Pickles are so easy to make and are so good for you. It is just a win-win situation so why not give it a try? Fermenting fruits and vegetables has a long history and today it is more popular than ever. I remember my relatives had their pantries filled with jars of pickled vegetables. One vegetable that they made regularly was cucumbers or more exactly pickling cucumbers.
Our ancestors used fermentation to preserve fruits and vegetables so they could eat them all year along. It is hard to imagine today but they had no freezers or canning machines. To supply food for their families they had to rely on the process of lacto-fermentation. So let’s look at what this process is. Lactic acid producing bacteria that is abundant on roots and leaves of plants converts starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits into lactic acid. Lactic acid acts as a natural preservative preventing the formation of putrefying bacteria.
The salt also aids this process creating an alkaline environment that helps destroy the bad bacteria and the good, probiotic ones to thrive. This environment will help keep the bad bacteria out. Using whey can also aid this process.
In addition to its preserving ability, lacto-fermentation also has health benefits for people. Today, these benefits are well known as it is living its renaissance … but for the records, here it goes. Eating smaller amount of fermented foods helps our digestion as it particularly helps revive the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal flora by improving the growth of healthy Lactobacillus acidophilus. So the same substance that was responsible for the preservation of the foods is also beneficial for our digestion. They create enzymes and are antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic as well. In fact, historians believe that pickled vegetables were one of Cleopatra’s beauty secrets for a good reason.
It is easy to make but you will need to get fresh pickling cucumbers. I find farmers’ markets to be the best place or even better if you can grow them yourself. It is crucial that the cukes are fresh and firm as they spoil within a week after they had been picked. Ideally, they should be made within a day of picking. If you can’t make them within a day, you need to keep them in the refrigerator. Also, if your cukes became soft, I found a trick – hehe obviously I have done it many times before. Soak the cukes in cold water and they will become nice and firm again. You need to do this step anyway because soaking will remove the dirt.
Another consideration is size. Any size works great, there are smaller ones and bigger ones. I personally prefer the tiny cucumbers (gerkins) because they are crunchier and have a stronger skin. Some people like the bigger ones. They tend to have larger seeds and are softer. Size also makes a difference in how you process them. If you get bigger ones, you will need to cut them up into four parts or make four slits inside. You do not have to cut the small ones.
So what else will you need besides the pickling cucumbers? You need sterilized large mouthed bottles, salt, water, and spices. This is fairly easy process and should not be skipped. Just boil the bottles in water for 5-10 minutes and that is it. Or you can sterilize them in your dishwasher if it has the ability to sterilize.
I personally prepare my pickles the European way. My favorite combination is dill, mustard seeds, cayenne peppers, horseradish roots and garlic. Of course this list is endless and you can use whatever your heart desires. My great-grandmother also put in grape wine and leaves to enhance the health benefits but you can put other leaves in as well like cucumber, white oak, raspberry, mugwort leaves etc. Oh speaking of health benefits, I always add a slice of sourdough bread. Sourdough is highly nutritious and added to the pickles will further enhance its intestinal flora promoting property.
Once ready, taste the unique tangy flavor that is produced with the lacto-fermentation process. It will not be over-powering like the pickles that are made with vinegar but it will have a refreshing, mild flavor. If the pickles are still raw, just leave them in the jar and try them the next day.
Also, as we eat the pickles, I always try to drink the liquid, the brine that pickles were processed in. It is also beneficial for digestion, so don’t throw it away… and I believe it makes a fabulous summer drink. Once you make it yourself, you will never want to buy pickles at the store again.
Recipe is for a quart of water
- Sterilized wide- mouthed mason bottles (3 pint or 1.5L)
- about 15-20 pickling cucumbers
- 1 Tbsp salt for every pint of boiling water used or use 4 tsp of whey instead of the salt
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Tbsp mustard seeds
- 3 flowers of fresh dill or 1 tsp dried dill. I prefer the larger pickling dill but the dried one works too.
- Small piece of Cayanne pepper
- Small piece of horseradish root
- 1 grape leaf and its top or other leaves like cucumber, oak, raspberry or mugwort would work great too.
- sour dough bread (To prevent the bread from getting mushy, I use the dried out crust or rolls).
- Sterilize the bottles. Put the bottles in a big pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and keep boiling for 5 more minutes.
- Meanwhile soak cukes in cold water for at least 1/2 hour.
- Boil water. When done turn off heat. I let it cool a bit for about 5 minutes before I pour it on the pickles so it can heat to the right temperature on its own.
- Meanwhile, I put all the seasoning on the bottom of the jar except the sour dough bread that I put on the top.
- Rinse the cucumbers well. Cut the bigger ones like I mentioned above. Cut off the blossom end of the cucumbers. Tightly place them in the jar in a vertical position. It is important that you put them tightly into the jar because you will be able to fit more in and also you want to make sure that they don’t move around and are covered with water.
- Pour in the water. You want to make sure the water covers everything including the bread on the top as well. Put a plate on top and let it sit for 3-7 days in a warm place. (In Hungary, you can see pickle jars ‘brewing’ in window seals all over the place. It is quite impressive how creative people can get who live in small places). The time will depend on the amount of heat it is exposed to. It will take 3 days on hot days but can take up to 7 days if it is cooler. You will see bubbles while the brine is ‘cooking’. Avoid direct hot, direct sun.
- Check the bottles everyday and add more boiling water if needed.
- Do a taste check after 3 days or when you think they are ready. They are ready when they don’t taste raw but are not mushy either.
- When they are done put them in the refrigerator. This stops the process of lacto-fermentation that would make the cucumbers too soft if continued too long.
- Now it is ready, enjoy!
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- Paul Pitchford: Healing with Whole Foods
- Sally Fallon: Nourishing Traditions