The Perfect Pickle!
When I learned how to make sauerkraut, I fell in love. I had only ever tasted cabbage that had been canned with vinegar and that had been what I thought was sauerkraut. And I found this vinegar cabbage to taste, well, awful. But true fermented cabbage, now that tastes amazing. The complex tastes and slight crunchy fresh texture is just so good.
Once I discovered the difference between vinegar cabbage and fermented cabbage, I wondered what else might taste better fermented. So the experiment had to be done...pickles had to be made. Now we excitedly await every August for fresh pickling cucumbers to be ready in the garden. Fermenting cucumbers is actually very easy and less time consuming then the modern vinegar version not to mention much healthier for you.
The traditional method of preserving a harvest through fermenting actually increases the nutritional value of the food that is fermented (think high Vitamin C!). In modern, industrialized food production inconsistency of taste, color, and texture is feared. In order to mimic that sour taste with vinegar, all those wonderful nutrient producing bacteria are killed using hot water bath or high-pressure canning methods. While this gives us a product that tastes kinda-like the traditional fermented food, it also gives us a cooked food devoid of the extra nutrients (and actually a total decrease in nutrients since the food is now cooked) and healthy beneficial probiotic cultures found in a living, naturally-fermented food.
Needless to say, we love fermented pickles for the flavor and nutritional value that they give us. The only problem we find in our home now is not eating them too fast.
How to Ferment Cucumbers into Delicious Pickles!
Liquid measuring cup
Clean Wide-mouth Quart glass canning jars and lids. You can also use larger jars or crocks (measure the volume and scale up the recipes as needed).
Glass, ceramic, or stainless steel weight that can fit in the top of the jar.
1-2 lbs of Small to medium sized pickling cucumbers
Many vegetables can be fermented: cabbage, carrots, radishes, onions, beets, cauliflower, and so many more! It is best to use fresh, local, and organic vegetables. This will ensure that plenty of fermenting microbes are present.
Sea salt, kosher salt, and pickling salt are all ok to use. Avoid iodized salt as iodine is anti-microbial and will inhibit fermentation. Also avoid salts with anti-caking agents or chemicals. My favorite is sea salt as it has a little less harsh bite to its taste.
If you have no filtration system and your tap water is chlorinated, simply boil the water and cool to room temperature before using it. Chlorination will inhibit fermentation and change the flavor, but boiling releases it as vapor and can then be used for fermentation.
1-2 Grape leaves or Alum may be safely used to keep fermented pickles firm and crunchy. It is not necessary but we have found we like our pickles much better with a bit of crunch.
Optional Herbs and spices: There really are sooo many options for flavors and fun. Savory, spicy, hot...experiment and test out different herbs and spices to your taste preferences.
Our favorite pickle is to make is called a half sour. Here is how we make a good ol'fashioned half sour:
3-5 Garlic Cloves -cut into medium sized chunks
1/3 tsp whole coriander seeds -lightly crushed
1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds -lightly crushed
2 whole clove buds
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/3 tsp black peppercorns -lightly crushed
1/4 tsp dried dill seeds
1 small bay leaf, broken into smaller pieces
And 4 Tbsp fresh dill weed
Optional to add heat - 1 small hot pepper sliced and added to the jar
Lightly crush the spices and place them all in the jar
How to make basic pickles:
You are making a salt brine for the cucumbers to ferment in. Salt brines are perfect for coarsely chopped or whole vegetables like small cucumbers. The brining process allows vegetables to transform by creating an environment where beneficial lactic acid bacteria can thrive. These beneficial bacteria exist naturally on the surface of fresh vegetables (and on our skin and in healthy soil too). The key to a robust fermentation is giving the lactic acid bacteria a warm, slightly salty, and anaerobic (no access to oxygen) environment to do their magic!
Choose small to medium cucumbers that are free from bruises or soft spots.
Place the cucumbers along with any herbs or spices in the jar, leaving an inch of headspace at the top.
In a bowl, mix the brine: 4 cups filtered water + 2 Tbsp salt until the salt completely dissolves.
Add the water and salt mixture to the jar of cucumbers. Then top off the jar with more of the salt water, leaving 3/4 inch of headspace. Make sure all your vegetables are below the brine.
Place a small glass, ceramic, or stainless steal weight on the top of the cucumbers to hold them down below the brine.
Place your jar in a warm (66-72’ F) location to ferment. Put a plate or tray under your jar as they often leak a little of the brine in the first week of fermenting.
In the Next Week:
Be sure to check your soon to be pickles everyday and push any cucumbers or other vegetable matter down below the brine with clean fingers or utensil. This will lock your cucumbers away from oxygen and protect the ferment from developing yeasts and molds that could ruin or even make your batch unsafe to eat. If the brine evaporates too much, put more filtered water in to top it back up.
Pickles take a little while to develop that tangy sour flavor, so be patient.
On day ten, try tasting a pickle from the jar. The texture of the cucumber will have softened a little. There could be a white film or cloudiness in the jar, that is safe. Any other color of slime or mold or off putting smell could be a sign that this batch is contaminated and should be discarded.
If you still taste the raw vegetable, try letting it ferment for a few more days and then try it again. When you like the taste and texture of the pickle, replace the airlock with a fresh lid and put the jar into the refrigerator. There is no harm in fermenting pickles for a 3-4 weeks (and that is actually about how we find it takes to get them just right). Putting your ferment in the fridge will slow the fermentation and preserve the taste and texture for many weeks or even months.
For future experiments, you can to scale up or down your salt brine using this ratio:
1 1/2 teaspoons salt : 1 pint water+vegetables.
If you want to know more about fermentation, I recommend reading Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. And of course, try your own experiments using the above salt brine ratio. Pickles are amazing, and so is sauerkraut, green beans, carrots, beets, ginger, peppers....or a mix of veggies. And the brine. You can use left over brine to start your next batch or drink it to help replenish electrolytes and beneficial bacteria during or after illness or a long training session.
Kathi enjoys making and eating delicious and nutritious food for her family and friends. Fermenting foods is an ancient art of preserving foods that I took up about 20 years ago with that first try at sauerkraut. There is pretty much always a jar of something fermenting down in the basement and one of our favorite things to do while traveling is find local ferments to try! I hope you give home fermenting a try and enjoy the ease of preserving food this way.