Processing & Food PreservationRecipes

Pickling Garlic the Okinawan Way

Making Okinawan pickled garlic is the perfect way to enter the world of pickling. Those who have the itch to make their own fresh, mouthwatering pickles are guaranteed success with this recipe. It is virtually fool proof — take it from someone whose first attempt at making sauerkraut yielded a moldy, smelly, and probably toxic mess. Making garlic pickles is simple as simple can be, and you only need these three ingredients:

  1. Fresh (not dry) garlic
  2. Salt
  3. Water

The recipe is also simple. Add salt to water until you can just float a small potato in it. I don’t know the precise ratio, and neither does the Okinawan ojichan (grandpa) who showed me the potato trick. The potato doesn’t have to be small, it’s just more cute and grabbable with chopsticks that way. Make sure you’ve scrubbed the skin clean beforehand, but don’t sweat it too much.


I used 4 liter jars, but other sizes should be fine.

Once you’ve gotten over celebrating your floating potato, it’s time to put the garlic in. Just the heads; cut off the stems, please. The garlic is usually clean looking, and I don’t wash it. What you DO want is to peel off the outer layers of skin, as little as you can afford to, basically. This is probably not crucial, however. Remember, this way of pickling is very user-friendly.

Once all your garlic is immersed, seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark place. In about a month they will be transmuted and ready to eat. That is, if you like your pickles to have more of that raw garlic bite. I just ate the first of this year’s batch yesterday, which has been pickling for less than a month, and it was delicious. The pickles will mellow out with time, with grandpa claiming the two month mark is the time of optimal flavor. They last indefinitely. Regardless of when you eat them, you will want to peel back the skin to get at the cloves. Some of the thinner, more tender skin is edible as well.

For something so simple, these garlic pickles have really become a staple in our house. I would hate to have to do without them, and would rather give up chocolate. Honest! The garlic gives us strength and keeps us in good health (statement not evaluated by the FDA), and they taste good too. I suspect this is thanks to the gobs of beneficial microbes in each delicious garlic clove, not to mention the awesome benefits of garlic itself. Even my son at 3 years old asks to eat the garlic whenever I bust out the jar.

That said, pickled garlic can be something of an acquired taste. I didn’t dislike them when I first tried them, but I didn’t think they were all that special, either. Now they have grown on me to the point that I think about them more than can be considered normal.

My pickle mentor recommends eating only a few cloves at one sitting, saying that eating more will cause stomach upset. But I eat an entire bulb and feel great well into the next day. This WILL affect your breath, though, so you might want to moderate consumption if you’re sensitive about such things or if you will be in close contact with people. The love of the pickled garlic means that I eat whole bulbs regardless, until I have to start rationing them once the supply gets low….

This year I doubled the batch size, and I hope it gets us through the year until the next garlic harvest. I’m trying to avoid a repeat of last year, where the last bulb was eaten and then we went months without. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was about to start this year’s batch that I realized the pickle juice can be used in cooking! Use it the way you would use salt. Great in omelettes, among other things. You probably lose some microbes to the heat of cooking, though, so lick the spoon to get some of the raw juice too.

Will it be enough?

It will be funny if my pickling career begins and ends with garlic pickles. I had looked forward to trying all kinds of pickles, but don’t really feel the need or motivation now. I’m too busy eating and loving the garlic to think much of trying something else. So be warned that while this is an entrance to pickle making, you might not get very far beyond making these garlic pickles! Then again, there is kim chee (drool)….

A note on fresh garlic:

In Okinawa, this is seasonal and you’ll see fresh garlic in stores around March-April. I don’t know about getting fresh garlic in other parts of the world. Good luck finding/growing your own! I’m also not sure whether the garlic needs to be fresh or not. Do any pickle veterans know?


  1. You make me wanting to plant garlic right away tomorrow!
    (Now I only have some weak shoots from a bulb I had. So I’ll need to look up the details…)

  2. Thanks for the great recipe and the story of the Okinawan ojichan. You made it fun and easy and now I want to make some garlic pickles too. Thank you.

  3. I have made sauerkraut using the following method. (And I apologise if the explanation is not too detailed.) I get two 1-gallon plastic buckets and clean them thoroughly inside and out. The cleanliness is important to avoid getting undesirable microorganisms in the kraut. Then, I get 1 head of cabbage and remove the outer leaves. Then I chop into 4 quarter pieces and cut each piece of cabbage into thin strips. After I finish, I put the cabbage strips into a 5-gallon bucket and add about a rounded tablespoon of sea salt or kosher salt, then put on the lid tightly. I shake and move the bucket around for a few minutes to coat the strips with salt. Then I leave the big bucket alone for about an hour. During this time the salt will draw the juices out of the cabbage to get it ready for lactic acid fermentation.

    I then put the salted cabbage strips into one of the 1-gal. buckets. I get the other 1-gal. bucket and insert it into the “female” bucket. (And now for the messy part!) The juices of the cabbage will be squeezed out, but not to worry; cabbage contains a lot of water. Put a heavy weight inside the “male” bucket to provide pressure and keep air bubbles out. Place the “kraut barrel” in a cool, dark place for about 2 weeks. (If daytime temps are 60ºF or higher, fermentation may transpire much sooner than that, so check your product every 3 days or so.)

    If a larger amount of sauerkraut is to be made, you can use two 5-gal. buckets. The male bucket should either be filled with water or stones to provide pressure and keep air out, since the fermentation is anaerobic.

    *Always* have clean hands when handling the kraut bucket. Even a speck of dirt in the product will spoil it and ruin the flavor.

  4. I hope the brine and fermentation are enough to prevent botulism! Seems like there needs to be sugar somewhere to ferment to acid…do the garlic and cabbage have enough of this by themselves?

  5. If you’re into making fermented foods, it’s worthwhile to get a fermenting crock. Fermented foods like sauerkraut are after all formed by lacto-fermentation which requires an oxygen-free or low-oxygen condition. A fermenting crock keeps oxygen out of the pot, while allowing carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to escape. In this way, mold and scum won’t form on your sauerkraut. There are a few high-quality dedicated fermenting crocks around. On my site, you can find more info about one fermenting crock from Germany. The initial cost may seem high, but over time, the crock pays for itself!

  6. I’m glad I found this recipe. If all goes well I should have around 75 bulbs come harvest time so I’ll definitely give this a go.
    I’m assuming the garlic would float so the only thing I’d also suggest is to put a little bit of mesh in the top to hold the garlic below the water level.

  7. Fun and inspiring article. I plan to do this very soon, hopefully the next time hubby brings home garlic. I too have tried pickling, but no one was too excited about the results. The fact that you would be willing to give up chocolate, rather than your pickled garlic makes me very interested to try. :-)

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