CANNED OR QUICK VS. FERMENTED
So what’s the difference between canned pickles and lactopickles? They are, in my view, kind of opposites, with different advantages and disadvantages. Pickles made with vinegar, such as quick pickles and canned pickles, are sterilized to avoid stray bacteria. Lactopickles are not sterilized, and in fact are made by creating a selective environment in which wonderful, healthy lactic acid bacteria can grow and thrive. You’ve heard of the probiotic bacteria that are so good for everything from digestion to immunity? Yeah, it’s those guys you’re breeding to eat alive. You voracious, microbe-murdering bastard.
By creating that selective environment, you allow the lactic acid bacteria naturally present on everything that grows in the earth to chow down on the sugars that are naturally present in your veggies. When they do that, they convert said sugars into many things, including lactic acid, which then does the work of preservation.
Fermentation does a lot of things. It helps preserve vegetables, it makes them healthier to consume and it makes them safer to consume. What it doesn’t do is make them shelf stable for long periods of time. If you are looking for a product you can set on your shelf for six months, a year or longer and come back to the exact same thing you put in the jar originally, you are looking for canned pickles, not fermented ones. If you are looking for a product that will change and age and become more nutrient rich and acidic over time, you are looking for fermented pickles.
TL;DR – Canned pickles are shelf stable (very long lasting and stable), but sterile and stripped of nutrients. Fermented pickles will continue to change over time and eventually be inedible (or soft and decayed) and are more nutrient rich than the fresh, raw vegetables that you started with. Storing fermented pickles in a cool spot, such as a fridge or cellar will help preserve them for longer.
HOW TO CREATE THE RIGHT SELECTIVE ENVIRONMENT FOR FERMENTING
A few key elements impact the success of fermentation. Two are essential, one is desirable, important and helpful.
Temperature – Room temperature is the ideal temperature for pickling. Most sources agree that 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) is an optimal temp at which to ferment, although most also agree that anything in the 64 to 78 degree F (17.7-25.5 C) range will work just fine. In my experience, a broad range of “room” temperatures work, and there are microclimates within any given house or apartment. If things are starting too slow in the winter, I move my vessels closer to the heating vents, on top of the refrigerator or into the (turned off) oven.
Warmer temperatures will speed up fermentation, lower temperatures will slow it. If temperatures are too low, fermentation may not start at all. If they are too high, fermentation will happen too quickly, leading to a faster decomposition of your tasty ferment and, sometimes, a less crispy pickle.
Submersion – There are different kinds of fermentation. Some require air, others require no air. Pickles are the airless, or anaerobic type. There are TONS of ways to create anaerobic conditions for your pickles. I prefer to do this in a crock with weights and a water seal, in a bowl with a weighted down plate or in a jar, using the ghetto jar method. There are definitely other ways to do this (including many that require the purchase of special jars, airlocks, lids, etc. Lots of people use those. At present, the freebie ways more than meet my needs, so I don’t), and I encourage you to find the one that works best for you! But remember, you veggies MUST BE SUBMERGED if you want fermentation to happen. Without total submersion you will get surface mold (yucky, but not deadly) or your veggies will turn to mush. Not what you’re looking for.
Salt – Salt is not essential for fermentation, but it is WAY better to make pickles with salt than without it. First, salt helps to strenghten the pectins present in the vegetables, giving you a crispier pickle. Second, the bacteria you want, lactic acid bacteria, are relatively salt-tolerant, whereas some of the less desirable bacteria aren’t. Salt will slow fermentation and make your ferment last longer. Salt makes everything taste better, too. And one, lesser-known benefit: fermentation makes minerals more bioavailable. You can get salt that is pretty mineral rich and improve your uptake of its great minerals by using it in fermentation.
TL;DR – 1. Ferment pickles at room temperature. 2. Make sure your vegetables are submerged to avoid mold and allow the desirable bacteria to thrive in airless conditions. 3. Salt is a good idea for the safest and yummiest ferment possible.
WHAT TO PICKLE
There are a large number of vegetables that ferment beautifully, and a small number that ferment horribly (with a few in between).
For the most part, at this point I can predict what will ferment well by looking at it or feeling it. Veggies that are firmer tend to ferment well, veggies that are softer tend to ferment less well. There is a way to ferment just about everything if you adjust your expectations and your recipes.
Lettuces, squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers are some that can be challenging. Outside of those, so many things are almost foolproof. I encourage you to start with small batches and see how it goes. Our friends in the brassica family are usually good places to start (turnips, radishes, etc) while beets and snap peas are probably my personal favorites. Be aware that brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli can produce a strong odor (yes, the one you might think). Combining these with other, less gassy veggies is a good way to mitigate that.
TL;DR – Some unexpected veggies don’t ferment that well, but why not try in small batches to see how it works for you?
FERMENTATION TIME AND STORAGE
Fermentation time will vary according to your acidity preference, but my rule of thumb is one to two weeks in the summer and two weeks in the winter. There are definitely some pickles that take longer. They are done when they are acidic enough for you. Since it’s not a good idea to break the air seal that submersion makes too frequently, with good picklers (see above for the ones that it’s best to avoid when first starting) start at a week. Once you learn your preferences, you won’t have to check anymore.
Storage time will vary completely based on the vegetable fermented, the amount of salt used and the temperature at which they are stored. I very generally try to get through or give away my pickles before three months have been reached, but I’ve eaten some pickles that were still delicious after six months or even a year. I’ve had others get too soft after 2 months.
One of my favorite thing about fermented foods is that, for the most part, they empower you to use your senses. If it looks slimy, feels too soft or smells* or tastes “off,” it’s time for the compost pile. If those things aren’t true, go ahead and eat them. There is no hidden beast lying in wait to take you out.
*The first time you ferment something, it is probably a good idea to follow a recipe or some general guidelines. Fermentation creates strong smells and flavors, and if you aren’t accustomed to eating them, you might think the “right” smells are actually wrong. Better yet, find a more experienced buddy to guide you through your early days!
TL;DR – Trust your senses.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS FERMENT?
There is surface mold – Bummer! It looks like you didn’t get your veggies submerged properly, or maybe some bits of spice or veg floated to the surface. If you shredded your veggies and salted and packed them (sauerkraut style) just skim off the moldy layer and eat what’s beneath. Be more submergey next time. If your mold isn’t raised or fuzzy, it’s probably kahm, a yeast that is naturally produced during fermentation and is totally safe to eat, but personally, I do not find it delicious, and in brined pickles, it can infuse its flavor into everything.
They are mushy – Did you use a soft veggie? In that case, that might not have been a good veggie choice, or you may need to add some tannins next time, in the form of oak, cherry or grape leaves. If it was a hard veggie, ugh! Sorry, but it didn’t ferment (or maybe it was fermenting for months too long). If it didn’t ferment, the likely culprit is too low a temperature. Try finding a warmer spot in your home (away from direct sunlight), like on top of the fridge, on a seed-growing mat or in the turned-off oven.
The brine is really cloudy – Yes they are good to eat, no, you didn’t use the wrong kind of salt. Fermented brine gets cloudy because it is loaded with good stuff, like lactic acid bacteria. Cloudy means it worked. When you’re done with your pickles, you can drink that stuff (I know, I’m weird) or add it to cold soups for probiotic punch or bread dough for flavor and salt.
A FEW FANTASTIC BOOK RESOURCES FOR GETTING STARTED
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz – The ultimate compendium of current fermentation knowledge. Katz cites the science and uncovers the process for making just about any ferment you could make in your home. A must buy for anyone who likes fermentation and good writing.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz – The little book that started me (and many, many others) on my fermentation journey. Full of great recipes and great insights. not as complete as The Art of Fermentation, but a better starting point for beginners.
Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin – Full color photos and very specific recipes. If you’re the type that likes to cook from a recipe, this is a wonderful place to start.
A (PROBABLY INCOMPLETE) LIST OF MY PICKLE RECIPES
- Dilly Snap Peas
- Minty Turnips
- Cumin Basil Beets
- Cloven Onions
- Spicy Green Beans
- Dill Cucumbers
- Ginger Carrots
- Hot Peppers
- Bell Peppers
- Green Tomatoes
- Liver Healing
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