Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Pickling How-To


Back before the advent of canning and freezing, folks preserved their vegetable harvest via lacto-fermentation*. This process, once commonplace, survives today mostly in the form of sauerkraut and kim-chi. These days, almost all store bought pickles and contemporary pickle recipes are vinegar-based. Lacto-fermented pickles contain no vinegar at all.

In lacto-fermentation, salt is added to vegetables, either by covering them in salty water or by mixing them with salt to draw out their own juices. Either way, the vegetable ends up stewing in salty liquid. Lactic microbial organisms (the same beasties that spoil milk) take hold in this environment and make it so acidic that bacteria that cause food to spoil can’t live there. The result is a pickled food that will keep without canning or refrigeration.

Lacto-fermented pickles are also full of beneficial bacteria that, like the bacteria in yogurt, are good for your gut and make food more digestible.

Consider yourself officially warned:

The USDA and FDA recommend that you can and heat process all fermented and pickled foods as a matter of course to prevent botulism. We do not do this ourselves with lacto-fermented foods, trusting in the highly acidic salty environment to ward off the bad bacteria, as folks have for generations. We also would hate to kill the beneficial bacteria that live in lacto-fermented foods by subjecting them to heat sterilization. However, you must make up your own mind on this one.

What to pickle:

Just about any firm, sturdy vegetable can be lacto-fermented. Some recommendations include:

Radishes (daikon is especially tasty), cucumbers, cabbage, baby onions, green beans, carrots, garlic cloves, beets, lemons, turnips, all work nicely.

All you have to do is pack a canning jar or crock with your veggies and cover them with a brine solution, or toss shredded veggies with salt, and leave it somewhere dark and cool to ferment.

Pickling time varies by taste, vegetable, ambient temperature, but say anywhere from three days to four weeks. Open it up and sample at regular intervals to decide when you like your pickles best. It’s a frighteningly simple and flavorful transformation.

First, always use sea salt, not iodized salt. And bottled water not tap water (chlorine will inhibit the pickling).

The saltier your solution, the longer the vegetable will last, but too much salt can be unpalatable. More salt is generally required in the summer when microbial action is fast paced, less in the winter.

Rules of thumb:

If you’re pickling your veggies in brine, that is, covering them with salt water, you will want to premix your salt and bottled water at the following strengths: 2 tablespoons of sea salt per quart of water (a 3.6% brine solution) is a pretty standard strength for most pickles. 3 tablespoons of salt per quart (5.4% solution) yields a salty but extra long lasting pickle.

The directions are simple:

1. Clean and cut veggies and fill a very clean jar. Add any spices.

2. Pour brine to cover. Leave a little breathing room at the top of the jar—about 1/2″.

3. Cap and wait

If you’re packing salt and vegetables together “dry style” (the way sauerkraut is made) you’ll want to use minimum of 1 1/2 percent salt by weight of vegetables which works out to about two to three tablespoons of salt per quart of prepared veggies. For sauerkraut and kim-chi:

1. Shred cabbage

2. Pack into container, salting as you go

3. Put a weight on top of the cabbage to help press out the liquids. Cover with cheesecloth.

4. Wait

A pickle’s lifespan:

It should take about three days minimum to pickle. Do a taste test every few days thereafter, and as soon as you’ve got a good flavor (probably in about a week or so) transfer your pickles to the refrigerator where they should last for several months. Or leave them in the cabinet if you like—they just won’t last nearly as long.

You’ll know they’re bad if they start to smell or look off, or take on a slimy texture.

Adapted from The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Further Reading:

Wild Fermentation The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz – a must have for the pickling/fermentation fetishist.

Keeping Food Fresh Old World Techniques and Recipes by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante

We were sent this comment on the definition of lacto-fermentation:
“I believe that you are in error re: lacto-fermentation as presented on your website. It is not lacto fermentation unless there is fresh whey involved. Otherwise, it is just simple fermentation. The use of whey allows a less salty product, but still provides the acidity needed for safety and the microbes needed for gut health. These lactobacilli cause milk to sour–not to spoil. Raw milk does not spoil, it simply sours and is still very safe (and usually tasty) to drink/eat. Pasturized milk spoils because the microbes that would protect the milk from pathogens have been killed by the heat of the process. The easiest way to get fresh whey is to allow milk to curdle and separate into curds and whey.”
-Linda Hosay

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