To some, late summer is heralded by back-to-school shopping, the smell of new notebooks and pens and fall clothing. For others, it’s canning tomatoes, or stirring steaming pots of thick blackberry jam. For me, it’s making pickles.
I started making my own lacto-fermented pickles several years ago after I read Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation. If you’re at all interested in making your own fermented foods, I highly recommend this book. Sandor demystifies the process of making everything from sauerkraut to sourdough bread to cheese, and reading his easy instructions will make you feel confident in experimenting with your own fermented goods.
Real lacto-fermented foods – rather than foods preserved in vinegar or heat-processed (like canned sauerkraut) – offer an amazing variety of health benefits. “Lacto” refers to the bacteria responsible for the fermentation (and the sour flavor), lactobacillus. Fermented foods are natural probiotics, so eating them will improve your digestion and the population of bacteria in your intestines. The majority of our immune system is located in our digestive tracts, so maintaining a healthy population of microbes there is essential. Most of us in the modern world, with our fast-paced lives and less-than-ideal diets, could use a little help in that regard. Lacto-fermented foods can help restore balance after a round of antibiotics, treat yeast infections, and revive sluggish digestion. Since they are commonly very salty, they should be used as condiments rather than main dishes. Try eating a little bit of lacto-fermented food with your evening meal every night – you might be surprised at how positively it affects your digestion, even if you don’t think you have digestive problems.
I certainly can’t improve on Sandor’s wonderful work, but I’ll share with you this incredibly easy method for pickling cucumbers. Once you taste the delicious pickles, maybe they’ll become a harvest season tradition for you, too.
A word about equipment. Some people use beautiful ceramic crocks designed especially for pickling, which is a wonderful – but very expensive – option. Some people use glass jars, but I prefer a container with a wider mouth that gives me more elbow room. Personally, I pickle in plastic. There are people out there who would never ferment in plastic containers, and I understand that, but I live in the city, by a busy road, where I grow vegetables and herbs and fruit in the wake of car exhaust – synthetic toxins are a part of my existence. I believe that the benefits of fermented foods are greater than the negative effects of any trace chemicals you may consume by fermenting in plastic.
However, there are a few ways to minimize your exposure to these chemicals. The first is to make sure that you use food-grade plastic. Buckets designed for cleaning fluids or animal food are not appropriate for fermenting – food-grade plastic is designed to leach fewer chemicals. The second is to use containers that haven’t been heated to a high temperature (as in dishwasher cleaning) – plastic begins to break down and leach greater amounts of chemicals after it’s been heated to high temperatures. I clean my buckets with mildly soapy, only lukewarm water, and keep them out of the dishwasher.
My favorite container is this 12-quart food storage bucket I got from a restaurant supply store. It’s wide and shallow, and can accommodate a large dinner plate to hold down the cucumbers in the brine. The snap-on lid acts as a weight to press the plate down. I drilled holes in the lid with a cordless drill, so air (and thus the beneficial bacteria) has a way to circulate.
When you’re making pickles, make a lot. Time and invisible bacteria do most of the work for you. Pickles made now will last you into the winter, but if weeks pass and you find you have extra, give some to a friend. Pickles are for sharing.
Spicy Cucumber Pickles
10 lbs. small pickling cucumbers, such as Kirby or Gherkin
3 or 4 large handfuls of fresh grape or oak leaves (these help keep the pickles crunchy)
A lot of dill – big armfuls, if you can get it, including the flowers
7 ripe cayenne peppers, cut into rounds
4 heads worth of garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons peppercorns
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon whole allspice
Brine strength: 3/4 cup salt per 2 gallons water
1. If the cucumbers were picked more than a day ago, refresh them in a cold water bath for several hours.
2. Layer the ingredients in your pickling vessel as follows: grape or oak leaves, dill, garlic cloves and pepper slices, and spices. Arrange the cucumbers on top of the other ingredients.
3. Mix your brine and pour it over the cucumbers. Everything will start floating. Don’t panic! Place a dinner plate on top of the cucumbers to weigh them down. If some spices float to the surface, it’s okay. Weight the plate with a jar filled with water, a clean rock, or the object of your choice, or use the method I described above. If you haven’t used a lid, cover the vessel with a clean cloth.
4. Place the vessel in a cooler part of your house and check every few days. Skim any mold that collects on the surface (the pickles are still safe to eat!) After a week or so, start tasting the pickles. When they are as you like them, pack them into jars with some of the brine and spices, and store in the refrigerator.