Making Pickles with Fermentation
Cucumber Success! Finally, this year I was successful at growing cucumbers. Despite the fact that I've heard from more than one person how easy they are to grow, just like anything else we plant in the garden, things can go wrong. I think maybe the odds were in my favor this year as I grew four different kinds of cucumbers - 1/2 were good for eating raw; the other 1/2 were good for pickling. Some were started from seed indoors under grow lights earlier in the year and the others were directly sown in a garden bed. In varying degrees, they all saw some success.
The one issue I did have was overplanting. I didn't leave enough room in the garden bed where I had several varieties of cucumbers and they didn't pollinate properly. If this happens, you can end up with deformed cucumbers. Luckily, it wasn't too late to thin them out and they recovered with better pollination after that, and I had plenty to make pickles with.
Pickling v. Fermenting
Pickling is a term often applied to both methods of making pickles, and these methods aren't exclusive to cucumbers; they're applied to all sorts of foods like beets, cabbage and many others. (Although I won't get into it here, fermentation is a process also applied to making alcohol.) Pickled foods are preserved in an acidic substance, such as vinegar and involve heat pasteurization, which eliminates microbes (even healthy ones). Likely, every pickle you buy at the grocery store is pickled in very acidic vinegar. Fermenting in a salt brine solution, however, creates the acidic environment as its by-product and cultivates good microorganisms that preserve the food. Fermentation relies on microbes that are present for the process to work.
I had the good fortune of attending a Fermentation Workshop at The Brooklyn Grange recently led by Derek Dellinger, author of the book, The Fermented Man. He essentially lived a whole year eating nothing but fermented foods and wrote about that journey. According to Dellinger, (and I'm paraphrasing here), in the fermentation process, we're forming an alliance with beneficial microbes. Microbes are already present in the vegetables; we're just staging the environment for a healthy ferment.
So, which is better? They're both great ways of preserving food. From a health perspective, fermentation offers probiotic benefits as it cultivates good bacteria and microbes in the process. Pickling can kill those naturally-occurring beneficial ingredients.
When you ferment, you'll see bubbles rising to the top. Don't worry - this is normal and good. In the fermentation process, waste product in the form of C02 is created while the microbes digest sugars and starches....it's a regular Game of Thrones in that jar and they're all battling for resources.
There's so much information out there about pickling and fermentation that it will make your head spin, but there's a lot of great stuff to read (Including The Fermented Man). I would recommend that you read more and give both a try.
Since I just went to the Fermentation class, I wanted to try doing it on my own. I had tons of pickling cucumbers, so I decided to give it a try. Fermentation only needs salt and water. We used fine sea salt at The Brooklyn Grange, but they also sell "Pickling Salt," which is what I used when I made pickles at home.
How Much Salt & Water?
If you're using a quart jar, you can add 1 1/2 - 2 TBSP of salt or about 1 TBSP of salt for a smaller pint jar. If you're using a one-gallon crock, about 1/2 cup of salt. It's generally recommended that you use filtered or bottled water. The reason for this is that many public water systems have a lot of chlorine in the water and you don't want to risk having the chlorine kill the good bacteria. When you fill the jar (or the crock, if that's what you're using), leave some space at the top, but make sure the vegetables are covered with liquid. If needed, you can weigh the cucumbers down into the brine to keep them from floating up.
TIP: Mold needs a surface to form itself on, so by making sure everything is covered in liquid, you'll keep the mold from forming on the cucumbers. (Unfortunately, I saw this in action with one of my jars in this process and had to discard it.)
Dill Pickle Recipe
This recipe is for pickling in a 1-gallon crock.
This recipe is adapted from Alton Brown's Dill pickle recipe, which is a fermentation recipe. All you really need to ferment is water and salt (and a container), but to make good fermented pickles, you need a good mix of ingredients to go along with it.
Alton Brown uses a 1-gallon pickling crock in the recipe. As much as I wish I had a pickling crock, I don't, and because I know you can ferment in mason jars....I used those (which I already had) rather than spending $80 on a crock. Truth be told, I may break down and get a crock one of these days, but I'd like to see how committed I am to the process before spending that kind of money. Call me a "conservative" spender....
I give full credit to Alton Brown for this recipe....as I work on perfecting my fermentation skills, I'll be sure to report other recipes on the blog.
5 1/2 ounces (by weight, if possible) of pickling salt (approximately 1/2 cup)
1 gallon filtered water
3 pounds pickling cucumbers, 4-6 inches long
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (WARNING: I thought this was too "hot" - pair it down if you're not crazy about hot pickles.)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon dill seed
1 large bunch fresh dill
- Make the brine mixture: Mix the salt and water together in a large (at least one gallon) pitcher. Make sure the salt is dissolved.
- Place the peppercorns, pepper flakes, garlic, dill seeds and fresh dill into a 1-gallon crock (or divide among mason jars).
- Cut the blossom ends off the cucumbers and add them to the crock on top of the "aromatics."
- Pour the brine mixture over the cucumbers and completely cover.
- If using a crock, pour the remaining brine into a ziplock bag and place on top of the cucumbers to weigh them down.
If using mason jars, cover the cucumbers and tighten the top, but loosen it a notch or two. Every once and a while, shake it lightly and loosen to release the bubbles.
- Check the pickles after 3 days. When you see the bubbles, start skimming off the scum that may be on the top.
- The fermentation is complete when the pickles taste sour and the bubbles have stopped rising; this should take approximately 6 to 7 days. Then, cover the crock loosely (or keep the mason jar tops on slightly loose) and place in the refrigerator for about 3 days, skimming daily or as needed.
- Store for up to 2 months in the refrigerator, skimming as needed. If the pickles develop an "off" odor or become too soft, it's a sign that they've spoiled and should be discarded.