Sour Pickles and Beyond
“Deli-style” sour pickles are made in the time-honored traditional method of lacto-fermentation. Their crisp, unmistakable crunch and flavor is achieved using a vinegar-less brine; essentially just salt, water, and spices.
This traditional method of food preservation was well-understood and was a necessity of those who have come before us in the kitchens of yesteryear. Before the advent of modern canning, lacto-fermentation was largely employed as a way to preserve the harvest through the winter. At its simplest, it is a brine poured over vegetables and left to spontaneously (and magically) ferment from a specific strain of bacteria, Lactobacillus.
In addition to being an integral part of the make-up of the household food stores, fermented foods, by way of lactic-acid, (by-product of lacto-ferments) were, and still are, a crucial part of a healthy diet. Lactic acid aids in promoting healthy gut flora, increased vitamin and mineral content in the fermented food, balancing stomach acids, and supporting immunity overall through a healthy gut.
Sally Fallon in her tome, Nourishing Traditions, puts it best:
The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.
All of this fancy talk can be somewhat off-putting to a home cook, but I assure you that this is ground-level fermentation and you FOR SURE can pull this off!
Let’s get started.
- Wide-Mouth Quart Jar, Fido Jar, or a fermentation crock is best if you have one.
- Weight to keep the vegetables submerged. This can vary widely. It can be a purchased item such as a glass fermenting weight, or it can be a scrubbed and boiled rock, a jelly, jar,–or what I use, a small shot glass. Just be frugal and use whatever you have access to.
- A cover. Depending on your set-up, this will vary too. Legit fermenting vessels and Fido jars have their own covers, and depending on whether or not your weight sticks out from your quart jar determines the rest. If all vegetables are submerged and covered with brine and you can get a canning lid and ring on, use that– but not too tight. Gases are created in fermentation and need to escape. (This is not scary, but if it seems so, “burp” your jar periodically). If your shot glass protrudes from your quart jar, (like mine shown in the photo), then throw a clean cloth over the top with a rubber band around it.
- Patience. Lots of it. Good things take time.
What will you be fermenting this time? Cukes? Green tomatoes? Radishes? Carrots? Peppers, eggplant, cabbage, garlic, or all of the above?
The method of lacto-fermentation can be broadly applied, but today I’ll be focusing on cucumbers to achieve the old-timey nostalgia and delicatessen quality of sour pickles, or in my case “half-sours.” This recipe is for 3 quarts of half-sour pickles (less salty) and can be easily scaled up.
- 3 pounds (approximately) of unwaxed cucumbers. Most use kirby “pickling cucumber,’ small to medium size, but I have used even larger-sized cukes cut up into uniform 1 inch chunks or cut into spears. Most importantly, be consistent with your sizing, in whatever you may choose so your fermentation is even.
- 2 quarts of filtered water (I use my Berkey)
- 6 Tablespoons of Sea Salt (Iodized salt not recommended in pickling and creates cloudiness).
- 6 Tablespoons of pickling spice. I make my own. It’s easy and tastes the best to me. You can see my recipe here.
- 2-4 sprigs of fresh dill
- 6-9 cloves of garlic
- Strawberry leaves for bottom and top of each jar. This provides tannic acid to keep your ferment crisp. You could also use: grape leaves, blackberry leaves, oak leaves, sour cherry leaves, horseradish leaves, or other item high in tannic acid. Sandor Katz, fermentation revivalist and James Beard Award winner says even a small pinch of green or black tea works– but not too much.
Rinse cucumbers to remove any dirt and scrape or finely trim the blossom end off. (This is an important step, so if you’re unsure, do both ends.) If your cucumbers are more than a day old, you’ll need to soak them (15 minutes?) in an ice bath to crisp them up a bit. (Optional, but recommended).
Make your brine by dissolving 2 Tablespoons of sea salt into a quart of filtered water. This ratio will make “half-sours” which are my preference and are less salty. For full sours, add more salt. *See the footnote for more info.
Cover the bottom of each clean quart jar with a few strawberry leaves (or substituted tannin). Add a sprig or two of fresh dill in each jar, along with 2-3 cloves of peeled garlic. Gently pack each jar with cucumbers (or other veggie) and add 2 tablespoons of pickling spice. Pour prepared brine over all to fill the jar. Your brine must cover your veggies. Place two more strawberry leaves over the top of everything (and in the case of using quart jars with shot glasses like I do, these leaves sort of act like a seal that I place the shot glass on top of to hold everything down). Because ferments begin to float. Just wait and see…
Your brine will be bright and fresh when you first put it together, and after a few days it’ll start to bubble and get cloudy. That’s when the magic starts to happen, friends…
Anything that floats above the brine will likely mold. You’ll want to scrape it out. There are cases of kahm yeast developing, and if you ever see a weird whitish-pinkish scum-looking substance floating on the top of your brine, I’d suggest looking up kahm before throwing out your batch. (Hint: kahm is harmless).
How Will I know When It’s Done?
Well, there’s no easy answer here.
The true answer is ‘ferment until ripe.’ You can see in my photo that my pickles actually need a few more days. The innermost has turned glistening and changed texture. The outermost has softened and gained pickle-texture, but is still a bit too firm. The key is to taste them every few days, and when they are done, you’ll know. There are a lot of factors at play here, but its generally 1-2 weeks.
Once your ferment has achieved ripeness, store in the fridge or a cool cellar or other dreamy pickle-storage place.
*Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, 2nd Edition and master fermenter, gives more info on salt to water ratios in brine. He says:
The strength of brine varies widely in different traditions and recipe books. Brine strength is most often expressed as weight of salt as a percentage of weight of solution, though sometimes as weight of salt as a percentage of volume of solution. Since in most home kitchens we are generally dealing with volumes rather than weights, the following guideline can help readers gauge brine strength: Added to 1 quart of water, each tablespoon of sea salt (weighing about .6 ounce) adds 1.8% brine. So 2 tablespoons of salt in 1 quart of water yields a 3.6% brine, 3 tablespoons yields 5.4%, and so on. In the metric system, each 15 milliliters of salt (weighing 17 grams) added to 1 liter of water yields 1.8% brine.
He rates half-sours at a 3.5% brine and a full-sour at a 5.4%. To read on, visit his website.
Making Sour Pickles by Sandor Katz
Sour Pickles by Nourished Kitchen
Sandor Katz on You Tube
Killer Dill Pickles by Sarah Miller