I'd like to tell you about the method I use to make naturally fermented cucumber pickles. The same technique can be used for many different fruits and vegetables by varying the spices and the time. If you read no further, this is what you need to know:
A. Use an appropriate amount of salt. Too little and unwanted molds and bacteria can develop and the cucumbers will become soft. Too much and you will retard the growth of good yeasts and bacteria, the pickling will take an unnecessarily long time, be unpalatably salty, and the cucumbers could get too sour, or too soft before they're ever really tasty.
B. Keep everything submerged. As long as your cucumbers (or other veggies) are safely deep in the brine, you can skim off whatever scum forms on top.
Ingredients and Supplies
- Mini cucumbers - lets say almost 2 kilos, or 4 lbs, or 4 Styrofoam trays-worth
- Fresh dill - half a bunch
- Fresh and/or powdered turmeric (I prefer both)
- Garlic (That's what makes 'em KOSHER!) - anything from none to a whole head, peeled
- Mustard seeds
- Whole peppercorns
- (Optional) chili peppers, dry chili seeds, or chili juice (My favorite batch of pickles was made with the juice of chilies I had fermented.)
- Natural (not iodized) salt - approx 1/4 cup per 2 liters or 1/2 gallon
- chlorine-free water - amount will depend on your container
- Large glass, ceramic, or food-grade plastic container
- A plate that fits just inside the container
- Weight or zip-top bag
First Stage - Fermentation:
- Prepare a brine with water and salt. It should be boldly salty, but not mouth-full-of-seawater gag-worthy. Or enough to float a CLEAN egg. I like to reuse clean 2-liter water bottles for this. I start by dissolving all the salt in a small amount of hot water. Then I add cool water while dividing it between separate containers, if necessary.
- Wash dill, grate or slice turmeric (if necessary), peel and smash garlic, and gather other spices.
- Wash cucumbers and slice off the ends. You must remove the end where the bloom was (not the stem) because it contains an enzyme that inhibits fermentation and makes the cucumbers soft. I just remove both ends for more even flavor penetration.
- Put all or half of the dill and garlic and all the spices at the bottom of your pickling vessel.
- Begin lining up all the cucumbers vertically. I find it helps to prop up my giant jar on an angle using towels or a sack of flour or whatever is laying around. Squeeze as many in as you can without squishing or bruising them. It's best if they are tight enough to keep each other submerged, even if that means cutting cucumbers.
- If you have two layers, you can add the rest of the dill and garlic before the second layer of cuc's. Then arrange the rest of the cucumbers. Pour the cool brine over everything.
- Put the plate on top, then the weight or a zip-top bag filled with the leftover brine. Cover the container with something that will keep out any flies or dust, but also allow air and gases to be released.
- Remove any white "bloom" every day or two.
- Taste the cucumbers after 5-7 days, depending on the weather. When they are sour to your liking (or even slightly more sour), move them straight to the refrigerator, eat them, or...
Here is STEP 2 of my "not-so-secret two step process"
- Transfer only the cucumbers and large pieces of garlic to clean jars. You may add more garlic. Make sure the pickles are packed tight enough to stay under the liquid.
- Filter the used, acidic brine through cheese cloth.
- Fill the new jars with 1/3 to half acidified brine and 2/3 to half fresh salt water (I use water less salty than the original solution.) This makes the jars pretty and clear, and delays the pickles getting more sour.
- If you want them more sour, leave them out of the fridge for another week or more, and continue to remove any white scum. I like to refrigerate some and leave some out to continue souring.
You don't use vinegar??
No! If you want quick "refrigerator pickles" you can make a brine with vinegar, or use the liquid from a store bought jar of pickles. Our goal is to cultivate lactobacillus and other beneficial bacteria and yeasts to make naturally acidic sour pickles, full of life and beneficial nutrients and microbes.
Many recipes I see for "lactofermented" vegetables use whey from kefir, yogurt, or a cheese-making process. How do you get your culture "started"?
There are a couple reasons I don't use whey, but the bottom line is, it's not necessary. With the proper ingredients, an appropriate amount of salt, and an acceptable environment, the beneficial bacteria usually take over within 24 hours without the help of any added starters. That said, I do like to add things that I already have fermenting. I've used fermented chili extract, fermented grated turmeric, preserved lemon, or the brine left in the jar after I've devoured the last batch of pickles.
How long do pickles keep?
It's really hard to say exactly. It would depend how long they fermented for and under what conditions. Pickles that ferment for longer in cooler temperatures with slightly more salt will last longer. But since cucumbers are in season at the beginning of the summer, that might not be practical. It is unlikely your pickles will "go bad", though they may become more sour than you like, or they may soften. Keep them submerged and continue to remove any white scum that develops. White=safe, blue/green/pink/red/black=compost. Funky, rotten, bad smells=compost.
How can I "fix" pickles that are too sour/salty/garlicky/etc.?
You can dump the brine (or recycle it), and replace it with new liquid that is more to your liking. Just make sure you are using clean chlorine-free water and just enough salt to inhibit unwanted microorganisms.
Any other questions?
I hope once you've learned the basic technique, you can experiment and make your own signature pickling process!