I'll Pickle It!

Previously, I wrote about my growing interest in making fermented foods, inspired by Sandor Katz and his book “The Art of Fermentation”.  Since last summer, I have been experimenting even more, making pickles from a variety of vegetables, especially those from our garden or our local farm, Busa (now replaced by Lexington Community Farm, or LexFarm).   As we divided the crops each working day at the Garden, "I'll pickle it!" became my slogan, especially whenever some extra vegetable was up for grabs.

Of all the trials, I have had only two disappointments – my first set of brined cucumbers, made with some of the smaller cucumbers picked from the Garden, had tough, rubbery skins.  After some discussion among Garden colleagues, we decided that pickling cucumbers were probably especially bred for pickling, and perhaps have more tender skins.  So, in subsequent batches, I used pickling cucumbers from Busa Farm.   Both types of cucumber pickle I made with the pickling cukes, a partially sweet Bread and Butter style and a brined sour "no dill" pickle, were superb!  The other disappointment was an apple and onion pickle, prepared with freshly picked local apples from a farmer’s market.  They were just too sour, plus too spicy with crushed dried red pepper.  Unlike some of the other pickle recipes I’ve used (e.g. a beet recipe), there was no added sugar.  I will be looking for a slightly sweeter apple pickle recipe in the future.

Otherwise, though, the pickling has been very rewarding! Friends and family have given me very positive feedback on the tastes and textures coming out of these colorful jars stacked in our basement “pantry”.  This winter, I was so glad to be able to hang on longer to the abundance of our gardening season.   

Besides the guidelines from Katz’s book, I’ve followed some more specific recipes, in particular those from Linda Ziedrich’s classic, “The Joy of Pickling”.  As I usually do, I’ve modified these recipes here and there.  In this post, I will describe just a few examples of the pickles I’ve been making.

In most cases, I have sterilized the packed jars by immersion in a boiling water bath, enabling me to store them safely in the pantry for weeks to months.  For acidic preparations, which all of these are, boiling water temperature is sufficient.  For canning fruits and vegetables that are not acidic, a pressure cooker must be used to attain higher temperatures.  I did my canning in a 23-gallon pressure cooker/canner for convenience, but with the valve open so that it was not under pressure.  In a few cases, such as a tomatillo recipe, the recipe called for the pickles to not be heat-packed but, instead, to be stored in the refrigerator where they will keep for only a few weeks.

In my pickling, I’ve employed two general techniques.  One is to immerse the vegetables, plus some spices, in a solution that is already acidic, usually vinegar (at 5% acidity) or a vinegar-water mixture.  The second, more classic fermentation technique, is to immerse the vegetables and spices in brine (a salt/water mixture) and let it sit at a warm room temperature, such as in a sunny window, for 2 or 3 weeks, giving micro-organisms in the preparation time to ferment, generating their own lactic acid that imparts a tangy taste and helps preserve the pickles.  While I have found that many wonderful flavors have resulted from the vinegar-based recipes, I definitely have a preference for the brine fermentations.  I love the ancient tradition of this method, its connection to biochemistry, and the complexity of flavors that develop in the final brine after several days of fermentation.  According to Katz and others, after the pickles have been eaten, people have been known to make soup with the leftover brine or even to drink it.  I have not yet tried drinking it, but I did make a soup and it turned out to be one of the best soups I’ve ever had.  (More on that later.)

As noted above, my first attempt at classic fermented pickles was disappointing. But, after that unsuccessful run with the tough-skinned regular cukes, I made two much better batches of sour pickles using whole pickling cukes and a classic brine fermentation technique. Since I am not crazy about dill, I decided to make something similar to the “no dill crock pickles” recipe from Joy of Pickling.  Sandor Katz recommends a 5% brine (5 g salt to 100 ml water) for a sour pickle, 3.5% for “half-sour”.  So, I went with that 5% brine strength, also adding a very small amount of white vinegar because Ziedrich’s recipe recommended it.  (Too much vinegar, however, is a bad idea according to Katz because it inhibits natural fermentation.)  I also used the same spice combination suggested in Ziedrich’s “no dill” recipe, whole allspice, peppercorns, lemon zest and fennel seed.  Ziedrich and others suggest adding sour cherry or grape leaves which reportedly helps keep the pickles crispy. I was unable to find sour cherry or grape leaves, except for the marinated canned Greek style grape leaves that I’m sure were not what she had in mind.  Having read in Katz’s book that these leaves, or tea leaves, work by adding tannins, I decided to just throw an Earl Grey tea bag in each jar.  In addition, I added a few bay leaves, though honestly, I have no idea if they supply the requisite tannins.  In the end, the pickles were crispy and delicious so whatever I did seemed to have worked fine.  I therefore repeated it exactly for the second batch.  Someday, though, I’d like to find these sour cherry leaves and see if they make a difference.

Traditionally, the fermentation is done with the cukes in a crock, and then later they are packed into jars for canning and longer term storage.  (When I described this pickling project to my Dad, he told me that he remembers his father, my Zayde, fermenting dill pickles in a big crock in their kitchen.)  Ziedrich says she prefers using large glass jars, so that you can see what is going on.  I liked that idea, and used several half-gallon jars.  The fermentation works best if the mixture is not exposed to much oxygen, by sealing the top in some manner, though not completely airtight.  (Remember the biochemistry:  when oxygen is scarce, instead of using the usual mitochondrial respiration, the organism makes ATP through anaerobic glycolysis, ultimately resulting in lactic acid production.  This is what happens in excessively exercised muscle…ouch. )  In a traditional crock, a weighted plate is laid on top of the vegetable/liquid surface.  Ziedrich’s book suggests placing a clean zip lock bag, also filled with brine, in the mouth of the jars (see photo). I did that and it worked great!  The photo shows one batch, at the beginning of the fermentation period.  As the pickles ferment, the mixture bubbles and gets cloudy, and the cucumbers turn from bright green to olive green.  (Whereas “half-sours” remain brighter green.)





The recipe called for allowing fermentation to proceed for 2 to 3 weeks.  After 2 wks, I liked the way the pickles looked and tasted, so I proceeded with the next step.  The pickles were drained through a colander collecting and saving all the brine.   The pickles were rinsed (photo below) and repacked into quart size jars.  I added fresh spices, allspice, peppercorn, fennel seed and  lemon zest.  In addition, a modification to the cookbook recipe, I added a few cloves of garlic.  Meanwhile, the brine is strained and the whole spices, tea bag, leaves, etc discarded.  The brine is then heated to a boil and simmered for a few minutes and then poured back over the pickles in the smaller jars.  After two weeks of fermentation, this brine had become a gorgeous, rich golden color, loaded with flavor. 

At this point, the jars can just be stored in the refrigerator or, to enable them to be stored longer in the pantry, canned in a boiling water bath.  I chose the latter, and processed all the sealed jars for 12 minutes in the boiling bath. 

To my joy, I had a lot of leftover brine after filling the canning jars.  As mentioned above, it’s been reported that this brine can be used for a tangy soup.  I found a recipe I liked online, called “Polish Soup”.  I modified this recipe by adding a few more vegetables all, except for the celery, from the Garden (leeks, parsnips, turnips, carrots, Savoy cabbage and a small Chiogga beet).  Instead of boiling the carrots with the potatoes as the recipe instructed, I sautéed them along with the leeks, celery and parsnips, and garlic, in an olive oil/butter mixture.  I boiled the turnips and beet with the Yukon gold potatoes.  Instead of using only one cup of pickling brine, I used about 4 cups, and also added 2 cups of organic vegetable stock.  When the potatoes were boiled, I pureed most of them to give the broth its creamy body, but kept one potato in coarse chunks.  I chopped some of my own sour pickles into the soup, and also added cabbage and simmered it all together for another 20 minutes.  This soup was amazing!  It had more flavor than I can even describe.  As we have finished our stock of sour pickles, I have saved the brine in the freezer.  I’ve made a few more batches of this soup, varying the vegetables depending on what I have, but always using Yukon gold potatoes, carrots, chopped pickles and some kind of onion and/or leek.  And, often I add greens.  Depending on the amount of brine I have on hand, I have varied the brine/stock ratio.   I have used all my leftover brines for soup, again, not really feeling the least bit tempted to drink it!



Using a similar brining technique, I made sour green tomato pickles.  These incorporated all varieties of unripened tomatoes we had collected from the Garden on the day we chose to take down all the tomato plants prior to a hard frost.  In this case, I followed the “green cherry tomato” recipe in Joy of Pickling, even though there were also large tomatoes, which I quartered, in the mix.   The instructions called for room temperature fermentation for only one week, followed by a second week of slower fermentation in the refrigerator prior to eating.  Since no canning option was mentioned in the recipe, I decided to just keep these cold in the half-gallon jars.  I did not want to inadvertently cook them and have them lose their crunchy texture.  These, too, were delicious..very tangy and garlickly.  And, crunchy!  I used this brine for soup, too. Its flavor was different from that of the cucumber brine but the soup was still delicious.   Another experiment that worked really well was brining halved Brussels sprouts.  Several batches of brined, then canned, sauerkraut were also a success.  As Sandor Katz wrote in his book, sauerkraut is the perfect fermentation project for a beginner. 


For the vinegar-based pickles, I pretty much followed the Joy of Pickling recipes.  Though, I often used regular distilled white vinegar instead of white wine vinegar, even though Ziedrich feels its flavor can be “harsh….” and it is “..most useful..in cleaning windows and floors”.  White wine vinegar was not readily available in gallon size jugs, and these recipes needed large volumes.  I made red cabbage in two versions, with red wine vinegar and cider vinegar, and each had a different character.

Besides those I’ve mentioned above, some other kinds of pickles I’ve made include:

Bread and Butter “My Way” cucumber pickles, a less sweet version that, to Ziedrich, is less  “cloying” than the standard recipe.  I agree with her.  Bread and Butter pickles can be too sweet, but her “My Way” recipe is excellent.  Turmeric is included to give them that characteristic golden-yellow color.

Classic beets – I added carrots to one batch.  A more recent batch included some golden beets, which I canned separately from the red ones so they’d keep their pretty color.  This is a slightly sweet recipe, with brown sugar added to the cider vinegar, simmered with cinnamon, clove, and allspice.  It reminds me of hot, mulled apple cider.



Pink pickled turnips:  A Lebanese tradition, these were a favorite of mine when I lived in Roslindale, which has a Middle Eastern market that sold them in huge jars. The ones I made came out just like I remembered. These are very simple, flavored only with celery leaves and no other spices.  The strong flavor of the turnips is really all that you need.  A small beet is included just to give them a pink color.

Cauliflower with sweet and hot peppers.   In a different variation, I used the same spice/vinegar mixture with halved Brussels sprouts.  Fennel and cumin seeds, among other spices, gives this a really nice flavor.


Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes – wonderful!  Cider vinegar spiced with ginger, garlic, dried hot peppers, and whole coriander and cumin seeds and sweetened with a dash of brown sugar.  They stay really crispy.   These were from the Garden – I harvested them that day and they were everywhere, even invading under the fence.  I believe I ended up with 3 or 4 lbs and, besides pickles, also made a delicious soup combining them with Yukon gold potatoes (a recipe from Deborah Madison’s “Vegetable Literacy”.)


As I write this, it is spring, 2014.  Our basement pantry stock of pickles is at least half gone and I'm looking forward to replenishing it through a new growing season. Between the Robbins Farm Garden and our CSA share from LexFarm, I expect to have plenty of vegetables, and enough variety to explore new recipes.  And, I am very grateful that my fellow Gardeners agreed that, this year, we can grow some pickling cukes.  So, stay tuned......