Those of us who dare to dabble in the world of sourdough often get our noses pushed into our bowls of starter – we are forced to learn more than we really wanted to when we first began the adventure. But it is a fascinating world of bacteria, of fungi, of fermentation – Oh my – all that science! And as with many things we learn late, there is a sudden enlightenment about just how common all these scientific things are in our everyday life – we begin to see how our lives are dependent on them, and how we never took the time to even think about that before!
Did not Socrates say that man only begins to become wise when he begins to know how little he really knows?
Many of the plants of our gardens have lessons to teach us about bacteria and fermentation – even if we resist learning them. One of my early garden lessons in fermentation occurred when I was living in Florida many years ago – my garden contained collards, a southern favorite, that I grew to love too. One day, I picked a five gallon bucket full of collard leaves and proceeded to wash them well in the bucket – I then walked away from my water covered collards and conveniently forgot them completely for the better part of a week. When I next saw them, nature had begun its necessary tasks, and the bucket of collards was literally effervescent!
My first thought was to pitch them – but being a man who finds it difficult to throw anything away (my family worries about this!), I began to think of how this was simply the way nature goes about making sauerkraut, and how it can’t be so bad. So, I continued that washing job, and then took them in to the kitchen to cook them up as with any good collards, i.e., long and slow with seasoning meat – those collards were among the best I’ve ever eaten! And as I ate, I was reminded of its relationship to sauerkraut, but without the full souring that characterizes true sauerkraut – Delicious! And I’m quite sure I wasn’t the first to sample this taste – here, here, and here too.
And then there are times when we are “fermenting” without even knowing it – one of my usual summer rituals is to have a small bowl of “new pickles” working on the kitchen counter all summer long – I have a love affair with the memory of the Jewish connections in my youth, and new pickles are a big part of that. I fell in love with the almost artificially vibrant green color of Jewish deli “new pickles” (or half sours), but it was the sparkling taste that grabbed me most. I later learned that these pickles were the art of simplicity, and that they were simply pulled early from the same process that was used to create “full sour” pickles.
Over the years, I developed, by trial and error, a simple brine (2-3 Tbs salt, 1 qt water, 2 peeled/crushed garlic cloves) – without vinegar – to leave on the kitchen counter, into which I’d slip fresh cucumbers – sliced end-to-end into quarters – to rest for a day, or two, or even three. As I ate one, I’d slip another in – and if some got overdone in there, it was easy enough to pitch them, and replace with new. These are amazingly good – and yes, this is fermenting in action.
I’ve seen web sites with pickle recipes that state that when you make a brine and put cucumbers in it, fermentation does not start until day three – I would beg to differ – I believe that fermentation begins as soon as the cucumber is submerged. And additionally, it doesn’t even matter if there’s salt, or vinegar, or whatever in there – fermentation begins in water alone! I know this from my own experience. That being true, if you are on a low salt diet, use only as much salt as you like – let taste guide you – and I guarantee you’ll still get fermentation – and delicious pickles.
Why use salt at all? Well, if you’re making what are called “full sours” (Kosher Dills), the use of salt helps to kill some of the bad bacteria (you know, bad bacteria is a misnomer – these bacteria are simply doing the job nature gave them – they are helping to break down the organism in the chain of life – it’s only “bad“ because at the moment, that’s not what we want! Out on the compost heap, we celebrate those same bacteria!). And if we were letting our cucumbers ferment for 3 or 4 weeks, maybe then a too low salt content may allow some of the bad bacteria admission, and spoil the batch – but we’re only fermenting for a few days – and that’s not enough time for bad stuff to happen.
Recently, my garden has been communicating with me – it does this by overproducing – and the message I hear is, “What will you do with me?” The cucumbers are especially loud right now – I’m getting about 3-4 lbs twice a week. We use fresh maybe, at max, 6-8 cucumbers a week – what to do? Humm … And then I remembered how easy it is to let those babies ferment on the counter top – the process for doing that is a little different, but not much different, than my “new pickle” process.
Actually, if you go online looking for a process, you face what the philosophers call, the void of negation – there are just so many different processes that it’s difficult to find a good one. Well, for all I know, they all work, but just to be on the safe side (whoa! is that me talking?) I’ve chosen a university food science site to trust. I know some of you out there think I’m the wild man in the kitchen, but in truth, I’ve been canning and preserving long enough to know where one must take care – and open crock fermentation is one of those areas.
The recipe below is from The University of Wisconsin, Safe Food Preservation Series. I especially like this site because, unlike many other “authoritarian” sites, they do not withhold instruction on trickier processes, as if you can’t be trusted with it – they simply share the process, tell you why it’s not recommended, and leave it to you to decide. Very adult of them.
Fermented Dill Pickles
4 lbs. pickling cucumbers, 3 to 6 inches long
4 to 5 heads fresh or dry dill weed, or 2 tbsp. dill seed
1⁄2 cup canning and pickling salt
1⁄4 cup vinegar (5% acetic acid)
8 cups water
One or more of the following:
2 tsp. whole mixed pickling spice (optional – recognize that the major ingredient here is dill seed, so if you used that above, this may be overkill)
2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
2 dried red peppers (optional)
Wash cucumbers, and drain on a rack or wipe dry. Handle gently to avoid bruising. Trim 1⁄16 inch from the blossom end and discard. But leave 1⁄4-inch stem attached. Place half of dill and spices on the bottom of a clean crock or a container of glass or food-grade plastic. Add cucumbers, remaining dill, and spices.
Mix the vinegar and water together. Add salt and stir to dissolve. Pour the vinegar and salt mixture over cucumbers.
Cover with a heavy plate or lid that fits inside the crock or container.
Use a weight to hold the plate down and keep the cucumbers under the brine. Cover the crock loosely with a clean cloth. Keep pickles at room temperature (70° to 75° F).Temperatures of 55° to 65° F are acceptable, but then fermentation will take 5 to 6 weeks. Avoid temperatures above 80° F, or pickles will become too soft during fermentation. Do not stir pickles around in the container, but be sure they are completely covered with brine. If necessary,make more brine using the original proportions. Remove scum daily. Most scum can be avoided if you use a brine-filled bag to seal the crock. See page 16. Caution: If the pickles become soft or slimy, or develop a disagreeable odor, discard them.
In about 3 weeks, the cucumbers will have become olive green and should have a desirable flavor.
Once the fermentation is complete, heat process pickles for storage. To process fermented dill pickles, drain the pickles, collecting the fermentation brine. Strain the fermentation brine through a double layer of cheesecloth or paper coffee filters into a large pan. Heat to boiling, and simmer for 5 minutes.
The most critical element of open crock fermenting -which this is- is making sure that the cucumbers stay below the surface of the brine – this is done by using the weighted plate or lid they mention above – but when you first do this, you may find as I did, that there is barely enough brine to cover – if so, instead of adding more brine immediately, I suggest you just wait a day or so to see if the cucumbers give up enough of their own juices to add to the brine level. As my “crock” pic (I’m using a plastic commercial kitchen container) shows, very soon the plate has sunken well below the brine level – no worry.
The thing I really like about these very real fermented pickles is that after you finish the fermentation process, you may immediately eat them, place them in the fridge to stay nice and ready for several months, or -best of all- you may put the finished pickles into quart jars and using the heated brine from Step 6 above, pour the brine over the jarred pickles (if you don’t have enough brine for this, make more using the proportions from the recipe), tighten down the lids, and water bathe them for at least 15 minutes (at sea level to 1000′) – done so, they will be good for at least a year on your shelves.
If you wish, you may leave out the vinegar in this recipe, and you will be making a purist version of real Jewish Full Sour Dills. I fully intend to do just that before my supply of cucumbers has called it quits. I’ll try to remember to report back on which one I thought best.
Post Script: This was simply too beautiful for me to ignore! This pic is of my bacteria friends enjoying themselves to the fullest – This is the top of a wide-mouth Mason jar filled with fermenting pickles and brine – this shot was taken on approximately day 10 of the process – BTW, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this mold forming on the top of anything that is fermenting – it is simply evidence that fermentation is taking place – however, it is not something you eat or want to keep around – so, if this appears on your pickle crock (and it will), simply skim it off regularly and let the bacteria have its fun!