What Is a Pickle?

Green tomato pickles and herbs

Green ‘mater pickles are just as pickle-y as cucumber pickles!

What is a pickle?

A pickle, at its most broad and basic, is just a vegetable that has been made sour. Pickling refers to the act of souring (or acidifying) something (usually vegetables, but sometimes fruits, eggs and even meats). You can pickle these things in a variety of ways, which is why people sometimes get confused about the differences between canning and fermentation. The way a pickle is acidified is what decides whether it’s a fermented pickle or a vinegar pickle. Vinegar pickling is the most common way to make pickles today. Vinegar can be used to make quick pickles (fridge pickles) or canned pickles. Neither of these methods is fermenting. In fact, canned pickles are the opposite of fermented pickles in many ways.

So all pickles aren’t cucumbers?

Nope! Although we typically think of sour dill cucumber pickles as the pickle, they are actually one of the most challenging vegetables to pickle (whether you’re fermenting them or canning them). For some reason, restaurants and stores tend to call pickled vegetables that aren’t cucumbers “pickled [whatever veg]” instead of just pickles. I call them daikon, carrot, or whatever-they-are-pickles, in order to avoid confusion.

fermented pickles from the brinery

See how these pickles from Michigan’s The Brinery are on ice? That’s because they’re fermented, alive and in need of chilling to slow fermentation.

But all pickles are fermented and probiotic, right?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the truth is that they are not. Most pickles sold in the US today are canned, not fermented, and therefore they are not probiotic. Only fermented pickles are probiotic. Pickles made with vinegar are not probiotic.

Pickled Parsnips

Pickled parsnips are pretty.

So canned pickles are different from fermented pickles?

Yes. Canning is the process of killing all bacteria, bad and good, through sterilization. It involves using added acid (vinegar) and heat to kill all possible microorganisms.

Fermented pickling is the opposite. It’s the process of cultivating bacteria. Here’s a basic primer on pickling vegetables via fermentation:

All vegetable fermentation is kind of the process of championing “good” bacterial strains the epic battle of good vs. evil. In other words, fermentation is all about cultivating the right bacteria in a grand bacterial competition, and our job as fermenters is to give the good bacteria an advantage over their competitors. We do that by providing them with a relatively anaerobic (airless) environment and the right temperature. Chopping vegetables makes it easier for the bacteria to access the vegetable’s natural sugars. Salt is also helpful, since the bad guys tend to be halophobic (salt-fearing) and the good, probiotic, lactic acid bacteria we want to thrive don’t mind salt too much, even when it’s there in fairly heavy concentrations (most of the literature I’ve read says that you’ll still have some strains of living LAB at a salt concentration of 8%, which, btw, is way too salty to eat).

Once we’ve created the right conditions, the lactic acid bacteria wallop their (pathogenic bacteria) competition as they go to work. Work, for them, is converting the sugars naturally present in the vegetables into a whole host of things including vitamins, enzymes, alcohol, CO2 and, perhaps most importantly, lactic acid. It’s the lactic acid that acidifies the vegetables (yum), making an environment that is unsuitable for bad bacteria (like the bacteria that makes the botulism toxin) and other bad guys.

You’d have to mess up pretty badly to take the advantage away from lactic acid bacteria. In recorded history, no one has ever suffered a food-borne illness from eating fermented vegetables. This can’t be said of canned, raw or even cooked vegetables. The acids created in the fermentation process make fermented vegetables incredibly safe to eat.

Pickled radishes and daikon

Pickles come in all shapes, sizes and vegetable varieties.

What are the advantages of fermented pickles?

They have lots o’ health benefits, many mentioned above, that are not shared by vinegar pickles.

They are safer. As mentioned above, there has never been a recorded case of foodborne illness related to fermented vegetables. Bacterial competition works way better than anything devised by man, and cultivating lactic acid bacteria has so far proven to be a more effective safety precaution than sterilization has.

Their flavor is complex and amazing. Ever wonder why those kosher deli pickles (or even Bubbies brand) taste so much better than the regular ol’ jarred versions that sit on the grocery store shelves? It’s all about that fermentation. There are a wide array of complex flavors in fermented pickles that distilled vinegar, even with delicious seasonings, just can’t mimic or beat!

They are easy to make. Sandor Katz‘ recipe for fermented vegetables: Chop. Salt. Pack. Leave it to him to lay it out so simply and clearly. Active time for making fermented vegetables is negligible (I make them while I’m making dinner). The microbes do all the work, so you don’t have to.

No hot stove. Before I fermented, I canned (and I still make the occasional canned jam or jelly and see the value in canning other things). What killed me in the summer, though, was standing over a hot stove for hours while the jars got sterilized and then filled with hot vinegar and then processed in boiling water. With fermented vegetables, there is no sterilization necessary, and hot heat is actually undesirable. It should be done at room temp, which makes my summer days much less sweaty.

Fermented Dill Pickle Recipe

Cucumber pickles can be trickier to make than other pickles, whether they’re canned or fermented.

What are the advantages of canned pickles?

Canned pickles are shelf stable. That means that they will stay on the shelf for a long period of time without changing or deteriorating. If you have a small family and a farm or a large garden, if you’re stocking up your bunker, if you have a very long winter and limited cold storage, you probably want more canned goods than fermented ones because the canned goods will not change dramatically in the jar/can for many months or even years after they are processed.

You like sweet pickles, you’ll probably want to can rather than ferment. There is a way around this, but generally speaking if you’re fermenting (we’ll discuss that soon!), any sugar you add will be consumed by the fermenting bacteria and made sour. So for those sweet and sour pickles, canning will usually be a better option.

You have a long winter and limited cold storage. You may not find your fermented vegetables super appealing after several months of room temperature storage. Although fermentation is a preservation method, fermented vegetables are living foods that constantly change. They are usually best kept for a season, not a decade. When fermented vegetables are kept at room temperature for a long time, they can end up with a soft texture that many find unpleasant, or they can get moldy or slimy. The texture change isn’t usually a question of safety, but it is a question of deliciousness. I regularly eat fermented vegetables that are year or more old, but those typically have spent most of that time in a cooler spot, like my basement or my refrigerator.

What’s the best pickle?

The best pickle for me may not be the best pickle for you! A few of my faves? Beet, radish, celery or daikon pickles are all good choices. It’s probably obvious that I prefer the flavor and health benefits of fermented pickles (since you’re reading this on a fermentation blog) but I also see the benefits of canning if you have the knowledge and desire. Ultimately, it’s all about what meets your needs and fits your lifestyle!

Annnnnyway…I’d love to hear about your favorite pickled things/methods/experiences in the comments!

Ferme-ditation Friday: Introducing a New Series of Fermentation-inspired Thoughts

Fermeditation Friday is a new, occasional series in which I share my fermenty ponderings. The first true installment will be next Friday.

Tomatoes off the vine

All they need is a touch of salt.

When I was a kid, my grandpa (dad’s dad) used to go into the garden with a salt shaker, grab a tomato off the vine, take a bite, salt it, take another bite, salt again, and repeat this until everything was gone but the stem. He took sublime pleasure in this, but I, and all of my cousins, would make gagging noises and tell him how absolutely disgusting this practice was. “Ewwww! It’s a tomato not an apple! So gross, grandpa!” was our refrain.

While bringing the salt shaker on the roof where I grow my tomatoes isn’t the most practical, I now do the same thing as gramps, because there’s absolutely nothing in this world that tastes better than a sun-warmed tomato, fresh off the vine, specked with a just a few rapidly melting crystals. And I feel a little weird about how much we made fun of my grandpa about that. And I wish I could talk to him about it now and tell him that I do the same thing.

bowl of fresh-picked tomatoes

Of course our views will naturally shift and adjust with time, given our peer groups, diversified experiences and the natural maturing that comes with age. But I think that my fermentation practice has dramatically altered (I would argue improved) many of my practices and beliefs, in food and in life. Earlier this week, I shared a few of these life changes with the crowd at Nerd Nite, and it inspired me to finally finish writing this series of posts. This will be an occasional series. I hope you enjoy them and I hope you join in the conversation, but honestly, these are for me. They’re a way for me to ponder a bit and to organize my thoughts about this process and the role it plays in my life.

Topics include (and go beyond) food waste, medicine, cleanliness and death. These posts will mostly be my opinions and subjective experiences. I don’t expect everyone to share my views, and I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I’d love to have a respectful conversation in the comments about your own thoughts on these topics as they are posted. Feel free to share any broader changes that have happened in your life that either led you to start fermenting or resulted from your fermentation habit.

See you next Friday with the first official ferme-ditation!

Probiotic Plum Shiso Soda

Make Your Own Fermented Soda

Come on! Is there anything better than hot pink, probiotic fizz?

I was not planning on sharing this recipe but the richness of the fizzified shiso and the color of this beaut swayed me to share. This was a backup soda that I tested for an upcoming fermentation dinner I’m doing (very exciting!) with Food Underground,* but after just a couple test batches I’m a convert.

If you read this blog or have taken soda classes with me in the past, you probably know that I grow and love purple shiso. I think it adds that je ne sais quoi to my potluck soda offerings and to many other ferments. And while all sodas are not probiotic, not even all fermented ones, this one is made with kefir whey, so it is. For a vegan or dairy-free version, try using something like this fermented bulgur liquid or  finished water kefir or coconut water kefir in place of kefir whey, but do be aware that they have the potential to impact the flavor more than the relatively neutral tasting kefir whey.

As for plums, I like to use a sweet/tart plum variety for soda. Santa Rosa plums are my favorite (I will admit that it’s in part because they’re GORGEOUS), but just about any plum will do. Go for purple or red varieties to get that bright red hue.

Probiotic Pop Plum Shiso Soda

Plum Shiso Soda Recipe

Yield: 4 liters 

This soda will age nicely (and eventually become wine) in the fridge, however remember that any time you’re bottling without measuring the conversion of sugar into alcohol (and especially when you’re intentionally leaving fermentable sugars in there for carbonation and sweetness), there is a risk of explosion. Explosions are not a joke, and exploding glass bottles are seriously dangerous. For that reason, I always bottle soda in plastic bottles. Recycled two liters are excellent vessels, and they’re intended to keep the carbonation trapped, so they’re less prone to explosions and leaks, and more apt to give you a delightfully bubbly soda. I soak mine overnight with soapy water to get the flavors of the soda out of the vessel, and then rinse thoroughly with cool water to get the soap out.

Overflowing bottle of homemade soda

Do take care when opening fermented sodas. There are plenty of sugars left to ferment when you bottle, so they’ll geyser if you let them!

  • 1-gallon or larger crock or open container**
  • Long wooden or plastic spoon
  • Fine- or medium-mesh strainer
  • Funnel
  • Two 2 liter bottles that seal well enough to trap carbonation (see headnote)
  • 2 pounds plums (seconds are great for this!)
  • 1/2 cup packed shiso leaves (okay to leave the stems on)
  • 2 cups cane sugar (or more to taste)
  • 8 cups filtered water, plus more to fill bottles
  • 1/2 cup kefir whey
  • 2/3 cup lemon juice (or more to taste)
  1. Gently rinse plums and shiso in cool water. Roughly chop plums and compost their pits.
  2. Put plums into a 1-gallon or larger vessel and toss with sugar. Allow to macerate for an hour or so, until the plums are steeping their own juice. Add shiso and toss it all together. Pour in 8 cups of filtered water, kefir whey and lemon juice. If you overfill your vessel, you’ll be quite unhappy later, so try to keep it to about half full.
  3. Using a long and strong wooden or plastic spoon, stir vigorously, creating a tornado-like vortex in the center of your container. If you overfilled, this is when you’ll feel it: when the contents of your crock spill out onto the countertops. Stirring is an incredibly important step. At this stage, the yeast want oxygen to be active and replicate, and stirring is how you give them that air supply. Continue stirring as vigorously and as frequently as you can, a minimum of twice a day. The more you stir, the sooner your ferment will become active and the sooner you get to drink it!
  4. Cover the container with a kitchen cloth and rubber band. At this stage, you want air in, but no dust or passing buggies. Depending on temperature, how frequently and vigorously you stir, how fresh your kefir whey was and how concerned you are with alcohol content (shorter fermentation for less booze), you’ll continue stirring and recovering for 12 hours to 3 days.
  5. When the plums and shiso have risen to surface and you see a lot of bubbling when you stir, you’re almost ready for bottling. Strain out the plums and shiso and reserve for another use or compost. Taste the liquid with a clean spoon (don’t double dip). If it needs a bit more acid, add some lemon juice, a tablespoon at a time. If it’s not quite sweet enough after those first, sugar-devouring days of fermentation, add a bit more sugar (1/4 to 1/2 cup is the most I ever add).
  6. Stir to incorporate additional sugar and lemon juice and then split the mix evenly between your two bottles. Add filtered water to the bottles until they are full to about 3 inches from the top. Secure the lids and set them in a room temperature spot away from direct sunlight.
  7. Once the bottle has become rigid (test by squeeze the sides), you know it’s carbonated. The timing on this will depend on a few things (like temperature), so it could be anywhere from 8 to 24 hours later. In the winter, it can take a few days. Chill it in the fridge for at least an hour before opening.
  8. Open with care! My kitchen ceiling is permanently strawberry soda-stained, and there’s no reason for that to happen to you.
  9. Long term storage in the fridge is not recommended because explosions are a thing, even in plastic!
Shiso in Plum soda

This is soda, not health food, but at least it’s probiotic!

*Buy your fermentation dinner tix here (and check out that menu!)

**If you have a larger crock, you can add a lot more water and just add less when it comes to bottling.

Soak Those Oats: Fermented Oatmeal is Better Than Your Oatmeal

fermented oatmeal for flavor

One of my very favorite takeaways from Sandor Katz’ fermentation residency was his countertop bowl of fermenting grains. The way he does it, it’s a big ol’ bowl, where any bits of leftover grain from a meal get tossed. He adds a bit of sourdough starter, or idli batter or whatever other starter he has on hand, with some liquid from time to time, then gives it a stir and uses it to make delightful pancakes a day or so later. It’s a super simple meal, quick as can be, and it can be easily jazzed up with the addition of fermented vegetables, cheese or eggs.

Soaking oats phytic acid removal

The oats will absorb almost all the liquid, so there will be a little exposed oat surface. Stirring reduces the risk of unwanted surface yeasts.

The first new practice I wanted to institute back at home was this grain bowl. However, we’re a family of two and I don’t eat a whole lot of grains, so it quickly became obvious that this would be more like another pet to care for than like a convenience food in my house. My husband is a fan of good old fashioned oatmeal for breakfast, though, I so I suggested he might enjoy fermenting his oats before cooking them. Not only would it definitely improve the flavor (a little bit of sour, a lot of complexity), but it would also reduce* the quantity of  phytic acid naturally present in grains, nuts and seeds. Phytates aren’t great, because they bind to nutrients, preventing us from absorbing them.

fermenting grains for health

The liquid has not yet been absorbed by the oats.

He tried it, and now he’s totally hooked. It’s his almost-everyday breakfast. He now removes 3/4 of the oats about every other day (every 3rd day in cooler weather) and then adds fresh oats into the already fermented oats. For him, 2 to 3 days is the right amount for peak deliciousness. The oats are not mushy, they cook more quickly, and regular fermenters will immediately recognize the sour, yeasty flavor and aroma. If they go too long, you may see a yeasty film on top, experience a slimy texture or end up with a super cheesy aroma, so if you’re going to push it to the 3 day mark, make sure to give it a good stir at least daily. That will disrupt the surface and keep stuff from forming and it will serve as a bit of a check-in for you.

why soak oatmeal

Extra nutrients made more absorbable? Yay for fermented oats!

Fermented/Soaked Oatmeal Recipe

This is not so much a recipe as a guideline, because this is a truly simple practice that doesn’t require much instruction. If at any point you don’t want to feed your grains, just eat them all and start again when you’re ready to enjoy them again. This is so easy to get going that there’s really no need to keep your “starter” alive if you feel like a break. If you want to scale this up or down, go nuts. A 1:1 1/4 ratio of oats to water by volume will get you where you need to be.

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 2 1/2 cups filtered water
  • 3 tablespoons phytase-rich grains (optional: see below). If using extra grains, use a 1:1 ratio, by volume of extra filtered water.
  • Put oatmeal and other grains, if using, in a medium bowl, preferably a glass one with a lid that fits. add water. If using the phytase-rich grains, add an equal amount of water, by volume (for example,  3 tablespoons extra grains, 3 tablespoons extra filtered water).
  • Cover the bowl and place it at a room temperature spot away from direct sunlight. Let it sit for 2 to 3 days, stirring daily, and taking notice of changes in aroma and texture when you stir. The water will absorb into the oats overnight, and some of the oats will not be submerged after that time. As long as you stir daily and your house isn’t crazy hot, you should be fine. If your house is crazy hot, consider a 24 hour to 48 hour fermentation instead.
  • When you’re ready to cook your oats, remove about 3/4 and cook them how you normally would. Jake basically just warms them on the stove, or cooks them for 1 minute in the microwave.
  • He recommends eating them with coconut oil or butter, fruit (especially blueberries and peaches) nuts, honey, maple syrup, cinnamon, candied ginger, dried fruit, jam or some combination of the above. I think the sour flavor would lend itself very well to some savory breakfast oats. Try it with fresh herbs, cheese, sesame oil and soy sauce or topped with a poached egg!
  • Don’t forget to feed your grains! Add your fermented oats to 1 1/4 cups of water and 1 cup of fresh oats (or more or less if you wish, just keeping to the volume ratio of 1 part oats, 1 1/4 parts filtered water. Cover your bowl and repeat.
fermented oatmeal

Be creative with flavors and be prepared for the exciting sour flavors of fermented grains!

*Notice that I wrote “reduce” rather than “eliminate.” If you have difficulties with nutrient deficiency or absorption, I would follow a bit of advice from Amanda Rose of phyticacid.org (an excellent site on Phytic Acid) and add roughly 10% of a grain that contains more phytase and therefore more readily breaks down phytic acid during soaking. The addition of other grains will dramatically reduce the amount of phytic acid in your oats. Great options include barley, spelt, rye and buckwheat.