Homesteaders are accustomed to spending time at home and taking on projects in the kitchen. Now that everyone has been spending more time at home, DIY pickles have become the rage. Pickles, even fruit pickles, are fairly simple to make—just follow the recipe and everything usually works out just fine. But for the curious among us, fermentation and the science of pickling is fascinating. And since the pandemic may give you the opportunity to homeschool your children, why wouldn’t you want to teach a science and math project that rewards you with a jar of crisp, tart pickles?
There are two types of food preservation techniques to make pickles. Lacto-fermentation actually goes through the fermentation process. Vinegar-brined foods are simply soaked in a salty brine. In the interest of satisfying the curious, and creating a lesson plan everyone will enjoy, I am going to focus on lacto-fermentation for this article.
Lacto-fermentation is a food preservation technique that is used on all types of foods. Yogurt and kefir are two foods that are produced this way, and they are both simple to make at home. Amish Friendship Bread also goes through the lacto-fermentation process, which is what gives it a deep, rich flavor. Pickles are probably the most well-known, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. There are all types of pickles, including fruit pickles, that are delicious and simple to make at home.
To understand how lacto-fermentation works, first understand that all plant foods are covered in a friendly, beneficial bacteria called lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is the home pickler’s friend because it suppresses other bacteria that cause mold and disease. It does this by metabolizing the sugar in the food product before any other bacteria can get to it. As it metabolizes the sugar, it produces lactic acid and carbon dioxide. The production of lactic acid is what preserves the food and gives it the classic pickle tang.
There are a few things to know before starting your first batch so you won’t have to troubleshoot later. First, the brine should cover the vegetables at all times to limit their exposure to oxygen. There are microbes in the air that will land on any food product that is not submerged and cause fungus and mold. There are a ton of suggestions on how to avoid this, but I have found the best option to be filling a ziplock bag with water and placing it on top of your vegetables. This is enough pressure to keep the food submerged and it is easy to pull it out of your container to taste the product or add more brine. Let your pickles ferment at a room temperature of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit to further inhibit the possibility of mold.
Second, a brine will become a bit cloudy but to prevent too much cloudiness, do not use table salt. If you have hard water, you can either use bottled water or boil your water for five minutes and let it cool for 8 hours before slowly pouring off the top half of the water, leaving the sediment at the bottom of the pan.
Third, occasionally you may pull out a pickle and find it is pink or blue. To avoid this, do not use any aluminum, brass, iron, copper, or zinc cookware or utensils. They will react with the acids that develop during the fermentation process. Use nonreactive cookware such as plastic, ceramic, enamel, glass, or stainless steel.
Finally, to avoid the disappointment of biting into a limp pickle, be sure to start with fresh, firm pickles. Fruit and vegetables have a softening enzyme that lives right underneath the blossom so cut the blossom end off of each piece of produce. If you are pickling cucumbers, almost any variety can work except English cucumbers. Be sure to use refined sea salt or pickling salt. These types of salts contain calcium and magnesium which reinforce naturally occurring pectin in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables. You can also add grape leaves, cherry leaves, or oak leaves to the brine, as these contain astringent tannins that inhibit the softening enzymes.
The salinity of the brine depends on what you are pickling and what you want your finished product to taste like. The typical brine strength for home use is between 5 and 6% salinity. Instead of worrying about the exact salinity, I use an equal amount of non-iodized salt as the weight of the fruit or vegetable I am pickling, plus an additional 2% of that weight. The longer the food sits in the brine, the tarter it will become.
Some fermented vegetables can last for a year or more in the refrigerator, while others—such as fermented salsa—will become mushy after a week. Fermented fruits are usually quite delicate and should be eaten within a few days of finishing the fermentation process. The exceptions to this are fruits that are highly acidic, such as lemons and limes. These can last for a year in the refrigerator.
Half-Sours (Makes one quart)
- 3/4 oz. pickling salt (1 T. plus 1 t.)
- 1 lb. firm cucumbers (6-8 )
- 4 sprigs fresh dill
- 3 large cloves of garlic
- 1/2 t. cracked black peppercorns
- Quart canning jar
In a two-cup measuring cup, dissolve salt in 1 c. of hot tap water. When dissolved, add 1 c. of cold tap water.
Trim the blossom end from each cucumber. Tightly pack the cucumbers vertically in a quart-sized jar. Fit the dill sprigs and garlic cloves around the cucumbers. Sprinkle pepper on top.
Add enough salt water to completely cover the vegetables, leaving an inch of headspace. Weight the vegetables down with a filled ziplock bag of water so the cucumbers remain submerged. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel.
Allow cucumbers to ferment on the countertop at room temperature away from direct sunlight.
Begin tasting after four days. If you like your pickles with a little more tang, ferment up to three days more. Once they are ready, put the lid on the jar and store in the refrigerator. These pickles will remain half-sours for two weeks after which they will progress to fully fermented pickles and will keep for years in the refrigerator.
Simple Lacto-Fermented Veggies
- 4 c. fresh vegetables, cut into evenly-sized pieces
- 4 c. water
- Seasonings of your choice
- 2 T. sea salt or kosher salt
Fill a sterilized, wide-mouthed quart jar with your vegetables. If you are using seasonings, add them now.
Dissolve the salt in 4 c. of hot tap water. Allow the salt to dissolve before pouring the saltwater over the vegetables, leaving one and a half inches of headspace. Weight your vegetables to keep them submerged and cover the jar loosely with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel.
Let the vegetables ferment on the kitchen counter at room temperature for two to three days before you begin tasting them. You can let them continue to ferment for up to one week more. Cover tightly and refrigerate.
- 2 lbs. fresh blueberries
- 1 T. plus 1 t. kosher salt
Mix berries and salt in a bowl. Transfer to a jar, scraping the bowl and the sides of the jar for all of the salt. Loosely cover with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel.
Keep berries in a warm place for four to six days. Once the berries have fermented to taste, keep in refrigerate. Eat fermented blueberries on yogurt or ice cream within a few days of finishing the fermentation process.
- 8-10 lemons, scrubbed clean
- 1/2 – 1 c. kosher salt
- Seasonings of choice: bay leaf, cardamom pods, allspice, star of anise, cinnamon sticks, etc. (optional)
- Fresh lemon juice, if needed
- Quart canning jar
Put 2 T. of kosher salt in the bottom of your sterilized quart jar.
Cut off the stem end of each lemon. Cut lemons in quarters, not cutting all the way through.
Gently pull open the lemons and sprinkle generously with salt.
Put the salted lemons in the quart jar, pressing them down to release their juices. Pack the jar with the lemons. Add more juice if necessary to cover the lemons. Add 2 T. of salt to the top.
Cap the jar with lid, to finger tight, and let the lemons sit on the counter at room temperature for three to five days, turning the jar upside down occasionally. Once ready, place in the refrigerator for at least three weeks before eating.
To use preserved lemons in cooking, remove a lemon from the jar and rinse to remove salt. Remove the pulp and seeds. Thinly slice the softened rind to sprinkle over yogurt or add to recipes. Preserved lemons are a staple in Moroccan and Middle Eastern cooking, and are delicious with chicken, on vegetables, or in pasta.
These are just a few ideas on what you can do with lacto-fermentation. Not only is this an ancient food preservation technique, but it is simple to do and you end up with a food product that is great for the health of your biome, strengthens immunity, and regulates your appetite. Not bad for something as simple as salt and water.