Ancient Cultures

Pickles galore in a variety of vessels.

Pickles galore in a variety of vessels.

On these fabulous summer days in the Hudson Valley, we live in a cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables. Out in the garden, in farm fields, stands and markets, I feel giddy with delight—the colors, scents and flavors are so exciting! Lately, I've been experimenting with pickling—especially with the simple, ancient method used to make delicious, crunchy, kosher dill pickles. I've been making pickles from other vegetables, too: baby zucchini, pattypan squash, green, yellow and purple beans, brussels sprouts, beets, carrots, and all kinds and colors of eggplant and peppers. It is amazing that you need only two ingredients to produce a major transformation: salt and water—and no cooking in a hot summer kitchen, either! The vegetables will be preserved for months.

This incredible alchemy is a process called lacto-fermentation. It all happens on a microscopic level with our friends, bacteria, which you'll be growing right on your counter top, yes, on purpose! When you submerge a vegetable in brine it creates an anerobic environment—the vegetables are sealed off from the germy air of the outside world and protected from undesirable microbes that would spoil them. The benign bacteria that create yummy fermentation are already living inside the vegetables. Safe in their salty environment, these bacteria chow down on the vegetable's sugars and produce a bunch of antimicrobial substances: lactic acid (it's sour), carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a few other chemicals. All this happens without damaging the plant material or most of its vitamins, plus lacto-fermation creates lots of B vitamins and natural chemicals that enhance the flavor of the vegetables.

And we're learning now that there's all kinds of good pro-biotic effects—these pickles are great for digestion and for the health of all the good biota that live inside of us. Nicci Cagan, a Stone Ridge healthy food advocate, says, “Fermentation is about creating healthy cultures. It's something we can do together.” I'm not sure if by “together” she means her and you and me, or me and my bacteria.

It's kind of creepy and kind of magical. I have to admit that culturing bacteria on my food didn't feel comfortable at first, even after I reminded myself that some of my favorite foods are the result of bacteria and fermentation: cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, miso, soy sauce, kimchi and hard cider just for starters. But after I made my first batch of cucumber pickles and tasted how good they were, I've gotten braver—and more hungry.

Here is a basic recipe for lacto-fermented pickles from the Stick to Local Foods Cookbook. You can make great pickles with these simple instructions, as long as you pay attention to the important detail

Traditional Pickles

1/3 cup kosher salt, or ¼ cup plain or sea salt (don't use iodized)
1 cup boiling water
2 lbs. fresh vegetables, cut up as you wish
crushed garlic cloves or sliced onions, if you like
a handful of fresh herbs, as desired

Mix the salt and water until dissolved, and let cool to room temperature (you can add a couple of ice cubes). Put the vegetables and herbs into a glass or plastic container that's wide enough for a weight (see below) and pour the brine over, adding enough water to just cover the vegetables, which will tend to float.

Put a small plate on top of the vegetables to push them down. If necessary, put another weight on the plate—you want those veggies to be below the surface of the brine, even if the plate is submerged, too. Cover with a clean tea towel.

Begin sampling after several hours and refrigerate the pickles when they're as sour as you like--it may take several days. If any mold is floating on the surface, just skim it off. Top off the brine with water if you need to.

Keep your pickles very cool or in the fridge. They'll continue to ferment, but more slowly.

If your pickles smell bad or get slimy, don't eat them—they might have gotten contaminated somehow or some veggies, like garlic scapes, just don't pickle well.

Nicci's expert tip: she likes to start with chopped or shredded cabbage, then adds other vegetables like cucumbers, peppers and onions.

There are plenty of resources about fermenting pickles with history, more detail about pickling containers, types of salt, effects of water, and many ways to tweak your pickle-fermenting practice. Here are a few that I find most helpful:

The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz's magnum opus, the lacto-fermentation bible .

Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes, by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, a fascinating source of traditional European recipes.

Nicci Cagan, pickler extraordinaire, is Director of From the Ground Up, a farm-to-school organization in Stone Ridge.