Pickles are a fabulous way of capturing the essence of the late-summer harvest and preserving it for culinary enjoyment well after the season is over. In times past, pickled vegetables were an important staple for many cultures. Without the use of modern canning equipment, pickling was done the old fashioned way by lacto-fermentation. Even today, the art and traditions of preparing these delicious foods this way has continued in many ethnic groups and in families who prefer this method.
Most folks today are only familiar with pickles that are canned with vinegar and sugar. Unless we have Old-World grandparents who kept a crock full of fermenting vegetables in the cellar, the concept of lacto-fermentation may be foreign to us. What exactly is lacto-fermentation? In its simplest form, it is a process of utilizing the culture of lactobacilli to create an acidic environment in which the food ferments and is preserved. Bacteria which cause spoilage are unable to proliferate in the lactic acid and in the presence of acid-loving bacteria.
A similar process is used to make other foods that are familiar to us, such as yogurt, vinegar, and sourdough bread. Pickling cucumbers, sauerkraut cabbage, and dilly beans are well-known pickling vegetables, but did you know almost every vegetable can be pickled? And did you know that in some places like Scandinavia and the Arctic Circle, foods we might not associate with or recommend being pickled, like meat and fish, are fermented? If you would like to read in depth about lacto-fermentation and try some incredible recipes, the books I have found most helpful are Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. There are occasionally lacto-fermenting workshops at MOFGA to help learn the art hands-on. Dive in and get cultured!
So why bother going through the trouble of making old fashioned pickles? One taste is all you need to be convinced. Of course, if you are pregnant and are having a pickle-craving phase, these really hit the spot. And in addition to their excelling culinary qualities, lacto-fermented vegetables are loaded with beneficial microorganisms and nutrients unlocked by the fermentation process. These pickles may help with digestion and provide valuable enzymes missing in modern diets. Like a mad scientist, the pickle-maker experiences the awe and wonder of seeing vegetables, water, and salt being transformed into a bubbling elixir of life. Partaking of these deliciously transformed vegetables releases feelings of joy and satisfaction of having perpetuated a rare and ancient art of food preservation. Still weary of trying this at home? Here are some hints: Next time you are at the natural food store pick up a jar of “Real Pickles” and see if you like them. Reserve the liquid to pour into the crock if you start a batch of homemade pickles. This gives the microorganisms a jump-start and helps to ensure a better chance of pickling success. A handful of grape leaves will keep the pickles nice and crunchy, whether you make them the modern or old fashioned way. And don’t forget to add fresh garden herbs to make an especially memorable batch.
The equipment to make pickles is surprisingly simple. The fermentation vessel can be a crock, a clean food-grade plastic pail, glass canning jars, or anything similar. There is no need for expensive equipment, though brand-new crocks can be obtained from outfits such as Lehman’s at a premium price. My vessel of choice for pickling is the removable crock from a slow-cooker. They are oftentimes in abundance when the cooker part no longer works and the whole unit is discarded. Then the crock part is the best part! Look for these at lawn sales, thrift shops, and even the swap shed at the dump. Friends and family are always eager to get rid of spare and no longer useful crock pots, and I am happy to oblige. Antique crocks that your grandparents used are not advisable, since they may contain lead. So, to be safe, stick with newer vessels. And make sure all equipment is clean and veggies are sound, fresh, washed, and scrubbed.
There are different versions of lacto-fermenting vegetables, some perhaps better than the ones I have experience with, though the following basic method has been successful for me. Don’t be afraid to experiment with what works for you with materials you have on hand. Fresh vegetables are placed whole or in pieces into a crock, mixed with a ratio of 3 tablespoons for every 5 lb veggies with non-iodized sea or pickling salt, and covered with pure, un-chlorinated water and cheesecloth. The cheesecloth and veggies are weighted under the water with a heavy dish or some kind of weight, and covered tightly around the top rim of the crock with another cheesecloth or lid to keep out dust and insects. If you use a lid, make sure it’s not airtight so that the fermentation gasses have room to escape. The crock is placed at room temperature during the initial, most active phase of fermentation, and then moved to a cool but not freezing place for long-term storage. Try tasting the pickles after three days if the room temperature was above 75-80 degrees, a while longer if it was cooler. Successful pickles will be zesty and have a bite to them. To save crock space, I remove pickles from the crock that taste nice and tangy and which are fermented. I place them into clean, wide-mouthed quart canning jars, cover them with brine, and store them in the fridge, checking the batches occasionally. A well-preserved batch can last for months and sometimes years.
Nature does most of the work, but it is important to check on the crock daily while fermentation is vigorous. Sometimes a batch will really get going and overflow the crock, so be prepared just in case this happens. If a film forms on the top, simply skim it off by lifting the cheesecloth from out of the brine. Rinse the cheesecloth thoroughly, and then return to the crock. If the batch goes bad, you will know. Oh my, will you ever, and your neighbors, too! Compare your batch to the lacto-fermented pickles from the natural food store if you are unsure of the success of a batch. Surface mold will not affect what is under the brine, but a batch that went bad is unmistakably foul. As long as the ph of the crock’s contents is acidic, harmful and spoiling bacteria are not supposed to grow. If ever in doubt, send a questionable batch to the compost. It makes sense to pickle in small batches so if you get a bad one, only a part of the hard-earned harvest will be discarded. Keeping records will help to determine what is behind success or failure.
Making old-fashioned pickles, along with winemaking and cheese-making, is truly an art. If the first time is less than successful, don’t give up! When you succeed and master this art, you and your family will enjoy a delicious and healthful delicacy that one can really take pride in making.