parts is making your own hamburger buns, candy bars, pickles.....

        2. re: Terrie H.

          I was passing time in a local vintage store today and found an actual ceramic pickle crock for the low price of $6. When I walked a little further down the road and came to my local one-stand farmer's market, I found a nice supply of kirby cucumbers. It felt somewhat fate-like, so I think I'll be starting my second batch of pickles today. Still haven't found any proper dill, but I found an interesting looking pickling spice mix at the Mexican market and I'll see how that works. I'll try to find some dill weed to plop on top tomorrow, but mostly I'm just excited about my new pickle crock!

          1. re: BananaBirkLarsen

            banana, I'm reading from the top down so forgive if this was previously asked.
            can you post a pix of your ceramic pickle crock?
            I'm always looking for info on things from the past, love me some vintage :D

            1. re: iL Divo

              I realize this is an older converstaion, but I'm hoping someone is still paying attention.

              My second attempt at pickling has produced two MOLDY garlic cloves flosting at the top.. This is addition to the normal ammount of scum. This after two weeks.

              My first attempt produced no such problem. I do all the fermentation on the counter top. I add garlic cloves and peppercorns to the brine. I pickle kirbys and tomatoes.

              After rinsing well are the tomatoes and pickles safe to eat?

              Thanks to all..

              1. re: mdb0610

                imho I would not eat the pickles
                did you pickle both of them together?

                I never have scum-be sure to clean kirby's and pat dry
                when making these pickles I never add tomatoes

                1. re: jpr54_1

                  Tomatoes,kirbys,garlic,and peppercorns all went into brine together.

                2. re: mdb0610

                  They are most likely safe to eat.

                  Use your common sense. If they pickles smell off, don't eat them. If they pass the smell test, try a little of one item. If it tastes fine, it's fine to eat.

                  1. re: cacio e pepe

                    The stuff below the brine should not represent a hazard. That is why everything should be submerged in the brine. Toss stuff w/ mold. Not that mold is always bad (think miso, soy sauce...), but it is not a known good. In this case common sense rules well.

                    1. re: wavywok

                      Fully agree with everything you wrote.

          2. What a treasure! I really appreciate you sharing the information.

            Your quest for the perfect spice mixture got me curious and I looked through a half dozen of my older Jewish cookbooks. While they all referred to spice mix or pickling mix a few specific spices were mentioned that might be of interest:

            celery seed, fennel, garlic and even grated horseradish

            3 Replies
            1. re: meatn3

              Thank you for this. Eventually I'm going to strain my brine and attempt a little closer analysis of what was actually inside it. I'll be sure to keep your spices in mind as I try to determine what's in it.

              Mr Taster

              1. re: Mr Taster

                I was looking through Charcuterie by Ruhlman/Polcyn and they have a pickling spice mix which is described as being a little sweeter and less bay than most commercial mixes.

                Black peppercorns
                mustard seed
                coriander seeds
                hot red pepper flakes
                allspice berries
                ground mace
                cinnamon sticks
                bay leaves
                whole cloves
                ground ginger

                Their recipe for traditional dills uses vinegar and calls for the pickling spice mixture plus:
                more black peppercorns, dill seed, fresh dill and kosher salt.

                I am amazed how hard it was to find a recipe for pickling spices! Seems to have more "sweet" spices than I would want for dills, but it's a step closer!

                1. re: meatn3

                  that's exactly what I found when looking for recipes for pickling spice.
                  5 ingredients on that list are sweet to me, I know ginger is hot but it goes into many sweet treats.

            2. I know I must have tasted this sort of pickle, at a Jewish deli in Los Angeles years ago. What I had was mellow, not as sharp as I buy in jars now--so the lack of vinegar sounds right. SO good! Oh yes I'll try this, thank you so much!

              These are not cooked at all, right? Could someone address why they are safe (or not safe)?

              Does the salt not allow harmful stuff to grow?

              3 Replies
              1. re: blue room

                No, these are not cooked at all. As chef chicklet says below, the trick with fermenting is to observe and control the rate at which the bacteria do their business. Warmth will excite the little buggers and make them work faster and coolness will slow them down (or put them to sleep). You're basically controlling a colony of millions of these tiny little guys through temperature control, and you need to make sure that they don't reproduce too quickly which could make your fermentation spin wildly out of control. (Perhaps someone more well versed in the science of fermentation can provide more details... where's McGee? :)

                Of course, it's always possible that a wild yeast or a colony of some other little buggers will unknowingly settle in your brine, growing and killing your friendly pickle bacteria and send the whole batch off. So the most important thing is to watch closely, and make sure things don't look odd.

                Mr Taster

                1. re: Mr Taster

                  The basics are this:

                  1. If you get an acid producing bacteria to colonize first, they will acidify the environment and make it uninhabitable for other bacteria.

                  2. The "other" bacteria are the ones that are responsible for food spoilage and rancidity. Neither have a likelihood of making you sick, believe it or not, but they make the food taste like crap.

                  3. Acidifying bacteria (either for dairy --lactobacillus or for pickling -- acetobacter) usually reproduce faster than the bad guys.

                  4. The salt levels actually aid the acetobacter in colonizing before the other spoilage bacteria.

                  Bottom line, start with clean materials, encourage the good bacteria and THEY will discourage the bad bacteria, skim mold and yeast of the top lest some off flavors develop, and don't add poop to your pickles and they will be absolutely perfectly safe to eat. And actually incredibly healthy.

                  1. re: cacio e pepe

                    Sorry! I've been making this mistake from the beginning. It's still a lactobacillus culture that is mainly doing the fermentation in pickles. Acetobacer is the dominant culture in . . . vinegar. There in the pickle brine for sure, but they aren't the main guys.

              2. Mr. Taster, so interesting to read the history about this special gentleman Moe and the Rabbi that's extending history. I'm intrigued and especially interested to learn about these pickles, there's no vinegar! Sounds like kim chee to me! All kidding aside, the fermentation process is touchy and I'm no scientist but you hit on something that is absolutely correct. You must watch it closely and the timing is crucial. Okay, now I can't wait to try my hand at making these pickles, they sound delicious.

                My mother, now gone, was a New Yorker (Peekskill) and even though she was French had many many friends. Her best girlfriend Jewish, Italians married into her family Bertolini's restaurant), and also some Irish too. She loved-loved Jewish deli and my dad being in the Navy was always being transferred but he took us with him. She missed the food she knew growing up so much that my dad to help her with her homesickness would make pickles for her. Okay he was German and it was natural for him. But, I also want to give a nod, that she also loved the Italian deli with their fresh breads and fresh mozzarella and deli meats , and also the famous thin crust pizza which she taught me how to make.

                But these pickles with their sour taste, so sour they'd make you pucker. I don't know if they're the same ones she raved about, but she sure had a craving for them. I want to truly thank you for your post. I know I am not alone when I say anytime that there's a connection to my history, it makes me feel like my parents are still with me!

                Many Blessings!

                4 Replies
                1. re: chef chicklet

                  I suspect if it was lip-puckeringly sour that there was vinegar involved. The full sours that I made (even the ones that I allowed to over-ferment so that I could learn what not to do) never soured to that point.

                  Mr Taster

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    The flavor I remember was *not* pucker-inducing, but definitely dill. I remember the white scum, too. It didn't seem to bother anyone.

                    1. re: Mr Taster

                      Technically, there *is* vinegar in the finished brine. It's just that it was formed by the friendly bacteria via natural fermentation.

                      Vinegar added is . . . well, not kosher! (I couldn't resist.)

                    2. re: chef chicklet

                      chef chicklet~
                      " I want to truly thank you for your post. I know I am not alone when I say anytime that there's a connection to my history, it makes me feel like my parents are still with me! Many Blessings"

                      ^^^ I love that^^^ very sweet of you.........our folks aren't they always with us............ nice memory

                    3. GREAT POST! I've made traditional fermented pickles a bunch and I was nodding along with most of your tips that I learned through experience. I made homemade pickles, homemade sauerkraut, homemade pastrami (with boneless short ribs, natch), homemade rye bread, and traditional fermented ginger beer for an all fermented (or pickled in the case of the pastrami) meal. So worth the time.

                      Here are a few tips I'd add for aspiring home fermenters.

                      To your spice blend I would add coriander seed and not much else. If you can find it (I can't), then you'll want to use flowering dill.

                      The Penzey's pickling spice is excellent for corned beef/pastrami, I find, but terrible for kosher pickles. Mace and clove really don't belong at the party, you're right about that!

                      I let my pickles ferment at room temp for far longer than you do, to great personal results. The key is to continue to test your pickles after a few days of fermentation and to skim every day. There may be mold or a white yeast the floats to the top but continue to skim it off.

                      Also, I wouldn't rely on packing to keep pickles submerged. Instead, find a plate and a place that on top with a jar of water. Much more reliable. Just wash those off every couple of days when skimming/testing.

                      I cover the whole thing with a double layer of flour sack towels, though an old pillow case would be perfect, too.

                      The half sour v. full sour pickle actually doesn't have to depend on time. And in fact, I say it shouldn't. Instead it should depend on the % of salt in your brine. If you use the correct salt concentration in the brine then your half sours will remain half sours in the refrigerator for a very long time. Otherwise, you'll eventually get full sour pickles no matter what.

                      I truly hope more people start making their own fermented products like pickles, 'kraut, and homemade sodas. Thanks to Mr. T for bringing us so much knowledge from this grand tradition.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: cacio e pepe

                        You made pastrami with boneless short ribs (And why "natch")?? Why not brisket?

                        Thanks for adding your experience to this post. I noticed today that the Penzey's blend also includes cassia. Cinnamon flavored kosher dill pickles? It's just not right. (This further strengthens my Midwestern sweet pickle theory-- I love Penzey's, but it's not the place to go for anything Semitic!) I was moved to e-mail Penzey's, recommending that they develop a kosher dill pickling spice blend, and was shortly rebuffed by their customer service agent who sent me to a random blog with a pickling spice blend recipe.

                        Also, I did in fact use the small plate method for keeping the pickles down when I made a 5 gallon bucket of them. But in the 32oz plastic deli container method listed above, this is a little impractical! This is where friction becomes your friend.

                        Interesting re: "stabilizing" the half-sour with % of salt... I can tell you that in my experience using Rabbi Marcus' recipe, the pickles do not necessarily turn at the same rate (even though I use pickles of the same relative size and thickness), but they did eventually all turn into full sours (which I prefer). I would eat the full sours out of the bucket at the moment the skins were that appropriate shade of dark green/brown and leave the brighter green halfs to ferment more. Eventually they all turned into full sours, as you indicated. So I suppose Rabbi Marcus' brine has a higher salt content which is designed to allow the cucumbers to fully develop across the full sour range. The full sours do get unappealingly soft if you leave them in the brine for too long.

                        Mr Taster

                        1. re: Mr Taster

                          Oh, I just thought if I was turning my home into a lower east side deli then I ought to go to the most ridiculous extremes possible. The short ribs were just silly rich compared to brisket. I actually prefer the traditional.

                          Good point about making friction your friend. Definitely helps keep the little guys submerged.

                          ACGold7 mentioned black pepper in the brine. I knew I forgot something!

                          ACGold7 also is right on about the starter culture. I would not reuse the brine in full, even after boiling. The money saved on spices and salt isn't much and after skimming some real interesting blooms off the top of my crock I prefer to start relatively fresh.

                          Penzey's reminds me a lot of America's Test Kitchen. They've got some great stuff, but I'm not sure I trust either with anything remotely "ethnic."

                          And one last thing. I use sea salt. You could also use kosher salt. Avoid the iodized salt as iodine will make it difficult if not impossible for an acetobacter colony to grow. Not sure if that's been mentioned yet.

                          1. re: cacio e pepe

                            Very good point about the salt. But this is why it is important to do this by weight. Different types of salt, and different brands of salt of the same type (i.e. Morton's Kosher vs. Diamond Kosher) will have different crystal sizes and therefore different volumes for the same amount of actual salt. Measuring by weight will equalize this.

                            My basic brine is 6 oz by weight per gallon of water. For the Diamond Crystal Kosher, this works out to about 1 cup by volume, maybe a hair more.

                        2. re: cacio e pepe

                          cacio e pepe, I've got one more question for you since you're a more experienced fermenter than I am. Can the used brine be reused to ferment a new batch of cucumbers? If so, what modifications would need to be made to ensure a high quality batch? I would assume that any water that had leeched into the brine would throw off the salt ratio, so that might need to be boosted. But what else?

                          Mr Taster

                          1. re: cacio e pepe

                            "I've made traditional fermented pickles a bunch"

                            I don't know why this sentence made me think of the old Andy Griffith Show with "Aint Bee" trying to sell or give her pickles to whoever will take them.
                            Wonder if anyone remembers that episode? So cute, she was soooo proud of her pickles but the looks on faces when they'd taste her prized recipe pickles were priceless.

                            not saying yours would be like that, I'm just saying that sentence got me to thinking is all :^}

                            1. re: cacio e pepe

                              Thanks for your information.
                              I am looking for a good recipe for full sour pickle that I remember having on the East Side in NY when I was a child. Something like Guss'es Pickles
                              I would really be grateful if someone can post one.

                              1. re: taras1

                                read thru the threads and u will find answer