Pickling vs. Fermentation
Fermenting and pickling are two methods of preserving food used before freezers, refrigerators, and canning. In pickling, vinegar and/or salt are added to foods, such as cucumbers, beets, eggs, and meats, to preserve them. Fermenting, on the other hand, employs naturally occurring yeasts, bacteria, enzymes, and/or fungi to transform and preserve foods.
The kind of pickles and sauerkraut that can be purchased in most grocery stores today are not at all the same products our ancestors knew. Now, most pickling is done with vinegar, which offers more predictable results, but no lactic acid; hence it does not contain any healthy bacteria. During the fermentation process, healthy bacteria is made, which produces vitamin B and enzymes that are beneficial for digestion.
Fermenting cucumber is more challenging than most other vegetable ferments because of their water content. To keep cucumbers crunchy, add grape leaves, oak leaves, or cherry leaves. Use unrefined salt (see below). Slicing cucumbers exposes more surface area to fermentation.
All waters are not the same
Use water free of chlorine or fluoride, which could interfere with the fermentation process. Most municipal tap water has antimicrobial agents, such as chlorine. You don’t want to kill off all those good bacteria.
All salts are not the same
Salt is hugely important; otherwise, the brine goes scummy, and your lovely batch of pickles is lost. It’s so important to use the right salt ratio! You can use both iodized and non-iodized table salt. Non-caking materials added to table salts may make your brine cloudy. Kosher salt does not have any non-caking agents added. A more natural choice is sea salt.
Vessels are also important
Glass or ceramic containers of cylindrical shape are recommended. Plastic is not recommended as it could leach chemicals. (I found my ceramic crock at an estate sale but tested it to make sure it’s lead-free). One can also use an insert from a slow cooker. Utensils made of zinc, iron, brass, copper, or galvanized metal should not be used.
A good rule of thumb for a brine is 3 tablespoons of sea salt for 1 quart of water. For shorter fermenting “half-sours” or malossol (“little salt” in Russian), use weaker brine, around 3.5% or 2 tablespoons of salt per quart/liter of water. For French-style cornichons, use tiny cucumbers of the cornichons variety and spice 5% brine with tarragon, garlic, and peppercorns.
Tips from East European Grandma
Many Eastern European pickle recipes call for floating a slice of rye bread on the brine. Another suggestion for fermenting cucumber is a glass jar near a window to help eliminate formation of scum (mold). If you are fermenting cucumbers when temperatures are hot, averaging above 77F/25C, ferment just a few days before eating or moving to the refrigerator. In cooler temperatures, you can ferment longer but taste frequently and refrigerate at the first sign of softening.
Lacto-Fermented “Kosher” Dill Pickles
(adjust your ingredients according to the volume of cucumbers and spices for your taste preferences)
- Batch of pickling cucumbers (sliced lengthwise)
- 3 Tbsp Sea salt
- 1 quart Chlorine-free water
- 4-6 grape, oak, or horseradish leaves
- 6-9 cloves Garlic (I also add slices of onions and carrots since we also like pickled vegetables)
- several Large heads of dill
- Spices to taste: black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, and bay leaf
- No need to peel the garlic; just add whole heads cut in half cross-sectionally, and the garlic infuses into the brine. For dill, flowers or seeds heads are all acceptable.
- You may notice an unusual ingredient in the recipe below: grape, oak, or horseradish leaf. These leaves are not for eating: They are put in brine because the tannins in them help the pickles stay crunchy, a vital characteristic of every good pickle. You can also use some black tea leaves, as they also contain tannins.
- Wash cucumbers. Cut in quarters, slice off blossom end and discard. Leave 1/4-inch of stem attached. Place some dill and spices on the bottom of a clean, suitable container. Add another layer of cucumbers, more dill, and spices. Dissolve salt in water and pour over cucumbers. Continue to fill the quart jar with this same water and salt mixture, pouring it over the cucumbers each time until the crock is full and the cucumbers can be completely submerged in the brining solution. Weight the vegetables down under the liquid by adding suitable cover and weight but allow some space for the gas to escape. (I used a plate and a clean, large rock.)
- Probably the most important factor in lactic acid fermentation is the submersion of the vegetables underneath the brine. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process, meaning it requires a non-oxygen environment.
- Allow to ferment for 2-7 weeks. Fermenting pickles cure slowly. Check every 2-3 days. Skim off the foam/scum and top up with non-chlorinated water as needed.The temperature should be between 68-74 degrees. (Avoid temperatures above 80° F. If it’s too hot, it will process too fast and produce scummy brine and soft pickles. Too cold, and the process will take too long.)The lactic acid fermentation process produces bacteria that create gases when the vegetables are fermenting. These bubbles are often visible after a few days. If you see those bubbles, you have an indication that your vegetable fermentation is well underway.Once you think they’ve pickled to your liking, just store them in a refrigerator for months.The end product has more nutrients than in the canning or freezing process. With Lacto-fermentation, you increase the nutritional value of the food by many enzymes and probiotics naturally present in fermented foods
- “The nose knows” is very true when it comes to fermentation. Your pickles should smell sour and fermented. So trust your instinct, let your nose do the telling, and be confident that you will know when the process is completed.
Lacto-fermentation is easy, healthy, and economical. You can keep gallons of lacto-fermented cucumbers or vegetables in cold storage for months and have enzyme-rich food during the darkest periods of the year.
Please consult the books below for troubleshooting problems and recipes for more advanced fermentation experiments, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, miso, kimchi, and other fruits and vegetables.
Contact me to talk about home canning and pickling or everything farmers’ markets.
Community Services Librarian
Kansas City, Kansas Public Library
625 Minnesota Ave.
Kansas City, KS 66101
913-295-8250 ext. 1103