Pickles and Probiotic Fermentation

This wouldn’t be Jerky, Pickles, and Beer without a pickle article!

I want to introduce you to the world of probiotic pickles. I use an old world method for pickling. A live pickle. This fermentation and pickling process uses a live culture which creates acids to produce the sour pickle flavor. This process has been in use for thousands of years. Many people say there are various health benefits to live cultured foods; ask Jamie Lee Curtis about her butt yogurt! Although I like the positive health benefits, I am most interested in the amazing flavors!

Fermented Pickles or not?

Most of the pickles you are accustomed to are considered quick pack pickles or refrigerator pickles. These pickles are made with vinegar, salt, sugar, and/or spices. Almost every pickle you can buy at the grocery store are “dead” pickles. That means they do not have a live culture in them. Typically anything sealed and canned or bagged, not refrigerated, is not a living cultured pickle. There are many reasons why I don’t pickle this way. You surely can create a delicious product when canning pickles, but this article is not about canned pickles. If you want some delicious canned pickles, check out Daryl’s Dills on facebook!

Fermenting

Preserving foods through fermentation is fun, saves money, and can keep you supplied with wonderful pickled things all year long! Getting started fermenting your own pickles isn’t too hard. There are many methods and various pieces of equipment you can use. I am going to outline my chosen methods and equipment. After a good amount of research, I have found this process to be successful. One of my biggest initial fears of fermenting foods was spoilage. I was also afraid I was going to poison my friends and family! That’s a bit of a long shot, but it was a fear nonetheless. The best way to avoid spoilage and unwanted growth is to use an anaerobic fermenter. That means you are fermenting in an airtight container. Some pickling methods use open crocks. I avoided this due to the potential to grow yeast and mold. When you pickle in an open container, you need to watch the batch closely for mold or (white) kahm yeast. That needs to be removed. You can even get kahm in sealed jars. However, I have yet to see it in my fermenters.

Fermenting Equipment

I created my fermeters using widely available wide mouth ball jars. I use lids with holes in them, round rubber gaskets, and an airlock. You can buy these pre-assembled or you can source all the individual products and make them yourself. Homebrewing supply stores often carry the air locks, wide mouth mason jars are easy enough to find, and the lids with holes in them can be found many places. The rubber gaskets of the right size were the hardest to source only because I was initially unsure of the correct size. For an inexpensive entry into fermenting, this reasonably priced fermentation kit should work well.

Pickle Fermenters
These are two pickle fermenters, one using my homemade ball jar lid and a larger lid I purchased to fit larger jars.

Live Cultures

Live pickling doesn’t actually require you to supply a culture. The bacteria needed to ferment correctly is present in nature. Small cultures of it are living on most of the fresh vegetables you already eat! Isolating the culture and creating an environment for it to thrive is what the fermentation process is all about. Getting the timing, temperature, and salt content correct is the biggest challenge. If the temperature isn’t correct, the wrong bacteria grows. If the salt content is too low or too high, the wrong bacteria takes over. It is possible to put fresh vegetables in a fermenter with a salt brine solution, keep it below 72 degrees, and you will ferment correctly. However, to ensure success or at least have a greater likelihood that the outcome is what you are looking for, I recommend using a starter culture. By adding a culture to your vegetables, the salt content isn’t as important. The starter culture allows the good bacteria to create the dominate strain growing right off the bat. As this culture takes hold, it creates an environment that is unfavorable for the bad bacteria, reducing the chances for spoilage. Once you have some good batches under your belt, using your past live brine as a starter works very similarly.

Starter culture for probiotic pickles
This particular brand of starter culture, caldwell’s, is widely available.

Vegetable Starter Culture

Pickling Recipes and Spices

Ok, this is the hard part! Every vegetable has different flavor profiles, both fresh and pickled. Getting the flavor right is what makes this hobby rewarding and fun yet sometimes disappointing and laughable. Let me just say, my first ever batch of pickled vegetables ended up tasting horrible! It wasn’t a bad batch, I just mixed the wrong vegetables and spiced them horribly. Although I never ate what I made, it was really fun to get started and the bad batch didn’t break the bank.

Fermenting vegetables
My first batch of fermented vegetables! I am using fermentation lids I bought online. These vegetables tasted horrible!

Now that I have many batches under my belt I have learned a few things:

  • Stick with single vegetables first, don’t pickle a mix until you have more practice
  • Get a book or find recipes online as a starting point
  • If you are going to experiment with your spices and brine, keep it simple!
Pickling spices
There are many different spices and brines you can use when pickling. Fresh herbs and spices are great and I often use them. I didn’t have any ready for the photo shoot!

Pickles aren’t just cucumbers

You are not limited to pickling cucumbers! Although I swoon for delicious dills, I am also a fan of various other options, some quite exotic. Sauerkraut is a great example! Sauerkraut isn’t exotic to folks in Central Pennsylvania, but it is a live fermented pickle! It surely has a distinctive flavor! If you like sauerkraut, it is a very easy first batch. All you need is some cabbage! Any additional spice is completely optional. Kimchi is like sauerkraut, but spiced in a very exotic way. You will be using ginger, lots of red pepper powder, garlic, and sometimes sesame. Most traditional recipes call for fish sauce and brined fermented shrimp! I highly recommend using these ingredients if you are going to make kimchi. It’s what gives kimchi the authentic flavor. After many batches of kimchi, I have tweaked a traditional recipe. I have a whole article dedicated to kimchi.

Kimchi in a fermenter
This is a batch of kimchi. The red color is produced by the red pepper powder.

Other pickling options: (And many more!)

  • Green beans (Have you ever tried “dilly beans?)
  • Sweet or hot peppers
  • Hot sauce (Many of your favorite hot sauces are live fermented)
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Watermelon Rind
  • Onions

Get yourself some vegetables, a fermenter, and pickle something!

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