Pofta Buna!: Lacto-Fermented Sour Pickles
People often ask me if I there’s any snack I just can’t get enough of. While I am interested in improving my health and learning to balance my diet, there is one food I would munch on any time: sour pickles.
As a child, we had a large wooden barrel in the cellar that we would load with cucumbers in the fall, in order to begin the lacto-fermentation process that would result in crisp, tangy sour pickles. We would usually polish them off by April or so. When I came to the United States, the pickles from the store were sorely disappointing. They tasted vinegary, the labels on the back listed ingredients I couldn’t pronounce, and they even gave me heart burn. So I stopped eating pickles unless I had eight bucks to blow on a jar of Bubbies — which, truth be told, did not happen very often.
3 years ago, however, I married someone who loves sour pickles almost more than he loves me. So together we set out to make the perfect pickles — lacto-fermented pickles, like back home in Moldova. After following several different recipes, we discovered that making authentic lacto-fermented pickles is not only pretty basic and easy. It is fun, too.
But it doesn’t stop there. Delicious lacto-fermented sour pickles are also extremely beneficial for your health. The fermentation process relies on salt water as the catalyst for the propagation of the good probiotic bacteria. It is this friendly lactic bacteria that will populate your colon and prevent opportunistic bacteria from overpopulating your digestive tract. A few studies show that the lactic bacteria prevent and fight against DMH-induced colonic tumorigenesis.
Another benefit is their enzymatic quality. In Body Ecology Diet, nutritionist Donna Gates says,
“This means that even before they enter your mouth, the friendly bacteria have already converted the natural sugars and starches in the vegetables into lactic acid, a job your own saliva and digestive enzymes would do.”
Thus, instead of your own body using invaluable enzymes to break down the food, lacto-fermented veggies will bring in their own enzymes to the table and even aid the digestion of the food you happen to eat with them. Gates says,
“As result your body can use the the extra enzymes it still has to eliminate toxins, renew cells, and strengthen the immune system.”
I have also found sour pickles to be helpful when dealing with indigestion, nausea, or cravings. Probiotic supplements can be an expensive investment. If you can’t afford them, perhaps make a few jars of sour pickles instead. You will be offering your body a good, healthy source of friendly bacteria.
Here are the step by step instructions. Photographs courtesy of the talented Elizabeth.
- Whey (Optional)
- Pickling Cucumbers
- Sea Salt
- Horseradish Leaves / Grape Leaves
- Fresh Dill
- Bay Leaf
- Whole Black Peppercorns
(These instructions are for 1 gallon of pickles.)
1. If you wish to speed up the fermentation process, you will need to add about 2 tbsp of whey per 1/2 gallon jar of pickles. The easiest way to make whey is drain it from some wholesome yogurt. 1 pint yields considerably more than enough for 1 gallon of pickles.
2. One way to do this is to suspend the yogurt in some cheese-cloth for a few minutes. You’ll only need about a foot. You can use the rest for all sorts of things, like straining broth or clarifying lard and tallow.
3. Place the cheesecloth on a bowl.
4. Pour the yogurt into the bowl.
5. Lift the cloth up and tie one knot.
6. Then leave a little space and tie a second knot.
7. This creates a loop which you can use to suspend the yogurt over a receptacle for the whey.
8. Allow the whey to drain for about a 1/2 hour. After most of the whey has drained out, you will be left with a cream-cheese-like product that is good for all sorts of things. Try mixing it with some salt, pepper, chives, and garlic, and spreading on your favorite crackers!
9. Now it’s finally time to give the cucumbers some attention. While you are draining the yogurt, wash these little guys with a vegetable scrub to make sure you get all the dirt off. Then, throw them in an ice-bath for a few minutes. The will perk them up, and ultimately result in a crunchier pickle.
10. While the cucumbers are chilling, start on your flavor components.
11. Garlic is an classic addition to traditional sour pickles. Use as much as you want. However, we have definitely used too much before. So be careful. This time, we used 1 small head for 1 gallon.
12. Peel about 1/2 an onion.
13. Chop it into big rings.
14. Next comes the fresh dill. Stems and flowers are fine to use, as they will result in a broader spectrum of flavor. Now this is hard to use too much of!
15. The secret ingredient is Horseradish or Grape Leaves. The leaves of these plants are rich in tannins, which help preserve your pickles’ prized crunch.
16. Use good quality sea-salt instead of iodonized or table salt. The probiotic bacteria thrive in the rich array of minerals in natural salt.
17. Now you are ready to drain the cucumbers.
18. Clean two 1/2 gallon jars. Wiping them down with vinegar is a good way to help prevent the off-chance of a foreign bacterial infection.
19. Mix up a saline solution with the sea salt. Use about 2 heaping tbsp per 1/2 gallon. It’s hard to use too much, as the pickles themselves really only get so salty. However, make sure you use enough salt. Low salinity can result in mushy pickles with hollow centers.
We use filtered water, because, really, who wants chlorine and fluoride in their pickles?
20. Shake it vigorously.
21. Repeat the process with the second jar.
22. Begin by placing a couple layers of cucumbers in the jar. Try to use space as efficiently as possible, and don’t be afraid to squeeze them in there; they will actually shrink during the fermentation process. We have found a layered criss-cross pattern to work best.
23. Next, layer in some garlic, onions, peppercorns, bay, dill, and grape leaves.
24. Repeat the layering process until the jar is full.
25. Fill the jar up with the saline solution, up to the neck.
26. Add 2 or 3 tbsp of whey.
27. The pickles are almost ready to begin fermentation. Screw a clean lid onto the jar. It is a good idea to use canning lids because they are designed to off-gas. Screw them on lightly, and your pickles will slowly release the gasses inside, instead of building up pressure, bending your lids, and ultimately leaking stinky pickle juice onto your table or floor. Even with a gingerly installed canning lid, opening your jar in about 2 weeks to release the gas is a good idea to ensure an explosion-free fermentation.
28. Store your pickles in a cool, dark place for about 2-4 weeks, depending on temperature. When they seem like they are almost fermented enough, transfer them to the refrigerator and wait at least another 2-4 weeks. This completes the fermentation but slows down the process enough to let the flavors mingle and mature. After they are done, they should look like the jar in the middle, below.
Exhibit A: The Whole Pickle.
Exhibit B: The Cross-Section.
Exhibit C: How my friend Walter looks when he eats a pickle.
Exhibit D: How I look when I eat a pickle.
29. Pofta Buna!