I loves me a good dill pickle, canned with vinegar. But my inner Moishe gets all excited when I come across the original Yiddishe pickle, out of a barrel and with nary an added souring agent in sight, the way my grandmother used to make it. And there’s of course the additional benefit that mentioning lacto-acid fermentation in a room full of foodies is the equivalent of bringing Linda Evangelista to a dinner party. People take notice and want to be seen with you.
The somewhat mundane truth is that, just like sourdough, food preserved by lacto-acidic means have been around for thousands of years. And the similarities don’t end there. Just as with sourdough what we’re doing here is simply building a habitat that attracts beneficial bacteria, bacteria that produce the acid we need to keep our pickles, well, pickled. It’s about as low tech as it gets, and highlights once more the idiocy of today’s obsession with disinfectants and excessive cleanliness. We need bacteria to survive, we have evolved to live in harmony with bacterial flora and I personally prefer vegetables preserved by wild fermentation to any modern preservatives that the food industry can offer me.
What you’ll need:
- Vegetables. Cucumbers work extremely well, but so do carrots and cauliflower. Anything firm will do.
- Salt. Kosher salt works well here.
- Water. Filtered is good, to get rid of the chlorine. Chlorine kills bacteria.
- Flavouring agents, such as garlic, herbs or spices. Dill is the choice of the traditionalist here.
- Wine, oak or sour cherry leaves (optional).
- A crock pot, ideally earthenware but food grade plastic will do. If you are using an old pot make sure that the glaze is lead free.
That’s it. Everything else is really easy.
- Clean and trim the vegetables. Cucumbers keep whole, carrots peel and slice, cauliflower break into flowers.
- Clean the pickling pot with a 5% bleach solution or in the dishwasher. Rinse thoroughly.
- Put wine/oak/cherry leaves into the pot. The tannin in the leaves will help with keeping your pickles crunchy.
- Add dill, garlic, etc. Black pepper work well, so does allspice.
- Add the vegetables and cover with water. Be careful to measure the water, you’ll need to know the volume so you can add the correct amount of salt.
- Add enough salt to create a 5% saline solution – 50g of salt for every liter of water – and stir. Cover the pickles with a clean plate and weigh down with a food grade plastic bag filled with water and salt.
Next, store the pot in a cool place, below 21ºCelsius or 71º F. Above that temperature our good bacteria run the risk of being overrun by the baddies of the bacterial world, spoiling the pot. That’s part of the reason why pickles traditionally got started in fall, with the cooler temperatures arrives a better environment for the preservation of food – kind of useful when you think that winter will be next.
Check the pickles every day. Remove all scum and/or mold that may form at the top. If you’ve kept your pot clean and your pickles submerged you should have little to worry about, but a little bit of growth is perfectly normal. Remove with a paper towel and make sure to wash your hands – this is an occasion where you need to be scrupulously clean – before touching the pot.
After a week or so taste your first pickle. It should be firm and crunchy and taste mildly sour. Over the coming weeks the sour flavour will increase, until the pickles are fully fermented and the flavour will stabilize. When taking pickles out of the brine, always use clean tongs, never your hands. You’ve got a delicate eco-system in your pot, make sure not to disturb it if you can possibly help it.
Vegetables preserves with lacto acidic bacteria have a depth and layerdness of flavour that vinegar pickles can only dream about. As per usual, and this is for Mr. Stephenson, time is the magic ingredient here. Time to allow the flavour to develop, time to allow the vegetables to hanker down for the long, cold winter months.