Before the jarred pickles lining the shelves today, people enjoyed naturally fermented cucumbers. Their sour taste was not from vinegar, but from lactic acid produced by healthy bacteria, which also served to preserve the pickles. When the fermentation process was complete, the vat of pickles would be stored in the root cellar where the cool temps would help them last for months and months. Today, of course, you can buy a sealed jar of pickles that will last indefinitely, but the trade-off is in the nutrition. Whereas shelf-stable pickles have undergone heat and pressure, which destroys vitamins, enzymes and other benefits of the raw cucumber, a fermented cucumber’s vitamins are preserved, and even enhanced (b-vitamins are produced by the bacteria) through the fermentation process. What’s more, the bacteria that give the pickles their taste are also beneficial to our gut health and aid in digestion.
Nutrition-related trends and products abound, and I am often skeptical that the healthy ideas of the times are mostly just food marketing, but fermented foods are whole foods – you can grow them or buy them at your farmer’s market, and you can create them at home with salt, water and a jar. So even if you’re skeptical of food trends, here’s a traditional food you can try making yourself that puts you in touch with history, health and simplicity.
Here is what you’ll need:
- Cucumbers. Select small, firm cucumbers. Any variety will work, but those specifically identified as “pickling cucumbers” are well suited for preserving. I recommend visiting your farmer’s market – besides offering you the freshest, healthiest, most local food, it’s likely that any small, pickle-sized cucumbers being sold in large quantities are an appropriate variety. You’ll need about 2 pounds of cucumbers per quart.
- Dill and Garlic. A couple flower heads or 3-4 sprigs of fresh dill and 2-3 cloves of garlic (per quart) will give you that yummy kosher pickle taste. But feel free to experiment with other flavors – throw in mustard seed, peppercorns, red chili flakes, horseradish and more!
- Salt. You’ll want a salt that is free of iodine and anti-caking agents, which can interfere with the micro-organisms that go to work in the fermentation process. A great choice is sea salt or Himalayan salt.
- Tannins. A tannin is an organic compound that serves to help keep your cucumbers crisp as they ferment. You can add this important ingredient to your batch of pickles by throwing in a couple oak, grape or horseradish leaves, or a teaspoon of black looseleaf tea (per quart of pickles).
- Glass Jars. The recipe below is for one quart of pickles, in which case a quart-sized mason jar or saved glass jar from another food (like store-bought pickles, spaghetti sauce, etc.) works well. However, feel free to double the recipe and use half-gallon jars, which may be more efficient if you’re processing a lot of cucumbers.
- Pint Glasses/Small Jars. An important part of fermentation is to create an anaerobic environment by keeping the food completely submerged. I have found that the easiest way to do this is to place a smaller glass or jar in the mouth of the vessel you’re fermenting your pickles in.
- Water. Use water as free from contaminants and chemicals as you can, as these can interfere with the fermentation process. Spring water, filtered water, or even pre-boiled water are all good options.
Once you have all your items gathered, you’re ready to make pickles! Keep in mind that the cucumbers will need to ferment for 1-2 weeks before they’re ready to eat. Feel free to sample them along the way until they’re to your liking (being sure to use a clean utensil to avoid contamination).
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of fermentation, or try fermenting other vegetables, check out these posts on fermented green beans, carrot sticks, kimchi, and sauerkraut! You can also find this recipe in my guest post at wholeintentions.com. Happy fermenting!