Easy-Pleasy Fermented Pickles

3 days ago I made a spur of the moment decision, around 9 o’clock in the evening, to try my hand at making some fermented pickles. The idea has been swirling around my mind for quite a while, and I realized that there is no better time to start doing something then right now in the present moment. So, following my own advice (which is something that I desperately need to do more often) I decided to go for it and give it a shot.

I thought that it was going to take me hours, as I have pretty much no experience canning (until I initiated this experiment of course) but have read about it and heard others praise it for a long while. In the process, I realized rather quickly that is was simpler than I ever could have imagined. I quickly looked up a basic recipe which you can view rightย here although I modified it heavily. I treated it more as a guideline and collection of suggestions (which I suppose is a plausible definition of a recipe, no?) than an actual step-by-step procedure, mainly because I had different sized jars and a varied range of ingredients that I wanted to experiment with.

Earlier today (August 10th 2014) I ‘burped’ the mason jars by opening the lids to allow excess carbon dioxide to escape and was greeted by the tantalizing sour smell of fresh dill pickles, which I am going to interpret as a sign that everything is going to according to plan! The jars must be relieved of excess gases that are a normal product of active bacterial fermentation or else the jars may explode from the pressure inside building up or the lids may become deformed and not reusable. I’ve read that burping them every 3-4 days is recommended, but I’m sure that doing it more often wouldn’t hurt either.

Like the majority of things that I do, I advocate for people to experiment and be their own citizen scientists. Not only is it fun to be creative and practice ingenuity, but it’s an excellent way to discover how to make use of the materials that you have around you and personalize your own recipes. What works for you may not work for your friend, your neighbor or anyone else, but it’s important to do a little bit of research and see what others have done (like myself) to get a general idea of how it’s done. I didn’t follow any existing ratios for the salt water brine, how much of each ingredient to add or how much whey to add to the jars, but that’s the beauty of experimentation! I’m confident that as long as the beneficial bacteria are introduced in a reasonable amount that they will populate the entire jar rather quickly and therefore create an environment inhospitable to many possible contaminating fungi or molds.

So without further ado, here is the what, how & why I did what I did to make my own easy-pleasy fermented pickles and how you can too.

Ingredients: (makes 4 half-pint mason jars of seasoned pickles)

– 1 1/2 or 2 freshly hand washed/scrubbed garden cucumbers (the exact number of cucumbers used depends on their size, shape, diameter etc.)
– 1 quart (2 pints in a quart) of water
– 3 tbsp. sea salt or kosher salt (not table salt, which is iodized and not good for fermentation apparently)
– 1/8 tsp. turmeric (optional)
– 4 whole, pealed garlic cloves
– 4 dill flowering/seed heads
– 4 dried bay leaves
– 4 tbsp. whey*

*The whey is integral to this recipe as it contains the lactobacillus bacteria (among other microscopic buddies I’m sure) which are responsible for initiating the fermentation process, known in this case as lacto-fermentation. I make milk kefir using organic or unpasteurized milk. Unpasteurized milk cannot be purchased in stores because of health and safety liabilities but contains active bacterial cultures. Making kefir with store-bought pasteurized milk repopulates the final product with lactobacillus and is therefore suitable for this purpose.

In order to separate the curds and whey in the kefir, I put the kefir in a cheese-cloth lined plastic strainer that I place over a bowl and set it in the fridge for 12-14 hours for the whey to slowly drip out. The whey can be used for a variety of different things including baking, bread making, or in this case, pickling and fermenting (can be added to shredded cabbage to make sauerkraut in the same way). The left over kefir, having lost a lot of the liquid whey, is very creamy and rich and I mix it with fruit, nuts and seeds to eat as a snack or quick breakfast.

Instructions:

1) Fill a saucepan or pot with 1 quart of filtered water, 3 tbsp. of salt and 1/8 tsp. turmeric. Bring to a boil and keep boiling for at least a couple minutes, stirring to incorporate all of the salt and turmeric. Set aside to cool.
2) Peel the garlic cloves and slice up your cucumbers however you see fit. I sliced my cucumbers into discs so that I could put them into sandwiches and burgers but you can make wedges or put them in whole if they are small enough (or get larger jars!).
3) Into each jar place 1 bayleaf, 1 dill flower/seed head, 1 garlic clove and 1 tbsp. whey.
4) Pack the jars with as many cucumber sliced/wedges as possible. It’s alright to smoosh them a little bit but try not to mangle them as they won’t look very nice at the end of the whole process.
5) Once your water/salt/spice brine has cooled to near room temperature at the very least, fill each jar to within 1 inch or so of the rim with the brine. If there are any cucumber slices/wedges that float or not covered by the brine, either remove them or rearrange the ingredients. There has to be air space at the top of the jar for proper fermentation.
6) Screw the lids on tight and place in a cool, dark location. Remember to open the jars briefly every 3-5 days to release pressure. Depending on the temperature indoors, the strength of the whey culture among many other variables, the frequency in which your jars need to be relieved of pressure may vary. It’s better to do it more often than risk exploding your jars or deforming the lids!
7) After at least a week, begin tasting some of the pickles in the jars to see if they are to your liking. There is no right and wrong here, everyone likes their pickles different. Once you are content with their flavor you can store them in the fridge to retard the fermentation process and they should keep for quite a while, likely many months, especially if you are careful to use clean utensils each time you are extracting pickles from the jar and not to let anything else fall into the brine. It may still be necessary every few weeks or so to burp the jars in the fridge, because fermentation will not stop completely but just slow down considerably.

And there you have it! Not a particularly difficult or strenuous activity that provides you with the blissful delicacy of homemade fermented pickles. Naturally fermented (rather than simply preserved) pickles not only taste good but are also good for you, having absorbed the beneficial lactobaccilus bacteria that they have been steeping in which are naturally present in your gut. By eating them you are helping to keep the populations inside of you healthy and promote efficient, healthy digestion and the absorption of nutrients into your system. I’ll update this post once my own pickles are ready and add any after-thoughts as to how this recipe can be improved. If you give this recipe a try, let me know how it went and feel free to offer any suggestions or discoveries that you made along the way, especially if you tried different spices or salt/brine/whey ratios!

Update: One ingredient that I neglected to add that would have been a great addition are grape leaves. A grape leaf put into each of the jar supposedly helps keep the resulting pickles firm and crunchy and to keep from getting soft. Grape leaves are full of tannins which are astringent, and this astringency is what prevents cucumbers from loosing their crispness as they ferment.

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