The One Ingredient You’ll Need for Crunchy Lacto-Fermented Pickles

After I shared our favorite dill pickle recipe yesterday, I ended up with a few questions. Specifically, why would you be adding tree leaves to your pickles? Oh, and where do we find them?

Well, I’ve given it away already, haven’t I? The one ingredient I’ve used over and over again for crunchy pickles of a variety of vegetables is leaves.

But they can’t be just any leaves. They have to contain a very specific compound or they’re not going to work.

That compound is tannins. Some say that this compound inhibits an enzyme that can make the vegetable go soft. I don’t know about all of that, but I know it helps us get delicious, crunchy pickles almost every time.

There are some temperature factors in how well your pickles crisp up. Most of these are fairly extreme, so for the purpose of our topic I think we’ll stick to the leaf discussion.

You can find tannins in a few leaves:

  • Oak
  • Grape
  • Horseradish
  • Black Tea
  • Mesquite Leaves (now that we’re in Central Texas)

Wild grapes were common in the Mid-West where we used to live, so I would often tiptoe barefoot out to the vines and grab a few leaves. Horseradish is also commonly found in the wild. Now we have a plethora of mesquite trees to grab a handful of leaves from.

Some of these seem inaccessible, but black tea leaves are quite common in many households. In her book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods, Wardeh Harmon recommends using a pinch of black tea leaves, which also contain tannins.

Tannins can produce an unpleasant flavor, so don’t go overboard. It is thought that oak leaves contain the most tannins, so use fewer of those than you would the other varieties.

In a half gallon of pickles, I have found three grape leaves to be sufficient. A couple of tablespoons of mesquite leaves do the trick in a quart jar. A pinch of black tea should also be sufficient for a quart of pickles.

Always rinse the leaves, as you might the produce going into your ferment. The larger grape and oak leaves also make a great top to a jar of vegetables, assisting in the weighting down of those pickles that like to bob up.

Have you tried this age-old crunchy pickle trick?


Shannon is a mama to four small children, homesteader, freelance writer, and picture-taker. She lives with her husband on their off-grid homestead where they make and eat kefir, kombucha, sourdough, and fermented vegetables.

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  1. says

    Yep, I always use a grape leaf or to in my brine pickles. Since I started I’ve had more people say, “Wow, those taste just like Grandma’s!”

  2. Kat says

    Two years ago, I tried lacto-fermented pickles. I didn’t have easy access to any of those leaves (city apartment…guess I could have gone to a park…I’ve done stranger things!) Pickles turned out lovely and MUSHY. Determined not to repeat the problem last year, I did a whole lot of research and decided to use oak leaves (rather than the neighbor’s grape leaves!) We are just now finishing up the pickles from a year ago and they are still wonderfully crunchy. A touch salty, but still CRUNCHY!

  3. JEFF says

    Can you use black tea from organic black tea bags? If not what type oak leaf is best, we have live Oaks in Florida. [type not referring to a dead one…] Thanks for any insight, great article.

    • says

      Jeff – Yes, you can use organic black tea leaves, it is, as you might assume, simply the black tea you know of as your morning tea. I haven’t personally come across any information on live oaks specifically, so I am afraid I don’t have a specific answer to your question.

    • pete says

      Jeff – not to change the recipe, but all wood has tanins in them, that im aware of. If Tanins are the answer to crunch, id assume you can substitute any piece of wood. Oak, redwood, etc. Not just the leaves. Simply get a finger nail sized piece of wood and allow it to dry completely, naturally or in the oven on low. Although from my experience in home made alcohol id skip any red colored woods, they seem to contain extra tanins which can add an unwanted bitter flavor. I hope i helped!

  4. says

    I was so excited when I realised that my neighbour had a grape vine! I was popping over there all summer to borrow grape leaves for my pickles! They turned out so much better than the previous year, and I use the grape leaf on the top to make sure the pickles stay under the brine, better than fiddling around trying to cut a bit of plastic to fit there. I use spare a cabbage leaf for the same purpose on my saurkraut too :)

  5. John says

    Whoo hoo I can use oak leaves!!! too cool also the tip to use fewer. I love this site just stumbled onto it today and is now bookmarked!!

    I am a newbie to this and have already made kimchi twice this time with Kale Kraut beet kvass goat buttermilk yogurt goat cheese. I can’t wait to investigate this site further!

  6. Taylor says

    Okay, totally new to all this. Are you referring to fresh leaves right off the tree or can I find dry leaves at my local health food store? And if using black tea, can you taste the tea in the pickles?

    • says

      Taylor – Fresh leaves from a tree :) and I don’t believe the black tea flavor comes through very well, though I primarily use the tree leaves.

    • says

      Diane – Are they supposed to be yellow, like a lemon cucumber? If not, I wonder if they are suffering from something and therefore might not keep well as a preserved pickle.

  7. says

    I have used grape leaves and the pickles are very mushy and it does not seem to help with other vegetables either. Will try oak leaves to see if there is any difference. If any one has any good advise please I am all ears . I am tired of throwing them out.

  8. Steve B says

    I use 1/4 tsp of food-grade calcium chloride (Ball Pickle Crisp brand) per quart of brine, and get perfectly crisp pickles every time. It’s also very important to trim off the blossom end of every cucumber; I trim off both ends to be safe.

  9. Nancy says

    Hi! Just ran across your blog and enjoyed the info!! New to some of this. As a farm girl, I have done dozens of canning projects. Mom taught us early to use grape leaves…I thought for color too! Didn’t ever think of eating them! So, my wonder is this – I have quite a few pickles (cucs). I want to try preserving them for possible cuc salad in winter months. Can’t deal with store boughten ones! I wonder, is there a way to can w/out heat in a plain salt brine the cucs. Then in winter open jar, rinse, and make salads? Think it’s a possibility? Thank you for response. P.s. does the kimchi taste like a type of kraut? Guess I should it? :)

    • says

      Nancy – You asked about canning without heat. Well, vegetable fermentation is a bit like this in that it preserves the food without needing to can or freeze it. Is that what you’re asking?

      If you can ferment it properly, in the right elements, with clean utensils and vessels, then it is very possible that you could keep pickled cukes through the winter in their own brine as is.

      Kimchi tastes quite a bit different thank kraut. It’s spicy, has a zip from garlic, ginger, and onions, but also has a similar texture to kraut since they’re both shredded generally.

    • says

      Nancy – I don’t know that you need alum if you’re using grape leaves and adhering to best practices, and I’m not sure how it might hinder the reaction of the lactic acid fermentation process so I can’t necessarily recommend it. Sorry I don’t have a better answer for you than that.

  10. says

    Do you know if jarred grape leaves will work for keeping the pickles crips? They are in a vinegar brine, but I am hoping to rinse them and it would work? Do you have any thoughts? Otherwise, would just a black tea bag work in a 3L jar?

  11. vanessa says

    looking for a site I can order any grape leaf or cherry leaf where can I get them my local health food store
    did not have anything like this?

  12. Karen says

    I remember my Grandma making brine pickles in a large crock. Does anyone do that anymore? Are there any special instructions or ideas about this?

  13. curious says

    I am surrounded by oak trees. More green leaves than I could ever want for. Fearful they would hurt taste but free takes the win. About how many would you add to a gallon jar? I do radishes more than anything.

  14. Denise B. says

    Thanks so much for the article! I’ve heard from my relatives that using grape leaves keeps your pickles crunchy, but I wasn’t sure if you could use wild grape leaves. Now I know! I live in Milwaukee,WI and wild grapes are abundant. It will be cool to forage some from my local park.

  15. says

    I live in Asia and have a lot more access to green tea than black tea. A little research says green tea is full of tannins. Do you have any information about using green tea during fermentation?

  16. elissa says

    These are the only pickles I want to eat. Since there is no where to buy them within hundreds of miles, I must make my own. I’m wondering if persimmon leaves could successfully be used to impart crispness ? Hachiya persimmons contain appreciable amounts of tannin. Why wouldn’t their leaves work ? Does anyone have any experience trying them ? Or what about maybe the peels from fresh persimmons ? I made a batch of dried persimmons last year. The first step was to use a vegetable peeler to strip the outer layer from the fruits. I saved a few bags of the peels in the freezer. Would they work ?
    Also, mid-winter it’s impossible to find pickling cucumbers to buy anywhere. Would Persian cukes work ? A national chain store stocks them year round. They’re very uniform in size and shape. Has anyone tried fermenting these ?

  17. Barbara says

    Does anyone know if the chips of cherry wood, hickory wood, etc. work, (that is used to smoke meat, fish, veg. with?) And how much wood chips would I use to try small cucumbers in a quart container to try out?
    Am I better off with a tea bag?

    Does anyone know if the chips of cherry wood, hickory wood, etc. work, that Is use to smoke meat, fish, veg. with?
    And how much would would I use to try small cucumbers in a quart container to try out?

    • says

      Barbara –

      According to wikipedia, “Tannins from the wood of mesquite, cherry, oak, and other woods used in smoking are present on the surface of smoked fish and meat.” To me this means that the chips themselves must contain tannins. I would think a small amount of these would suffice, much like just a couple of grape leaves does the job. I would be careful, however, to be sure these are from a pure and trusted source.

  18. says

    Keeping your fermenting veggies in a cooler part of the house will help keep your veggies crisp. Adding grape, oak, cherry, or other fruit tree leaves will also help keep the veggies crisp. The most important part is to keep your veggies pushed well under the brine. Air exposure causes oxidation and rot to the exposed vegetable which seems to move through the entire batch over time. Once finished with fermenting you can jar your new pickles, but don’t water bath can them if you want all the great benefits of lacto fermentation. Just put fresh spices in your jar and enjoy!


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