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Making fermented pickles requires us get friendly with bacteria.
As discussed in my previous post, a pickle is nothing more than a vegetable preserved in an acidic brine. Acid is the silver bullet against botulism and also gives pickles their signature tangy taste. For quick pickles, often called vinegar pickles, the brine is acidified with vinegar.
In making fermented pickles, also called brined pickles or lacto-fermented pickles, the brine acidifies naturally, thanks to the activity of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria. The microbiology is fascinating and complex, but all you really need to know is that the beneficial lactobacillus bacteria occur naturally on the vegetables you’ll pickle, and the fermenter’s role is to encourage them to do their thing. In one sense, fermenting is akin to gardening. Gardening requires patience, diligence, and careful attention, but you don’t actually make the garden grow. Instead, you create the conditions for the garden to flourish as nature takes it course. Likewise, with fermenting, you don’t make the ferment bubble, but you do tend the microenvironment of your ferment in order to foster conditions favorable to the beneficial bacteria. And, just as the gardener takes steps to discourage weeds, you take steps to discourage undesirable microorganism such mold and yeast.
Some people prefer the unique, rich flavor of traditionally fermented pickles (kosher dills, for instance) to the sharper flavor of vinegar pickles, but to me the most significant difference between the two classes of pickles is that fermented pickles are a raw, live, pro-biotic food. (See Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine article here for an overview of research linking our bodies’ microbiome, including gut flora, to health.) In my experience, the effect of fermented pickles on digestion is noticeable and beneficial.
Many firm vegetables—including cucumbers, summer squash, green beans, turnips, and green tomatoes—can be fermented. The only essential ingredients apart from the vegetables themselves are sea salt and bottled water.
The 6 Elements of Successful Fermenting
The six basic elements of all successful ferments are: vegetables, water, salt, aromatics, time, and care. At the bottom of this post, I’ll give you my Universal Fermenting Recipe, which is basically a simple ratio of salt to water with some added aromatics.
But the real secret to successful fermenting lies in your attention to the Six Elements, so I’ll start with each in turn.
Vegetables: As with all preserving, good results begin with good ingredients. Choose fresh, crisp, young vegetables picked at the height of the growing season. Rinse well, and trim the blossom end of cucumbers and squash to remove enzymes that can cause the pickle to soften. Vegetables can be sliced (zucchini spears), chunked (large cucumbers or squash), or left whole (green beans, small cucumbers, small green tomatoes).
As for greens: many dark leafy greens will develop an unpleasant chlorophyll taste. But when fermenting turnips I’ll sometimes add a handful of the tops, and trimmed chard stems make a good pickle.
Water: Tap water from municipal water systems has been treated with chlorine or chloramine to kill microbes. It will disrupt the beneficial bacteria you’re trying to encourage in your ferment. Always use bottled spring water instead.
Salt: Salt adds flavor, hardens the vegetables’ pectin to make pickles crunchy, and regulates bacterial growth. The brine will taste quite salty at first, but a portion of the salt is absorbed by the vegetables, and everything comes out right in the end.
Unrefined sea salt is the best choice. Salt’s weight-by-volume varies substantially with flake size, and sea salt will come closest to the recipe measurements. (Kosher salt, which is much flakier, will under-salt the brine.) Unrefined sea salt also contains trace minerals that yield a crunchier pickle.
Incidentally, there is no “right” amount of salt in a brine. The standard ratio of 5% salt by weight is a useful guideline, not a fixed rule. A less-salty brine will ferment faster, and extra salt will slow down a ferment. In summer’s heat, stick with the recipe below.
Aromatics: Be generous with aromatics, such as whole garlic cloves, sprigs of fresh dill and whole dill heads, and whole spices including black peppercorns, dill seeds, and caraway seeds. My recipe below gives suggestions, but don’t feel constrained by them. Other options include fresh horseradish, dried red chilies, and pearl onions.
Incidentally, one often sees the advice to add grape leaves or oak leaves to a ferment, the idea being that their tannins help crisp the pickle. It’s a nice touch, but not at all necessary.
Time: As mentioned, fermenting is a natural process, and it requires time to work. Warmer temperatures accelerate the process, and colder temperatures slow it down. In a comfortable room, around 70 degrees, the brine will begin to cloud in two days. Within three to four days, it will start to bubble and sour. The pickles will be half-sour in about a week, and fully sour in two weeks. At 80 degrees, the whole process might happen in a week. In a cool cellar, it might take three weeks or more. In a cold refrigerator, fermentation occurs imperceptibly over the course of months.
Care: Because of the variables inherent to each ferment (salt and temperature), the only way to judge your pickles’ process is to inspect them carefully. You can’t leave a crock or jar unattended for a week and expect good results. Instead, look at the pickles daily. Make sure they stay submerged (more on that below). Expect to find a thin film of yeast forming on the brine surface and maybe even tiny pinheads of mold. Don’t worry about these signs of life. Skim off the floaters and wipe the wall of the crock or jar if necessary. As long as you keep the micro-garden of your ferment well “weeded” by skimming daily, everything will be fine.
Once the pickles start to sour, taste daily. Once they are soured to your liking, put them in the fridge for keeping. They will last a month or longer.
Universal Fermented-Pickle Recipe
Yields about 2 quarts
2 pounds sturdy vegetables, such as Kirby cucumbers, small zucchini, green beans, baby turnips, or green tomatoes
• 6 4-inch sprigs fresh dill (including seed heads, if available)
• 6 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
• 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
• 1 tablespoon dill seed
• 6 level tablespoons sea salt (2.25-2.5 ounces)
• 2 quarts bottled spring water
1. Wash and trim the vegetables, and pack into a one-gallon jar or crock. Tuck in the dill, garlic, and other aromatics as you go.
2. Dissolve the salt in the water, and pour over the vegetables to cover. Weight the vegetables with a plate so that they remain completely submerged. Alternatively, fill a Ziploc freezer bag with brine, and use it to submerge the vegetables. (Make extra brine using the same proportions if necessary). If using a jar, loosely close the lid. (Do not seal it so because gases produced by the ferment need to escape.) If using a crock, cover it with a plate or board to keep out unwanted visitors.
3. Store the ferment in a cool, dark place, and check daily. Skim any scum or flecks of mold. Insure that the vegetables remain submerged. The pickles will begin to sour in less than a week. You can eat them at any point in the fermenting process. Once soured to your likely, transfer the pickles to the refrigerator, and keep submerged in brine. They will keep for a month or longer.
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