In praise of pickling and fermenting your food
August 1, 2022 | View PDF
This may be jumping the gun a bit for more northern latitudes, but Alaska gardens will soon give us plenty of vegetables for making crisp, brined pickles or tangy fermentations. Some may be wrinkling their noses at the very suggestion of these sour condiments and as a nutritionist, I can only cautiously promote pickles on the plate. At the same time, I love pickles and fermented foods. I love classic dills, I love sweet and sour, I love the complex salty, tangy flavors of fermented vegetables. Current research indicates that consuming fermented foods may make important contributions to one's health. Traditional pickles can be made using newer lower salt recipes, bringing pickles more in line with nutrition guidelines.
If you visit the Alaska State Fair, you will see rows of artfully filled jars of pickled cucumbers, asparagus, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, beets, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, onions and green tomatoes as well as a variety of relishes and chutneys and sauerkraut – all hoping to merit a blue ribbon. So, what does it take to make a prize-winner or even just some jars to share with family and friends?
Fermenting and pickling are two different processes but both methods preserve the vegetables or fruits by lowering the pH – making them more acid. This is where the tart or sour flavor comes from. The acid also prevents dangerous microorganisms from growing and it is critical for safety. For "quick" or fresh pickles, vinegar and salt are used in making a brine and recipes must be followed exactly to make a safe product for jarring. Fermented pickles or sauerkraut can produce their own acid making use of the natural lactic acid producing microorganisms found on the produce. Salt used in fermentations help control the types of microorganisms that grow and favor lactic acid production. So the amount of salt is critical for safety in fermentation.
Starting your own
Making fermented or brined pickles isn't hard and doesn't really take much preparation time but there are some considerations that can make the difference between a high-quality and delicious pickled product or one that never makes it to your table. Topping the list of considerations is following a recipe and instructions published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Cooperative Extension Service. These will assure that you have the right amount of acid and salt for safety.
For the best pickles or fermentations, use the freshest vegetables or fruits possible. Produce should be firm and free of blemishes as any deterioration will flavor the batch and those pieces will not have a desirable texture.
Fresh from the garden is best for fermented efforts as this produce will have lots of lactic acid producing bacteria. Organic vegetables are recommended especially for fermentation. Rinse or scrub produce and peel skins except for the skin on cucumbers. While you may be tempted to leave skins on, the skins can introduce mold and dirt. The blossom end of cucumbers should be trimmed away to eliminate enzymes that could soften the cukes. Use unwaxed "pickling" cucumbers for fresh or brined cucumber pickles. Although local and fresh is desirable, don't be afraid to use good quality produce from the grocery store.
What you'll need
Equipment used for making pickles should be non-reactive to acid and salt and scrupulously clean. Glass or unchipped enamelware and top-quality, stainless steel pots are the best choices for heating pickling liquids. Foods that will be fermented are ideally mixed and fermented in glass, high-quality, food-grade plastic or unchipped enamelware or stoneware. All equipment used in the production of fermented products should be sterilized. This will keep unwanted microorganisms out so that the desired ones can thrive.
Soft water is best for pickles and fermentation. Hard water can prevent pickles from curing properly and heavily chlorinated water can interfere with fermentation. Even though it is an extra cost, I purchase distilled water for my pickles and ferments.
Canning or pickling salt is plain salt with no additives and should be used. Salt with additives may impart bitter flavors. And, additives in salt may make the brine in your pickle jars cloudy. This may seem unimportant but cloudy brine could also be a sign of bacterial growth and you don't want that confusion. Pickles with cloudy brine are not prize winners!
Vinegar used for pickles should follow the instructions and recipe but is usually white vinegar that has 5% acidity. Do not use homemade vinegar, rice vinegar or any vinegar of an unknown pH. If you want a less sour tasting product, you can add extra sugar but do not decrease the amount of vinegar (acid).
White granulated sugar usually provides the sweetness in pickle recipes. Artificial sweeteners are not recommended because they don't help the texture/firmness and they lose flavor or create bitterness over time.
A variety of flavors can be added to traditional or fermented pickles. To the extent possible, use whole fresh spices. Powdered spices will make pickle brine liquid cloudy - see above note on salt. Cloudy is bad. In the case of certain ferments where a brine is not used, such as kimchi, powdered red pepper flakes or coarsely ground red pepper is used.
Process is paramount
Few gardens in Alaska produce enough cucumbers to make classic pickles. But, if you are a pickle fan like me, you might get started with a small batch of pickled carrots, beets, asparagus, green beans or zucchini. These pickles are made with hot, seasoned vinegar brines, poured over prepared vegetables and herbs packed in canning jars and then processed in a boiling water bath canner. For safety's sake, stick to the proportions of vinegar, salt, water and vegetables specified in the recipes.
Alaska is famous for our giant cabbages. Giant or not, fresh Alaska cabbage makes a wonderful, fermented vegetable, aka sauerkraut. Many types of vegetables can be prepared in the same manner.
Safe and successful fermentation requires adding salt in proportions based on weight with 2.25 to 2.5% of salt – a food scale is important for this step. About two pounds of thinly sliced cabbage/other finely shredded vegetables to approximately 3 1/2 teaspoons salt.
Fermentation takes place in an airless environment, so the prepared, salted vegetables must be tightly packed and held under a liquid. The salted vegetables usually create their own brine but a salt and water brine can be prepared ahead of time and used to cover the vegetables if necessary. Vegetables are submerged under brine and a cover placed on the container to minimize exposure to air, prevent evaporation and prevent unwanted microorganisms from contaminating the fermenting vegetables.
Fermentation requires holding the product at a steady temperature, ideally around 70° F. Although a range of temperatures can work, lower than 60° F may not be warm enough and warmer than 75°F may be too warm to promote the lactic acid producing bacteria.
Small containers of fermented vegetables may be ready within a little more than week; larger containers may take as much as a month or more. As long as you have gotten the right microorganisms going, you will have an enjoyable fresh, sour tasting product. Sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables can be kept under refrigeration once they are pleasantly sour and tangy.
Pickles and fermented vegetables can add important nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to your diet. Fermentation can improve the nutrient content of the food. Pickled vegetables have even been used to help children learn to eat a wider variety of vegetables. And, what is a hot dog without pickle relish or sauerkraut?
Though winning a prize is probably not your most important goal, follow USDA's guidelines and enjoy your own "prize-winning" flavors with simple pickling and fermenting.
For more information and recipes for pickling and fermenting, call your local Cooperative Extension Service.
Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension.