Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pickle FAQ

A few weeks ago I posted my pickle making tutorial and last winter I posted my Kraut 101 tutorial. Since then I have had many, many requests for a FAQ to answer some other nagging pickle making questions. So here they are, but remember, I'm just one pickle maker. My answers are not definitive and generally not "researched". They are synthesized from what I have read and what I have experienced over the years. The best way to answer you own pickle making questions is to start making pickles!

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1) How do I know my pickles are fermenting? How you know they're ready to go in the refrigerator?

In the pickle tutorial I recommend that you open the jar to smell and taste the pickles every day after you start them. This way you will get to see the changes that start happening right away. Signs of fermentation include fizzing or bubbling of the brine, the lid popping when you open it and sour smells or tastes in the brine or vegetables.

Sally Fallon suggests that your pickles or kraut stay on the counter for 3 days before transferring them to the fridge. I say, give them a day or two after they show signs of fermentation. Exactly when they go in the fridge is one of those variables that separates artisan products from industrial products. It's up to the artisan to decide based on their own experience and intuition. If it has been warm and the fermentation has gone quickly I am more likely to put them in the fridge as soon as they start fizzing. If it's cooler and it has taken a few days for the fizzing to get going I might wait another day or even two before putting them in the fridge. Remember, fermentation will continue in the fridge just at a slower pace. I feel it is important to give the microbes enough time in the "nursery" of the room temperatures before putting them in the cold temps to age.

2) My grandma's favorite pickle recipe calls for vinegar. Why don't your pickles have vinegar in them?

There are two kinds of pickles in the world, vinegar pickles and brined pickles. To show the relationship between vinegar pickles, brined pickles and other fermented foods imagine a Venn diagram (remember those from like 3rd grade?). One circle is fermented foods like yogurt, beer, vinegar and sourdough. The other circle is pickles like vinegar pickles, Asian vinegar pickles, homemade pickles in a vinegar brine, those British pickles like Branson pickles and pickled onions and any kind of pickled fish or egg or pigs feet in vinegar. Where the two circles overlap are fermented pickles like sauerkraut, kim chi, kosher dill pickles and anything made with my recipe for brined pickles.

The bottom line is that the English word pickle simply means something preserved in acid. Vinegar pickles use vinegar (a product of fermentation) to preserve the food in a completely shelf stable form. Brined pickles use salt to set up an environment in which lactic acid producing bacteria thrive and preserve the food in the acid they produce when they eat the sugars in the food. Brined pickles are a living thing (unless you cook them or can them) that can last a long time in the proper storage conditions, but are not shelf stable indefinitely.

There is nothing wrong with vinegar pickles, especially home made vinegar pickles. Home made pickles still benefit from you knowing exactly how they were made and who grew the vegetables, and are free of industrial sugars and colorings so often found in commercial pickles. If your family loves Grandma's bread and butter pickles, by all means, keep making them! But try fermented pickles, too.

Lastly, I have heard of some people adding small quantities of raw apple cider vinegar to their brined pickles because they like the flavor. They say they taste more like the vinegar pickles their family is used to. So long as your pickles show signs of fermentation then you are making fermented or brined pickles. If you don't like the way your salt only pickles taste, try some vinegar. They're your pickles, after all.

3) Sally Fallon's recipe calls for using whey but you use just salt. What gives?

The recipes in Nourishing Traditions for fermented vegetables all use whey from raw milk, yogurt or kefir as an inoculant to jumpstart the right kind of bacteria. Her instructions say that if you can't tolerate dairy to use extra salt instead of the whey. In all my reading I've never seen these instructions elsewhere, but I have seen instructions to use brine from a previous batch as an inoculant. My guess is that Sally saw these instructions and made the intuitive leap that whey would do the same thing. Artisan foods made by artisans all have slightly different methods of production.

I don't use whey because a) I never seem to have any around and b) because when I do I am not as fond of the results. I believe that a jar of fermenting vegetables is like a forest ecosystem after a burn or a clear cut. New populations of bacteria colonize the environment and change the environment making it possible for other populations to grow. In order to get the most diversity this succession should happen relatively slowly. For a jar of sauerkraut I think letting the bacterial populations develop over the course of 2-5 days (or more) leads to the a diversity that causes interesting depth of flavor, lack of mushiness and generally a higher quality product.

I feel like adding too much inoculant in the form of mature brine is like planting native trees in the burn area. Those trees aren't supposed to be there yet, they were supposed to come in after other shrubs and herbs prepared the soil for those trees. It may turn out just fine, but you may get an imbalanced ecosystem. Using the same metaphor, adding whey is like planting non-native trees in that same burned landscape. They're not supposed to be there now and they aren't supposed to be there later, either. You may end up with a really diverse and interesting landscape, like a suburban neighborhood with a mix of native trees and non-native ornamentals and fruit trees, but you may also get a really off balance ecosystem.

Again, just like with the vinegar, there are plenty of folks who use whey and get a great product. Others report cheesy flavors or mushy pickles. If you have whey available give it a try! You might end up with a great pickle. If you have leftover brine, try using that. If you have none of the above, or even if you do, try some with just salt. You are the artisan, make your own pickles the way that works best for your kitchen, your vegetables and your tastes.

4) Sandor Katz uses crocks with weights to ferment his vegetables but you and Sally Fallon use jars with lids. What's up with that? What about those Harsch crocks or the Picklemeister?

The bacteria we invite in to ferment our vegetables require some specific habitat. They want a certain level of saltiness, a certain temperature range and a certain amount of oxygen to do their job properly. Lactic acid fermentation is basically an anaerobic fermentation, which means our little bacterial friends like very little oxygen around when they are doing their work. There are many ways to keep oxygen away from the fermenting vegetables.

The traditional method for keeping your fermenting vegetables anaerobic is to use a crock, brine and a weight. The vegetables go into the earthenware crock (which is non-reactive to the acid and stays nice and cool), salty brine is poured over them or created by the salt drawing water out of the vegetables and the the weight keeps the vegetables under the water. The water is a relatively anaerobic environment and fermentation can happen very effectively there. Usually a cloth is placed over top of the crock to keep flies and dust out and the brine is topped up if it evaporates out.

Sally Fallon and I use jars with tight fitting lids to keep our ferments anaerobic. By packing a jar almost full of vegetables and brine and keeping a lid on most of the time keeps the oxygen out. I do sometimes push shredded vegetables down into the brine with a whole leaf because I notice some discoloration or excessive mushiness when I don't. At the same time, vegetables like mushrooms seem to float like corks but still ferment just fine. I have found that opening the lid every day to inspect or taste the pickles doesn't cause ruin. The pickles seem to keep on fermenting with no problem. In fact, it is a good idea to check the pickles regularly because there is no way for gas to escape from the jars. You can end up with some highly carbonated pickles and serious spill over (think shaken up soda bottle) if you aren't careful. I recommend opening your jars over the sink until you get a hang of how they are going to react.

The Harsch crock is a new twist on the old crock method. It is an earthenware crock with a stone weight and a lid that fits into a water filled lip. You fill the crock with vegetables and brine, weight them down with the stone and put the lid on. The water filled lip acts like an air lock to allow gas out but not allow oxygen in. The Picklemeister is a glass jar with a plastic lid fitted with a true airlock. This is a bit of plastic tubing with water in it that allows gas out but doesn't allow oxygen in. People who use these products report great success with their pickle making and since I've never used them I can say nothing for or against them. Well, actually, I can. Harsch crocks go for over 100 dollars even for their smallest size (approx 2 gallons) and the Picklemeister goes for about 20 for a 1 gallon jar. I don't believe you need to shell out that kind of cash to make good pickles, and sometimes I like making a pint or a half pint at a time. If you really want to buy one of these products I'm not going to stop you, but unless you are regularly making gallons and gallons of fermented vegetables at a time I think your money would be better spent on good quality produce.

5) It's summer in L.A./Phoenix/Florida/Equitorial Africa and I finally got motivated to try making sauerkraut. It was bubbly the afternoon after I made it and I'm afraid it's going to turn into a sauerkraut monster. Help!

Like all organisms that don't make their own body heat our friendly pickle bacteria need a certain temperature range to do their jobs properly. If they are too cold they can't metabolize very quickly but they work better the warmer it is up to a point where they die from the heat. Luckily, standard room temperatures are good temperatures for lactic bacteria. If it is above 80 degrees or so you get into the range where the bacteria are eating and producing acid and gas so quickly we can run into problems. If we go back to that forest succession metaphor, excessively warm temperatures are like 24 hours of sunlight or super fertilizer in that new forest. The growth is quick and spindly instead of steady and robust. The only time I've ever had pickles or kraut go "bad" was when I started a batch of kraut during a heat wave. They ended up being mushy and smelly and gross.

What to do about excessive temperatures? The obvious solution is to wait until the proper season and let nature do the work of keeping everything the right temperature. Sauerkraut making is traditionally an autumn activity to take advantage of both the cabbage harvest and the cooler temperatures. In Korea they make a summer kim chi that is used quickly as opposed to the autumn kim chi which is stored all winter. If you can't wait you could try to find the coolest place in your house. Perhaps your basement is cooler, or an interior closet. You could also try a cooler with ice packs or cool water. If you come up with a great solution, let me know!

6) The instructions say to store the pickles in the fridge. My fridge is already full of food, what are my other storage options?

Buy another fridge. Joking! But only a little. I actually have two fridges and have both of them (plus their freezers) full of food and ferments. Not exactly the most economical or sustainable option, but it's what I have. What you need is a place where the temperatures are cooler than room temperature, but above freezing. Refrigerators are a simple way to get these temperatures in this land of electricity and manufactured goods, but not the only way.

Traditionally, fermented vegetables would be kept in a crock in a root cellar. Root cellars are unheated rooms with earth floors and proper ventilation to keep them below 40 or 50 degrees F, but not below freezing. Unlike refrigerators, root cellars need to have high humidity to keep the vegetables stored in them in prime condition. Earthenware crocks stay cool and the open top of the crock allows for gas to escape without human intervention making them perfect for long term storage of fermented vegetables. There are lots of articles available on the internet to help you transform an unheated basement into a root cellar or to build one separate from your house. If keeping ferments in a root cellar you might want to experiment with extra salt in the brine. This will keep the bacteria population lower and slow fermentation. This might extend shelf life. Experiment and see what works for you.

If you don't have either of these options you are, again, going to have to use nature to do the hard work. An unheated room or porch that stays cold but not freezing would be fine winter storage for fermented foods. A cooler and ice could work too, but would require plenty of supervision to make sure it stays cool. If you don't have room in your fridge for lots of jars then you are going to have to get creative with when and how you make fermented vegetables. Remember, using the jar method you can make them in any size quantity you want from babyfood jars to gallon jugs.

7) My pickles are mushy. Ga-ross. How to keep them crunchy?

This is the 64,000 dollar question in fermenting cucumbers. Someone knows the secret, it just isn't me. Sandor Katz's recipe for sour cucumber pickles calls for two things different than my spicy carrot recipe. One is the addition of grape, sour cherry or horseradish leaves, and the other is more salt. I have heard of this grape, sour cherry or horseradish leaf theory before and even tried it. The idea is that the tannins in the leaves don't let the pickles get mushy. Other people have used tea or oak leaves as they are also very high in tannins. Sandor's recipe calls for 3 tbs of salt per quart of water to make the pickle brine. This results in a brine considerably saltier than my "too salty to be tasty, not salty enough to be gross" method. I recently made a batch of cucumber pickles with Sandor's recipe and about 6 fresh grape leaves and still have mushy pickles. Any of you know the secret?

A couple other things I think about when I think about mushy pickles. One is speed and temperature of fermentation. Especially with sauerkraut (which I have had success in not getting mushy) I find a slow, cool fermentation best for the taste and texture. Again, doing these ferments in the fall or winter will help. Unfortunately, cucumbers are ripe in the heat of the summer. Also, firmer, less watery vegetables do best at staying crunchy. I've never had a mushy fermented carrot, but cucumbers are very prone to mushy. Slicing cucumbers are worse than pickling cucumbers. In my last batch I had one tiny little gherkin sized cuke that was not mushy at all, and another larger cuke that was a little old and it was really mushy. But again, folks make crispy fermented cucumbers out of larger sized cucumbers, so what's the secret?

If you have any thoughts, or any tips, let me know! I'd love to know the secret, and I'd love to be able to pass it along. Keep experimenting out there, and let's see what we can come up with.

8) My kids love sweet pickles but fermented pickles are always so tart. Do you have a sweet pickle recipe?

Nope, I haven't liked sweet pickles since I was about five. I spilled a jar on my third favorite stuffed animal and it always smelled like sweet pickle. Gross. A quick google search has given me some ideas on sweet pickles, though.

This raw vegan blog has a cucumber bell pepper fermented relish that might work for you. Other folks on the DiscussingNT yahoogroup have used kombucha vinegar or raw cider vinegar to pickle cucumbers with or without stevia. These might not be true brined pickles, but they would have live probiotics from the kombucha or raw vinegar. Shannon over at Nourishing Days has a canned vinegar sweet pickle recipe that would not be probiotic at all, but calls for honey instead of sugar. If you've got a sweet pickle recipe worth sharing, let me know!

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If you have more questions about fermenting or about your pickles or kraut, let me know! There may be enough for a second pickle FAQ in another few weeks!

And don't forget to check out Real Food Wednesday for more recipes and posts from real food kitchens!


  1. Great advice. Thanks for taking the time to answers these questions!!

  2. I've always put my cukes in ice water before making pickles, to keep them from being mushy HOWEVER, that was for a vinegar pickle that was hot water processed. It may or may not help with a fermented pickle.

    How long do you leave your pickles in the frig before you eat them or are they ready as soon as they are finished fermenting?

    I have a very good vinegar pickle recipe and my kids tear through them like crazy, so I would have to have a good supply going on the ferments!!

  3. Great post, thanks! I do pickled cucs using Sandor Kraut's basic recipe and horseradish leaves and have had tremendous success--very crispy cucs. Unfortunately, we ran out of room in our small ferment fridge and I had to give away several jars of my pickles and we RAN OUT by April this year! The horror! We're getting a bigger 2nd fridge this year, but also experimenting with turning our basement bathroom into a root cellar.

  4. So what is it that keeps botulism from growing since it is an anerobic environment? Is it the lactic acid? The salt? I just don't wanna poison my family, lol, and I've heard horror stories about tainted homemade salsa. (I realize we're talking about pickles and not salsa, but I just wondered). Thanks!!

  5. I may have to try just salt like Katz next time I do l-f pickles. My grandmother used to have a 15-gallon crock for saurkraut! Isn't that awesome??!! This is a super-informative post; well done.

  6. April - botulism is not a problem in home fermented foods. The bacteria creates a spore and toxin when heated and kept in a low acid environment, like improperly prepared home canned meat, salsa or vegetables. Lacto fermented vegetables are high acid, and never heated. When Sandor Katz asked Koreans about getting sick from kim chi they looked at him like he was crazy. They lacto ferment gallons of vegetables every year and no one has ever heard of anyone getting sick.

  7. Cool Alyss, thank you so much! I have googled info on botulism like crazy trying to find out exactly "how" it occurs, and couldn't find such a plain explanation anywhere. Thanks for setting my mind at ease :-).

  8. very timely ! I am glad that I found this before I make a big mess LOL !!
    super great info :)

  9. Awesome again!! I learned that you can also use a fresh bay leaf to keep the pickles crisp. I just started employing this method as I found some fresh bay leaves at my coop. However, I haven't kept pickles around long enough to know how well it works, but so far no soggy pickles!! :D

  10. what about the sodium content of the fermented vegetables? I haven't read any information about that and if it is a problem for people needing to limit sodium intake. thanks.

  11. mammadeb - the salt doesn't go anywhere, so fermented vegetables are pretty high in salt. Full array sea salt is not the same thing as purified, iodized table salt so do some research into WHY limiting salt is suggested for your condition. If you are eating real foods you are going to be getting less salt than if you eat a diet high in processed food, so you may have more room for good salty foods like pickles and sauerkraut. Sandor Katz does have a couple low or no salt sauerkraut recipes on his website and in his book, but I've never tried them.

  12. My first pickle batches were by a South Asian method. I was sun drying a bit to get a concentrated vegetable mass, pressing down very hard to get strong juice with the salt, then covering with oil. Fermentation was in full sun at high heat with no probs. Delicious result, especially with bamboo shoots (raw but well leached).

    Just tried sliced cucumbers with no wilting (our famous Australian heatwave is long gone!) and no oil. Result is fizzy and mushy. Next time I do it Euro style, I'm borrowing your idea and using the fridge after a couple of days. (Interestingly, some Asian cabbage done in a Harsch crock had no problems with fizz or sloppiness, in spite of the summer.)

    Many thanks for the blog and the ideas.


  13. Is it okay to eat the fizzy pickles? The batch I made with whey (per Fallon's recipe) was fizzy and discolored. The batch I made with 2 Tbsp salt (again, per Fallon's recipe) was crisp and yummy, if just a bit too salty for me. I used pickling cukes, sliced, and left them out for two days before refrigerating.

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  16. Just did a slam bam kind of pickling attempt... never fermented vegetables before.
    So I cut up cucumbers plus a little be of garlic and onion.... put them in salt water in a jar.....with a one way valve thingy on the top...
    I had no starter... so I opened a few probiotic capsules guaranteed to have live things in it... Looks like the salt would kill them....Oh well..
    Do you think I'll get fermented cucumbers?

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