Lacto fermentation is the unbelievably healthy and delicious answer to the age-old gardener’s question: What am I going to do with all these cucumbers?
If you are an experienced fermenter and would simply like to view the recipe, I have posted it here. If you want to keep reading, the recipe is also at the end of this article.
There are two reasons I don’t can pickles right now: First, I don’t have the facilities to do it easily. Second, my canned pickles are awful. Always have been. Mushy and too salty. My late mother-in-law’s bread and butter pickle recipe is the only exception. Our kitchen is temporary, and not conducive to prepping large amounts of food, so I can’t make bread and butter pickles in the traditional way.
Lacto Fermentation: A healthy alternative
I discovered lacto fermentation several years ago, and was immediately intrigued. If you’ve ever had fresh homemade sauerkraut or kimchi, you have enjoyed the results of lacto fermentation. My first timid foray into lacto fermentation was sauerkraut, and it was a smashing success.
Lactobacillus is our friend
People have been safely preserving food using lacto fermentation for centuries. While leaving freshly picked produce at room temperature for several days seems counterintuitive to safe storage practices, the science is straightforward.
During the lacto fermentation process, sugars naturally found in fruits and vegetables are consumed by Lactobacillus and converted into lactic acid. Lactic acid kills the dangerous bacteria and preserves the food. The fermentation process actually boosts the nutrients and enzymes 2-3x over raw, fresh vegetables! A healthy gut flora is crucial to overall good health. Lacto fermented foods are packed full of healthy probiotics, and are so much tastier than taking a probiotic pill!
Making lacto fermented foods is super easy and fun. There are recipes all over the internet, and several different ways to achieve great results. Some use salt, some use whey (the watery stuff sitting on top of yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.), and some use a combination of both. I have had my best success with a 2% salt brine.
Overall, the process is simple, and can be as expensive or cheap as you desire. I will use bread and butter pickles as my example, but the method is pretty much the same for all produce. I have made pickles, sauerkraut (incredible!!), salsa (the best!), baby carrots with dill and garlic, turnips, and blackberries.
Freshly picked, organic produce will deliver the best nutrition, but I have done this with regular store-bought food and it has turned out fine. Just use the freshest produce available to you.
First, you will want to make a brine for your pickles. You can use a scale to measure exact weights and figure the salt to water ratio, but I’ll make it easy for you. For most lacto fermented foods, you will want a 2% brine, which means 2% of the weight of the solution will be salt. Here’s the shortcut: Boil some water, preferably filtered, but not chlorinated water (Chlorine will kill the Lactobacillus and allow the bad bacteria to flourish). Measure out 3 cups of boiled water into a large glass bowl. Add 2.5 teaspoons of pink Himalayan salt, stir well until the salt dissolves, and cool. You now have a 2% brine. Set it aside.
Thoroughly wash and prepare your food. I peel the cucumbers, then use a mandoline (also spelled mandolin) to slice them as thinly as I can. I find the thinner the better for this particular recipe, but everyone has different tastes. Experiment! I also thinly slice some onions and mix them in with the cukes. If you don’t have a mandoline, a sharp knife and a cutting board will get the job done. The mandoline just makes the job much faster and your cucumber chips will be nice and uniform. A decent mandoline is around $30.00. The following is a non-negotiable: If you get a mandoline, you MUST get the safety cutting gloves. Sliced off a fingertip once. You do NOT want to experience this.
Take a clean wide-mouth Mason jar and add half your spices and garlic and an oak, grape, or horseradish leaf (You can tear a large leaf into smaller pieces and use just a portion of it). These are options, but they help keep the pickles crisp. Loosely fill the Mason jar to about 2″ away from the top, then tamp down gently with a wooden or silicone utensil. Do not use metal. Your cucumbers should fill approximately half the jar. Add the second half of your spices, garlic, and another leaf, the rest of the cucumbers and onions, and tamp down again, adding cucumbers and gently but firmly compressing until you are about 2″ away from the lip.
Now you will want to pour some of the brine solution into your prepared Mason jar. Add the brine until you are an inch away from the lip of the jar. Because lacto fermentation works anaerobically (in an oxygen-free environment), it is important to release the air bubbles that are trapped. Try to get a fair amount of bubbles to release, but don’t stress over this step. As the pickles ferment on your counter, they will naturally bubble and release the rest of the air. The best way to work the air bubbles out is is to use a long wooden or silicone utensil to gently push the pickles around and compress them. You just need to be able to get down into the cucumbers so the brine can thoroughly replace the air bubbles and the spices can mingle with the brine. You will find that as you do this, the now-golden brine level will naturally lower. When this happens, simply add more brine until you get to about a 1.5″ headspace and stir again to release more bubbles.
Important Safety Tip
One of the most important things in lacto fermentation is to keep the food UNDER the brine; remember, the process will only be successful in an oxygen-free environment. Exposing the produce to air can cause mold to form at the top, producing strings of mold growing down into your ferment. But not to worry. Unlike traditional canning, where botulism can be undetectable, if you have mold growing in your ferment, YOU WILL KNOW IT!
To keep your food under the brine, you have several options. I like to add another oak, grape, or horseradish leaf after all the produce has been packed in. I also find a cabbage leaf works very well, as it can be cut to fit snugly down in the neck of the jar and the large outer leaves are pretty rigid.
Next, the whole thing needs to be weighed down and vented. There are many products available to do this. I have heavy glass weights that fit down into the neck of the jar and hold everything very nicely. I use simple silicone airlock valves. These items are relatively inexpensive (around $30.00 to make six quart jar setups), but if you’re just trying out the process and don’t want to spend anything, you can find a nice, smooth rock that fits the neck, scrub the living heck out of it, and (gently, please!) drop it in. Just remember that doing it this way can cause some frustrating issues. It is easier for the food to work its way up to the top and possibly contaminate your jar. The pricier items definitely offer better control of the outcome and offer an improved ease of process. Once I have better kitchen/storage options, I will probably invest in a quality setup. But right now, my moderately-priced supplies are serving me quite well. To buy everything you need to make six quart-sized ferments at a time is around $50.00. If you have the jars and lids it’s only around $30.00. There are also complete kits, ranging from $30.00 or so up to well over $100.00.
It is almost time to commence fermentation! Check your brine one more time, and either add or remove brine until you get to approximately 1″ of headspace.
Because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide, a tight-fitting lid would be an explosive, dangerous mess. The lid must not only release the pressure from the CO2 inside the jar, it must also prevent outside air from entering and contaminating your ferment. My inexpensive silicone airlock valve lids perform this task well. Going really cheap? In the beginning, I just used a couple layers of plastic wrap, screwed on with a wide-mouth lid, and manually released the pressure as the plastic wrap started to bulge outward by removing the ring and readjusting the plastic wrap. Not ideal, a bit messy at times, but workable.
Now you will put the jar in a darkened corner on your counter, out of direct sunlight. If you need to, loosely wrap a kitchen towel around the sides of the jar. It is a good idea to place a tray of some sort underneath, as the fermentation process can sometimes cause the brine to overflow a bit.
As the jar sits on the counter for a day or two, you will start to notice bubbles forming. I like to just swirl the upright jar around a bit once or twice a day to release the bubbles. If you see that your airlock valves are starting to bulge a little, simply release the gas. I also like to take the lid off once a day to make sure everything is still under the brine. If a couple of pieces slip through and are floating on the surface, simply remove them. As long as you don’t see any thin, wispy mold, you are fine.
Depending on room temperature, the fermentation process usually takes anywhere from 3-7 days. On day 3, you will want to start tasting! Lacto fermented foods have a tangy flavor, with a light refreshing fizziness to them. As the jar sits on the counter, the tanginess and fizziness will become stronger. The ideal level of both is entirely up to you and your taste buds.
Once you have decided that your pickles are “done,” remove the airlock valve lid, take out the weight, and discard the top leaf. At this time, you will put the pickles in the refrigerator. I find that sometimes the pickles continue to emit a little CO2 the first day or so in the fridge, so I like to keep the airlock valve lids on for a day. Then I replace them with regular wide-mouth lids and rings.
As your pickles age in the refrigerator, you will find that the flavors meld and become richer. Your month-old pickles will be even more delicious than your freshly-made ones–if they last that long. I ate a whole pint jar myself over the course of about two weeks while recovering from COVID!
While lacto fermented foods don’t last as long as traditionally canned foods, they do last a lot longer than fresh produce sitting in your fridge. They also have the benefit of increasing the bioavailability of the nutrients of the food, much of which can be lost during traditional canning or cooking. Shelf life is around 4-18 months, with six months being the average.
The Recipe: Ingredients
2-4 pickling cucumbers, washed, peeled, and thinly sliced (1/8″-1/4″)
1 medium onion, sliced very thin
1/2 to 1 bulb of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed–we fight over the garlic; it’s delicious! I always put in at least a full bulb.
3 cups of 2% brine (2.5 tsp pink Himalayan salt dissolved in 3 cups of boiled, cooled filtered/non-chlorinated water)
2 tsp mustard seeds, divided
2″ piece of fresh turmeric root, divided (Our local stores don’t have this; I substituted 1 tsp powdered turmeric, divided, with no problems)
A couple grape, oak, or horseradish leaves (optional, but enhances crispiness)
The Recipe: Assembly
Sprinkle half the spices and garlic into the bottom of a clean quart Mason jar. Add a leaf.
Pack the Mason jar loosely to 2″ from the lip with the cucumber/onion mix. Use a non-metallic utensil to gently tamp the produce down.
Add the second half of your spices and garlic, and another leaf.
Continue adding cucumbers/onions till the jar is full, then tamp down again. Add cucumbers until the jar is nearly full, then fill the jar to within 1″ of the lip with your brine.
Use the utensil to gently loosen the air bubbles trapped in the jar and compress the vegetables. Add brine to maintain a headspace of around 1.5″
Use another leaf to cover all the vegetables and loosely tuck it into the neck of the jar. Place the glass weight and gently press down until it is submerged. Add brine if necessary.
Wipe rim with a clean, damp cloth, place airlock lid and ring and set in a darkened corner of your kitchen, on a small tray. Loosely wrap in a kitchen towel if you don’t have a dark corner.
Gently swirl and check vegetables daily. You will notice bubbles rising in the jar. Release pressure as needed and make sure all vegetables remain submerged. Remove any pieces that float to the surface.
On day three, it is time to start tasting! As the mixture sits on the counter, it will become more fizzy and tangy. Depending on room temperature, the entire process takes between 3-7 days. I usually like to leave my jars out for 4-5 days.
Once the pickles are to your liking, remove the glass weight and replace the airlock with a regular Mason jar lid and place in the fridge. If you are able to stay out of them, they get better as they age.
Go Forth And Experiment!
The nice thing about lacto fermentation is as long as you have a 2% brine, you can mix and match your veggies and spices to your heart’s content. Want to add ginger and its amazing immune-boosting/anti-inflammatory punch? Go for it. Allergic to garlic? Leave it out. The possible combinations of produce and spices are only limited by your imagination. Enjoy!