52 Homesteading Skills in One Year – Project #3: Learning the art of fermentation
Have you seen them? They’re easy to spot. The enterprising individuals who prepare dozens of jars of tomatoes and strawberry jam and then proudly post their freshly-canned goods on Facebook. You’ve probably seen them at the Farmer’s Market, arms full of baskets of cucumbers, smug in the satisfaction that if the world’s food supply ends, they won’t go hungry. Oh no! They will have pickles.
For years I’ve thought, “I should do that too.” But somehow the complainy pants in me would win out and I’d end up convincing myself I don’t have the time, energy or expertise. Well, not this year. This is the year I become a real homesteader, darn it. And I did. This week. And I can’t believe I haven’t fermented pickles before. It’s actually so easy my kids can do it.
Note to self: Next year get the kids to do all my canning work. Although, we will really have to work on not eating the produce. Sigh.
So you wanna know how easy it is? It’s so simple that all you really need to make fermented pickles is water, salt and cucumbers. If you want to get fancy, you can add some spices.
You put this stuff in jars and then you observe. That’s right. It ferments all by itself. All you need to do is stand back and watch as your plain old cucumbers turn into delightful, crunchy pickles that are now more healthy than the original cucumbers.
What the heck is fermentation and why should I eat it?
Fermentation is the ancient art of pickling long before there was canning. Fermenting turns your food into natural probiotics. So instead of popping a probiotic pill, you can eat fermented foods, which, according to Dr. Mercola, actually contain 100 times more probiotics than a pricey supplement.
One quick Google on the Internet will result in tonnes of information on the health benefits of probiotics from boosting your immune system to detoxifying your body. I don’t know if it’s all true, but I think I feel better after I eat a pickle.
Now before I get into the details of pickle making, I have a secret to share. I regularly go to a local health foods store in Moncton and buy jars of fermented pickles that must have real gold dust in them since each jar costs about $9.99.
Now my husband has no idea how much these pickles cost so to any family members out there who I know read every word of my blog (right guys???) don’t mention it, okay? Anyway, the point is — look at how many pickles you can buy for just $14.99.
Since water is free and salt is cheap, the cost savings of making your own is huge. Forget about investing in the stock market — start making pickles!
Pickling jars – I used 1 L sized mason jars.
Cucumbers – I’m told it’s best, especially for beginners like myself, to choose the small pickling cucumbers versus cutting up the regular sized cukes. This helps guarantee a crunchy pickle. No one likes soggy pickles.
Un-chlorinated water (Note: If your water is chlorinated and you don’t have a filter, let the water stand overnight and the chlorine will evaporate.)
Grape or oak leaves, if you can find them
Spices of your choice. Here are a few ideas to get you started: fresh herbs like dill, parsley or lemon balm, mustard seeds, hot chilies, onion, garlic cloves, fennel seeds, bay leaves, celery leaves, cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns.
Wash and dry your mason jars.
Dissolve your salt in a pot of water. I wanted a really salty, sour pickle so I used 2 1/2 tbsp of salt for each 1 L jar, but according to www.culturesforhealth.com, you can experiment between the ranges of 1 to 3 tbsp of salt for each 1 L jar.
Wash your cucumbers and put aside any bruised or questionable looking cucumbers.
Freshness is one of the keys to crunchy pickles so if your pickles are not at their finest, you can plump them up by soaking them in iced water for a couple hours.
Cut the ends off the cucumbers. Actually, you really only need to slice the flower end off the cucumbers as they contain enzymes, which can soften the pickles during fermentation. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I just cut both ends off. You can also pierce the cucumbers with a fork a few times to allow the brine to better penetrate.
I added either a grape or oak leaf, which supposedly maintains the crispiness of the pickles thanks to their natural tannins. I put one leaf on the bottom of each jar along with my spices. I tried all kinds of combinations – dill and garlic; bay leaves and onions; cinnamon and cloves; lemon balm and lovage (a perennial herb that tastes like celery). Go crazy and experiment.
Pack your cucumbers tightly into the jar and cover with brine, leaving about 1 inch of headspace so your bottles don’t explode when the brine begins to bubble up.
Now this is really important – The brine should cover the vegetables at all times or else they will start developing mould and your pickles will be ruined. So long as they remain under the anaerobic safety of the brine, they’ll be fine.
To keep the vegetables submerged, I packed everything tightly into the jars, but there are many other ways to do this. For some ideas, check out this post.
Note: To prevent any little pieces of herbs or spices from floating to the surface, I used whole pieces of herbs and wrapped any smaller spices, such as cloves and peppercorn, in a grape leaf and stuffed them in the bottom of my jar. This is only necessary if you not using something to keep your vegetables submerged.
Screw on the lids (but not too tightly in order to let some of the fermentation gasses escape) and set in a location at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Soon you’ll see bubbles of carbon dioxide gas in the brine, which means you’ve been successful and the brine has started to acidify.
Now here is the tricky part. There doesn’t seem to be a cut and dry date for when fermented pickles are done. It seems to depend on the temperature of your home and how sour you like them. It may take 3 days or it may be weeks. Half-sour cucumbers usually ferment at cool room temperatures for about a week and full-sour cucumbers ferment for about 2 weeks, according to Fine Cooking, The Science of Pickles.
Once the pickles are done to your liking, screw the lids on tight and place in the fridge or other cold storage facility. You can eat them right away or save them for a cold wintry day when you just need a taste of summer.