Pickling Watermelons Whole

In my blog post about Moldova I shared my daughter’s photo of watermelons that had been brined intact, and I promised to write about how to pickle watermelons in this way. Before watermelon season passes again, I want to share my own photos and a recipe.

I first tasted brined watermelon some fifteen years ago, when I bought a few slices from Guss’ Pickles, whose retail shop was a sidewalk stand on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you liked your pickles crisp, fuggetaboudit! The brined watermelon was soft and slimy. It seemed more tomato than melon. But its sweet and sour brininess grew on me.

Much later, I sought advice about pickling watermelons from Gwen Schock Cowherd, a descendant of Germans from Russia—that is, Germans who went to live in Russia after Catherine the Great, in 1763, invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. The first of these German immigrants settled along the Volga River, where watermelons were a major crop (later, other Germans settled on the north shore of the Black Sea). A century after their migration began, Germans in Russia lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to the Americas—Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the United States. Today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants still celebrate their Russian-flavored German heritage.

I wanted to know how Germans from Russia pickled whole watermelons. Were the melons fermented or pickled in vinegar? Was sugar added, and were spices included? Were holes poked in the melons to let the brine penetrate?

The melons were of small, firm varieties, Gwen told me, and they ranged from green to ripe. They were always fermented intact. “Do not poke holes in the melons, or the juice will run out,” she warned. With no poking, “the salt water will penetrate the rind and thus preserve the melon. The sweet comes from the melons themselves.” As Gwen remembered, less ripe melons turned out more salty and sour than sweet. Each melon tasted different, because “with the rind intact you didn’t know what you were brining.”

Gwen sent me Mrs. Henry Lindemann’s recipe for “sour watermelons,” from the German Russian Pioneer Cookbook, published in Eureka, South Dakota, in 1975 (Germans from Russia and their American descendants have published hundreds of community cookbooks). Mrs. Lindeman would line the bottom of a 30-gallon barrel with dill, fill the barrel with melons, top them with more dill, and add 1½ cups sugar, 1 cup vinegar, 6 pounds salt, “lots of red peppers,” and garlic. Then she would fill the barrel with water and weight the melons with a board and a rock.

In Sei Unser Gast (“Be Our Guest”), a cookbook published by the North Star Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Minneapolis in 1996, a writer left the sugar, vinegar, peppers, and garlic out of her watermelon pickle but added grape leaves. According to Küchen Kochen, published by the Lincoln, Nebraska, branch of the same organization in 1973, some cooks scattered cherry rather than grape leaves throughout the barrel, along with hunks of ripe melon flesh.Gwen’s own grandma left out all of those extras but added pickling spices. “I guess you can spice them anyway you want,” Gwen said. As with cucumber pickles, there is no single right way to season a watermelon pickle.

Golden Midget watermelons
Golden Midget watermelons

In the fall of 2010, I decided to try pickling Golden Midget, a 3-pound watermelon variety that had been developed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-twentieth century. Borne on yellow-leaved vines, the little fruits tell you when they’re ripe by turning from light green to lemon-yellow. I figured their size would make them perfect for pickling. I used two of them to make my own version of—

Whole Pickled Watermelons

2 3-pound watermelons
2 tablespoons dill seed
8 peeled garlic cloves
6 small dry hot peppers, slit lengthwise
10 tablespoons pickling salt
5 quarts water

Put the melons into a large crock or food-grade plastic pail with the dill, garlic, and peppers. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, and pour the brine over the melons. Weight them with a clean rock or a plate or board topped with a water-filled jar. Be sure the watermelons remain well immersed in the brine. Cover the crock with a cloth, and let the crock stand at room temperature.

Check the crock daily, and skim off any yeast or mold. Wait at least four weeks before cutting open a watermelon. At this point you might move the crock to a cellar, where the remaining melons should keep all winter.

pickled whole watermelonOn New Year’s Eve of the same year, I cut open one of the melons. The flesh was glistening, tender, and red throughout. The melon smelled and tasted like a strong fermented cucumber pickle, with extra sweetness and the slimy texture I remembered from the pickled watermelon I’d tasted in New York. I took the melon to a New Year’s Eve party, and people tasted it with interest. For some a little taste was enough, but others ate big slices with gusto.

The next time I pickle watermelon, I’ll do a few things differently. Because I had to skim mold off the brine for an extended period, I’ll use a crock with a water lock. I might add a little vinegar to curb mold growth or some cucumber pickle brine to speed the fermentation. And I’ll add a little sugar, just to see what difference it makes.

The collapsed side of a pickled Golden MidgetMy single complaint about Golden Midget is that its thin rind caved in a bit with brining, so that the pickled melons looked like partially deflated playground balls. But an icebox melon with a thicker rind might collapse this way, too, according to my Moldovan friend Cristina. Still, next year I may try a variety that Germans from Russia might have chosen generations ago, such as Astrakhanski, Melitopolski, or the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan.

21 thoughts on “Pickling Watermelons Whole”

  1. Linda, I’m from the South, and your post caused me to remember a story that an elderly man told me about how his mother kept melons through the winter. He said that she would dip them in paraffin and then store them under the bed. He claimed that they were “almost” as good as when they were in season. I haven’t been able to turn up any information about this method of storage, but wonder if you might have heard anything about it.

    1. Denise, I have heard of dipping melons in paraffin, but I haven’t tried it, because it would require an awful lot of paraffin. According to one of the Germans from Russia cookbooks, large melons were kept in granaries, covered with wheat or barley. I haven’t tried that, either. The easiest way to store watermelons might be to grow a variety that will keep well for months with no special treatment. Does anyone reading this know of such a variety, aside from citron melon?

  2. “An icebox melon with a thicker rind would probably keep its shape.”
    Not necessarily. As you saw in the pictures from Moldova, we use the green watermelons with a rind much thicker than the variety you pickled. Yet, the final product may look just about the same. 🙂

    1. Pickled watermelon rind is more like a sweet preserve than a fermented pickle. Most likely, pickled watermelon rind started with citron melons, which can be used similarly in their entirety (minus the seeds and thin exterior green rind) or with very thick-rinded watermelon.

  3. My Father born Neudrof South Russia (Now Modova Area) 1911 used to make whole watermelon Pickles. I remember they were a whiter color like the Golden Midget. He made them as described Mrs. Henry Lindemann’s recipe for “sour watermelons,” They sure were good.

  4. Thanks for this. I was in South Dakota last week and my 93 year old mother and
    90 year old aunt were talking about having sour watermelons when they were growing
    up. Their mother died when they were young and hadn’t asked their aunts how to make
    them.. As I read this recipe they agreed this is the one. Their relatives also came from the
    Volger river. How happy we were to find this recipe. Thank you

  5. Linda, I’m loving this article. I’m from Moldova, my parents pickled whole watermelons in a big oak barrel every year, they also put in apples with them sometimes. I live in South Dakota now and at the farmers market another day found this cute little watermelons, I’m going to pickle them using your recipie. So exited to try the end result.

  6. Hi Linda, I and my family have spent meany a time listening to my grandmother (97) talk about how her mother would pickle whole watermelons in a 50 gallon barrel and how delicious it was in winter time. We would ask questions but never acted until now. I see, you are from the Pacific Northwest. I live in Oregon city. My son, 5years ago moved to Hermiston Or. The watermelon capital of the region. I have currently, 30 gallon barrel of watermelons brining. I used Mrs. Lindemann’s recipe you included on your site. After a couple of days I sampled the brine and was shocked that it wasn’t very salty. However, Now that A couple of weeks have pasted, I found a small micro.bloom. It works but, if the salt penetrates into the melons, won’t that dilute the salinity of the brine? If so, is it too late to add more salt? Also, how long does it take to ferment? I feel myself aging in anticipation. Thanks for your time and any information you have.

    1. Bret, I’m so sorry that I didn’t find your comment until now. Yes, the brine is diluted by the watermelons. It should taste quite salty at the beginning. Have you eaten any of your melons yet? I can’t give you a minimum brining time, but if I were you I’d try one about now. You should be able to go on eating them through the winter. By the way, where is your grandmother from? And did you take a picture of the melons in the barrel? If you did, I’d love to see it. Again, my apologies for not replying promptly.

  7. Hi Linda,

    Thank you for this recipe! I recently saw an Instagram reel where a woman was preparing whole watermelons for winter fermentation. I’ve been mesmerized ever since! A little digging from the reel creator showed that she got her recipe from a Ukrainian book called Summer Kitchens, set to preserve and pass on cultural traditions. Have you come across it yet? It has a very interesting whole watermelon recipe that seems to lean heavier on the sour than the sweet. It comes with a short story of the author’s grandfather who used to pickle whole watermelons in an old bathtub at the bottom of their garden!

    A few of the ingredients listed aren’t very easily accessible in Toronto (particularly in the pandemic) so I decided to do a little more digging and try to combine a couple recipes. I was very grateful to come across this post! I just submerged my sweet watermelon in a food grade fermentation bucket with an air lock. So exciting! Summer Kitchens says that they are best after 40 days – quite a while to wait but I’m very excited to see the finished result.

    The author also suggested that you poke holes in the watermelon but I see that you’ve been recommended otherwise. Tomorrow I plan to get a second watermelon and try the same Frankenstein’d recipe on a melon in tact! Aren’t food experiments fun?

    Anyways – thank you for this post!

    1. Hi, I just viewed a recent youtube video about travelling in Moldova and these brined whole watermelons were featured. The fella who makes them said it takes a minimum of 40 days, though he goes longer. The two travellers, Matt and Julia (name of their channel too, video posted two weeks ago), tried slices of a 70-day fermented one.

      I decided to search for the recipe and came across this blog and your comment.

  8. Ashley, thanks so much for writing. I have read about the book Summer Kitchens with interest, and now I know I have to get my hands on it. In the meantime I will be pickling some whole Winter King and Queen watermelons that are waiting for me in the basement. I would very much like to hear how your experiments go–especially what differences you find between the watermelons with and without holes poked in them.

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