Healthy Pickles

Who knew there were healthy pickles and unhealthy pickles! I didn’t until we discovered Wild Fermentation, a way to make pickles just like your grandmother…..well…..your great-grandmother……no, maybe your great-great-grandmother! Somewhere back in your genealogy, whichever grandmother it was who made pickles from a salt and water brine, not using vinegar or “processing” them using modern-day canning techniques, is the grandmother you want to copy. All others bought into the lies of the modern age which turned perfectly nutritious food into dead matter, unfit for human or animal consumption.

Where canning kills enzymes, heat liable vitamins and other nutrition, pickling by fermentation creates a nutrient rich solution that not only offers a wide range of vitamins and minerals, but also serves as a natural pro-biotic, aiding in digestion.

The key to this type of pickling is lacto-fermentation, described in simple terms by Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation as, “Microscopic organisms – our ancestors and allies – transform food and extend its usefulness. Fermentation is found throughout human cultures. Hundreds of medical and scientific studies confirm what folklore has always known: Fermented foods help people stay healthy.”

My maternal great-grandmother fermented cabbage, making sauerkraut, and now I do, too! I also ferment beets, kohlrabi, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips and cabbage (sauerkraut), as well as kimchi. The first fermented vegetable I experimented with were pickles. They couldn’t be any easier and I’ve found they’re a hit with the children, a great “First Ferment” to get their taste buds going in the healthy-food direction.

Pickled cukes are the easiest way to begin. I’ve experimented with various flavorings and use an organic Amish pickling mix which includes black peppercorns, cloves, mustard seeds, as well as other traditional pickling spices. If you can’t find organic, consider putting your own pickling spice mix together – recipe follows at the end of this post.

I also add at least half-a-dozen peeled garlic cloves and 3 large dill heads, as well as, 1 T finely chopped fresh dill.

The traditional method of keeping fermented pickles crisp, a technique used for centuries, is to add grape or oak leaves. While most recipe sites say “a handful”, I’ve found that more than 3-6 medium grape leaves, or 2-4 medium white oak leaves create too much of a “dry” feeling to the mouth, giving the astringent nature of tannins in the leaves. While it is the tannin that keeps the pickles crisp, start with fewer leaves until you find a taste that suits you.

When using wild grape leaves, be sure you know your source! Poison ivy loves to grow alongside wild grapes, and it goes without saying, poison ivy is not desirable. Several years ago, I scouted out wild grapes, identifying them in spring (blossoms), summer (fruit) and fall (smell of naturally fermenting wild grape smells exactly like grape jelly).

Easy Fermented Pickles

  1. Only “pickling cukes” will do. They’re bumpy, small, hard, and not the salad-style “English cucumber” used on salads. I have found that approximately 8-pounds of pickling cukes, will fill 3 1/2-gallon wide-mouth Mason jars. Of course, their size and shape will have a lot to do with exactly how many will fit into a jar. Because we acquire our pickling cukes from our CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) co-op, I am free to pick through the bins of cukes, selecting ones that are the same size which makes packing them in jars easier, and they are all equally fermented.
  2. Sanitize the fermenting containers. Some use crocks made for pickling, but I use half-gallon Mason canning jars.
  3. Mix 8-cups water with 4 T sea salt Bring to a boil, and let cool to lukewarm.
  4. Wash and scrub the cukes, removing sand, dirt, and any remaining flower or stem.
  5. Load pickling containers with spices, while the washed cukes are draining
  6. Pack the pickles. The easiest and most efficient way to pack as many pickles as possible in a container is to lay the container on its side, filling the container so that when you stand it up, the cukes will be standing up vertically. Pack tightly.
  7. Fill container with brine. Stand the packed container upright. Leave at least 1-inch of headroom at the top of the container, filling with brine.
  8. Keep pickles under brine. Some recipes recommend placing a plastic Ziplock bag, filled with several inches of water on top the brine and pickle solution. I personally don’t want a plastic Ziplock bag touching food which will be, or become, acidic. Instead, I place an additional large grape leaf on the top of my brine/pickle solution, tucking it down around the edges of the open, sealing the brine/pickles from the air. I then place a small Pyrex-style dish in the opening of the jar, further helping to hold the pickles down in place.
  9. Cover with a Ball plastic lid or standard metal canning ring and seal. Do NOT crank the covers down tight! Carbon dioxide needs to escape or you’ll have exploding jars.
  10. After the first day, remove the covers to release carbon dioxide to prevent explosions. Replace covers, lightly closed.
  11. Place the filled jars on a cookie sheet or cake pan, in an out-of-way place on the kitchen counter, for 3 days, so that when the carbon dioxide activity begins, if liquid is forced out over the top of the jar, the cookie sheet or cake pan will retain the drainage.
  12. Remove any “scum” or white foam that might appear on the surface.
  13. After 3 days, try a pickle. If sour enough, they’re ready to eat. Store in the refrigerator. If a sharper, more sour taste is desired, leave the pickles on the countertop for up to an additional 7 days.

Pickling Spice Blend

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 bay leaves, broken in half