If you’re ready to put down that jar of Vlasic pickles and get down to the business of creating your own one-of-a-kind pro-biotic fermented pickles, read on. Understand, however, that if you do read on, you will learn just how simple pickling through fermentation is, which may lead to you becoming obsessed—like me—with transforming all the fruits and veggies in your garden and at the market into fermented pickles.
With each passing autumn, my kitchen shelves acquire a greater stockpile of fermentation projects than the year before. Frustrated family members regularly bawl out “I can’t find the cashews?!!” from inside the pantry as they rummage between fermenting vessels looking for snacks. This is the downside of the fermentation obsession. The upside is the end-product, the fermented pickle, which tastes good enough to squelch the complaints of even the most impatient of snack-thwarted family members.Two months of complaining compared to a year of compliments and gratitude makes for an easy decision—one on which I do not have to ferment. If you agree, read on and let your obsession begin.
What is fermentation pickling and how is it different than making pickles with vinegar?
Pickling is the process of preserving food with an acid. The acid may be quickly introduced as in the case of adding vinegar to a vegetable to pickle it, or the acid may be slowly introduced through the action of microorganisms as in the case of fermentation. In fermentation, salt in the brine prevents spoilage from “bad” microorganisms and enzymes while it allows “good” bacteria to convert the carbohydrates in a fruit or vegetable to lactic acid over several days or weeks, thus introducing an acid which preserves the food. Lactic acid can only be produced in an anaerobic environment, this is why the vegetables being fermented/pickled must stay submerged in the brine.
What kind of equipment do I need to ferment pickles?
Some people have inherited earthenware pickling crocks with weights from their German grandmother. When I first started pickling, I coveted one of these and felt a deep envy of these people. However, at $100 or more a crock, I put off buying one. In the end, I’m glad I did. (It’s good to let things ferment awhile in your brain too). Besides being expensive, pickling crocks are breakable, heavy, and inconvenient to store. If you have them already, use them as long as they don’t have any cracks.
Otherwise, use glass and food-grade plastic containers like those pictured above because the truth is any non-reactive food-grade vessel will work. I have several 6-quart Cambro square storage containers like the one I linked to here. The round 6-qt Cambro is cheaper and works perfectly well; I simply like how the square shape stores in my pantry and fits perfectly with my “weight”–a brine-filled, gallon-sized, Ziplock bag.
Not only are these containers cheap, light, sturdy and stack-able, they are also transparent so you can see your food during the fermentation process. Six-quart containers hold no more than 5 pounds of cucumbers. Half-gallon and quart mason jars also work well when pickling smaller quantities.
What is a weight?
A “weight” as I mentioned before is necessary in fermentation pickling as it keeps the veggies fully submerged in the brine–it weighs them down. A weight could be anything that does this– a plate with a mayonnaise jar on top for example. I find that the bag filled with brine makes the best weight for 2 reasons. #1 It molds to any shape–stuffed in a jar, laid on top of a container, etc. #2 If the bag leaks, it with not disturb salt water ratio of the brine and fermentation will not be ruined.
What is a brine?
A brine is salt water. The concentration of the brine—the ratio of salt to water—partly determines the speed of fermentation, how long the pickle will keep, and how sour the pickle tastes.
- 3.5% solution (heaping 1/2 cup salt :1 gallon water) – produces a faster ferment (2 weeks or less) but not as sour a veggie. Moreover, this brine is not suitable for canning. You may Hot-Water Bath Can a vegetable fermented in 3.5% solution if you discard the original brine and make a fresh pickling brine of 1 part vinegar : 1 part water. You must use a 5% acidity vinegar. You may increase the proportion of vinegar but not water. For example, 1 cup vinegar : 1 cup water or 2 cups vinegar : 1 cup water.
- 5% solution (heaping 3/4 cup salt/ : 1 gallon water) a slower ferment (2 – 3 weeks), more sour vegetable, and able to can the vegetable in its own brine.
- 7% solution (1 heaping cup : 1 gallon water) a slow ferment of 3 weeks or more, sour vegetables that can be canned in their own brine or can last uncanned for several months if kept in low temperatures 65 degrees F or less. I generally find a 7% solution much too salty but others may prefer it.
What ingredients do I need to make fermented pickles?
Salt. Water. A veggie or fruit. That’s it. Really. Use pure canning salt as other salts may contain additives or may not measure out the same. Use potable good tasting water. Use fresh veggies. I like to pickle carrots, garlic, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, onions and green tomatoes, but nearly any veggie or fruit (with the exception of the leaf of the plant) ferments using the method listed below. Leaves like cabbage leaves for kraut are fermented a bit differently. You can also add spices herbs and a bit of vinegar during the fermentation process to add flavor. Dill, garlic, hot peppers, peppercorns, etc.
Does it matter where I ferment my pickles?
Yes. Ferment your pickles in a clean, relatively dry, relatively cool place. I use my kitchen pantry (in an air conditioned house) or basement floor. A hot garage would not be an ideal spot nor the refrigerator because temperature is another important part of determining how fast pickles ferment. The ideal temperature to ferment pickles is 70—75° F. Above 80° F encourage bacterial growth and below 55° F slows the fermentation process too much. As a rule off thumb, the warmer it is, the faster veggies ferment.
Are there any nutritional benefits to eating fermented pickles?
Eating fermented foods give us a dose of beneficial microorganisms that aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Fermentation does not diminish the nutrients of a food but often enhances them.
Steps to ferment pickles
- Wash and prepare the veggie.
- Make a brine. Add herbs and spices if desired.
- Submerge the veggies in the brine under a weight.
- Check every few days removing yeast and mold off the top as the fermentation process continues.
- Depending on the brine concentration and temperature, begin taste testing veggies around the time it should be ready. If it tastes like a pickle and all of the veggies are a uniform color it is ready. It should not take more than 4 weeks.
- Now stick it in the fridge and eat. It should keep for 6 months or more.
- You can filter the brine or replace the brine with equal parts vinegar and water if you don’t like the cloudy look.
Fermented Pickle Recipes
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