Lacto-Fermented Pickles

I love Mark Bittman. How to Cook Everything Vegetarian introduced me to sourdough by making it so easy, it didn’t cross my mind to get caught up in elaborate preparations or find myself a pedigreed strain.

Similarly, I tried making refrigerator pickles from his Kosher Pickles, The Right Way recipe and they came out salty rather than sour, which I found delicious. Later, I realized that all I had to do in order to get the lacto-fermentation that would produce the probiotic benefits and familiar sour flavor was to leave them out longer than the 12-24 hours in the recipe recommended. I’ve had success pickling cucumbers, kohlrabi, and fennel, and I look forward to experimenting with more vegetables as the summer progresses.

The only important variables seem to be a) deciding what vegetables to pickle, b) finding a way to make sure the vegetables stay completely submerged, and c) brine strength. Varying the spices is fun, but doesn’t affect the science project. As it turns out, I lucked out by following Mark Bittman’s recipe using a glass baking dish with a lid. Inverting the lid over the dish handily keeps vegetables submerged, while putting a plate underneath collects runoff water (the vegetables will give off water at first, and the water will dribble out the sides).

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Mark Bittman’s recipe for¬†Kosher Pickles, The Right Way¬†calls for 2 pounds of cucumbers, 1/3 cup kosher salt, spices, and enough water to fill the bowl. This obviously doesn’t create a brine of a precise strength, but it doesn’t matter because the pickles are only intended to be cured at room temperature for 48 hours, and stored in the refrigerator for a week or shorter.

What I found in practice with my particular bowl was that I could see visible results of lactofermentation (bubbles and cloudiness) within a day, and taste the results over the course of several days (the pickles went from being merely salty to pleasingly sour). So even though the amount of salt seemed to be way more than in many other recipes, I trusted that the science project was proceeding as expected.

I am honestly unlikely to veer from this formula, which is convenient if imprecise:

  1. Put about 2 lb of vegetables into the glass dish, along with any desired spices.
  2. Boil 1 cup of water, dissolve 1/3 cup of salt into it, and then add ice cubes until the brine is cool enough to handle.
  3. Pour the brine over the vegetables. Then pour water on top until the container is filled.
  4. Top with the inverted lid, making sure that the vegetables are fully submerged and no air comes in contact with them.

After a day or so, the brine will start to turn bubbly and cloudy, a sign that the fermentation process is working. You can jumpstart the process by including some brine from a previous batch of pickles, but it’s not necessary.

A footnote about food safety:

Most bloggers claim that pickling is fairly idiot-proof because a) bad batches happen rarely, and b) a bad batch will smell and look foul and no one in their right mind would eat it. The important thing is to keep the vegetables fully submerged in order to prevent the growth of mold, yeast, and fungus. While I did read one scientific paper about how the Listeria bacteria can survive the fermentation process, I’m not sure how it’s relevant. Pickling doesn’t kill the Listeria, but you would have gotten sick if you’d eaten the raw cucumber anyway. Cooked food is safer, but no one cooks cucumbers.

In conclusion, I feel safe making pickles that ferment at room temperature for under a week, are stored in the refrigerator, and are consumed quickly. I suppose the probiotic benefits would be greater with a longer ferment, but I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the very good (and easy).

What vegetables can be pickled? Almost anything. Cucumbers, obviously, but also root vegetables like radishes and onions, and fruits like peppers and green tomatoes. I’ve read that it’s best to pickle beets with other vegetables because of their high sugar content, but that’s easy enough. And pretty much anything goes with spices as well – fresh herbs, peppercorns, dill seeds, mustard seeds, coriander seeds.

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