January 29, 2014
Homemade Fermented Pickles
I have always disliked pickles, though the last decade or so I could stand to nibble on the little plates of assorted kimchee pickles you get at the korean restaurant as part of a meal. Never really felt like I was missing out on much, until I read "Cooked" by Michael Pollan. This was a highly enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in food.
1/4 of the book is dedicated to the transformations wrought upon our foods by fermentation (not including bread, which gets its own 1/4 of the book). One of the fermented foods that he treats is fermented vegetable pickles. I never even realized this could be done until fairly recently; I always though one pickled things by packing them in vinegar. The strong vinegar flavor is one reason I have shied away from pickles in the past. But with fermented pickles, there is no vinegar added. The vegetables are just submerged in salt water!
The brine and lack of oxygen create an environment that favors lactic acid bacteria. These bacteria digest some of vegetables and produce CO2 and lactic acid. The acidification of the medium further favors lactic acid bacteria, and different strains progress in waves as the environment gets more and more acidic. The CO2 ideally pushes out oxygen quickly, and if the mechanics are arranged properly, the gas production creates a slight positive pressure inside the vessel and thus can exclude additional foreign airborne microbes from gaining a foothold in the food.
I read about how the basic idea is to just prep the veggies however you like, pack them in a jar, then cover with salt brine and wait. Easy.
Pollan also talks about the purported benefits to your gut microflora from ingesting foods that are teeming with these bacteria, and there have been numerous stories in the media in the last year or two about how the microbiome has a huge impact on health and is a crucial part of our functioning bodies.
I certainly like the idea of making my own fermented pickles. I'm a sucker for using my time doing food processing of one sort or another, and my friend Andrew Gabor had sent me some inspiring pictures of beautiful jars of homemade fermented pickles with vegetables from his garden last summer. Just the visual tableau of a colorful jar of pickles is compelling. If only I liked pickles!
In "Cooked", one idea which is developed is that many of our most flavorful and prized foods are fermented, but that often they are an acquired taste. Think of coffee, beer, or stinky tofu. So I figured I could probably make myself like pickles if I eat enough of them. The current idea is to just eat a couple little pickles with a meal or two per day.
Different sources have different advice, but the path I chose to follow was to pack up the pickles and let them ferment at room temp for a few days, then move them to a cool cellar for a couple weeks to finish up. One thing that seems like a good idea is some kind of airlock on the fermenting jars to cut down on the other organisms that will have access to the material inside. This is standard practice for brewing, and makes a lot of sense to me.
I ended up ordering some airlock jar lids, but I was so eager to get started I worked up some interim lids at home. I took some marginally useful 5mm silicone rubber from work and cut out rounds that were as big as the regular lids.
Then I sliced through each one with a razor. I figured this septum type design would exclude the air outside the jar pretty well to start with.
As pressure was developed inside the jar, it would inflate the silicone rubber out and eventually stretch it enough to further open the slit and relieve some pressure.
Next I went to the winter farmers' market in Somerville and picked up some roots for my first pickling experiment. I picked up some long red beets (forgot the name of the variety), chiogga beets, daikon, and watermellon radishes. These were peeled and sliced. Note the item in the far upper right of the picture. We all have our weaknesses, eh?
The carrots and apples were for snacking on at work. Beets are just so beautiful. Their swirling, deep colors are almost Baroque.
Two jars got just beets and radishes. For the first two jars, I decided to go as basic as possible and just use brine. No spices or extra flavoring. I put some big slices of chiogga beets at the top to try and keep the other pieces from floating up above the liquid level, since I had read that it was important to keep all the veggies completely submerged.
We went to chinatown that same day to meet our friends Alexi and LeeAnn for dimsum, and also went by the asian grocery. I picked out a bag of cute little cabbages as candidates for spicy pickles. They were not the same as baby bok choy. Unfortunately I didn't have my awesome ipod based chinese dictionary with character recognition with me (Pleco), so I don't know what they are called. Their leaves are darker green, smaller, and more crinkled than bok choy, and the stalks are whiter. Definitely some kind of brassica I'd say. Also loaded up on fresh ginger and green tea for making kombucha, ginger for the pickles, green onions, and a big bag of red pepper flakes.
In the third jar, I put in the rest of the garlic we harvested last summer, some big pieces of peeled ginger, the lower parts of green onions, some carrots, daikon, a few beets, and I forget what else. The brine I used had three tablespoons of kosher salt per liter of water.
For the last jar, I used some kimchee recipes as guidelines, but wasn't prepared to try and make real kimchee. Mainly I didn't put in any fish sauce, and I'm sure my other choices and techniques are far from being what you want to do to make authentic kimchee, but a spicy highly flavored pickle was the general idea nonetheless.
I brined the tiny cabbages for about an hour, then drained them.
They had become softer during this step, which helped in getting good packing density later. I also trimmed the bottom stalk area a little more.
While the greens were brining, I made up a bowl of seasoning from about a tablespoon each of garlic, ginger, and flaky red pepper. The garlic and ginger were minced very fine, almost to a paste. A little brine was added until a loose paste was formed. With nitrile gloves on, I worked the paste into each leaf of each little cabbage, also coating the green parts of the green onions and some sticks of carrot and daikon. These were all packed and stiffly compressed into the jar. Very little extra brine needed to be added since the cabbages put out some juice while being pressed into the jar. A cap of radish slices was then installed to keep the other contents down.
Each of the jars got a dribble of liquid from a jar of Bubbie's brand naturally fermented sauerkraut Becky had in the fridge. This apparently isn't necessary, but I figured it couldn't hurt to innoculate the jars with some of the right kind of microbes.
I found that even with the big stiff slice of vegetable on top of the contents, it seemed likely the contents would float up in the jars. So I cut some plastic cups we had such that when inverted and trapped between the lid and the veggies, they would keep the contents below the liquid level. Notches were cut in the side in case froth or liquid rose high enough to be in danger of reaching the lid.
These jars looked so attractive that I felt I was going to have to choke them down no matter what they tasted like.
The next day, I found that the silicone lids I had made were being distended and some bubbles were apparent in the jars.
Over the next couple days, I let the jars ferment on the counter in the kitchen. The spicy jar had more trouble allowing bubbles out of the veggies since the matrix of material was far less open than with the stiffer beets and radishes. This had the effect of pushing the liquid level up to the top of the jar, but the excess spilled through the notches and into the plastic cup spacer rather than spraying out the top vent. I would give the jars a little tilt and bump occasionally to help bubbles rise, but this probably wasn't strictly necessary.
After about 3 days, I moved the jars down to the basement. Fermentation slowed considerably, but continued on slowly.
Two weeks later, I cracked the spicy jar and one of the beet and radish jars. They are very nice! I prefer the spicy jar. The plain jar is on the salty side, probably because I had to add more brine to it compared to the spicy jar. But still quite nice. I think the lactic acid in fermented pickles definitely has a different and more pleasant flavor profile than vinegar pickles. The veggies are nearly as crisp as when they went in the jars. The jars that were heavy on beets became very deeply and uniformly colored.
I can easily eat a big watermellon radish all at once, just like an apple. With the pickles, I am more inclined to eat a couple slices with a meal. But its adds a nice little extra taste to the palette of flavors presented in a meal, and undoubtedly adds visual interest to the plate. Maybe there are even some health benefits.
Here is my lunch from last Saturday; a sampling of fermented pickles, a fresh slice of my first naturally leavened bread (also inspired by Cooked, more on that later), homebrew kombucha, and some pasture butter. That isn't the only piece of bread and butter I had at that meal, but I was happy with that amount of pickles.
I think I'll make another jar or two of spicy pickles this weekend.