By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
I’m at 30,000 feet right now, on my way back from Tampa, Fla. Last week I left home with a suitcase full of pickle making supplies and a lengthy note to the TSA baggage inspectors. Wherever I go, you can nearly always find an array of food- making supplies (coming and going), accompanied by the omnipresent note to TSA, in my luggage. It may be overkill, but I feel like full disclosure will ensure better handling of my products. The notes, carefully penned, go something like this:
Dear TSA, the white substance in the baggie that’s inside the large bubble wrapped canning jar is sea-salt. I know it may seem odd, but I am on my way to Florida to make pickles. The green organic material in the other small baggie is pickling spice. The large root inside the big baggie, covered with the damp paper towels and wrapped in tin foil is horseradish, which I add to the pickles to make them crisp. Thank you in advance for carefully rewrapping all these items. Yours truly, Chef Marcia.
I find nothing odd about hauling pickle making supplies all the way to Florida. I have a family member there who really loves my dill pickles, and since the last batch cost more than $50 to ship, it seemed logical to make them for him while I was there. Lacto-fermented foods are the ultimate of comfort/cure-alls, and pickles prepared this way are not only delicious but offer a plethora of health benefits. It was also a great excuse to venture out in the sunshine to local farmers markets, filled with the ripe fruits and colorful vegetables that we’re only dreaming of this time of year in North Idaho. It turns out I could have left the horseradish home because I discovered bigger, fresher and firmer roots at many of the stalls in the Florida markets. Satisfied with my finds, I departed the last market, armed with dozens of small, firm cucumbers and fresh garlic and headed to my host’s home, where I immediately launched into my pickle-making project.
Most people think about beer or wine when they hear the term fermentation. While certain yeasts are used to convert the sugars in grape juice or grains into alcohol, it is bacteria that are responsible for lacto-fermentation. The “lacto” portion of the term refers to a specific species of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus. Various strains of these bacteria are present on the surface of all plants, especially those growing close to the ground, like cucumbers.
Beyond preservation advantages, lacto-fermentation also increases or preserves the vitamin and enzyme levels, as well as digestibility, of the fermented food. In addition, lactobacillus organisms provide probiotics that will naturally contribute to your good health.
The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermented food. Europeans consume lacto-fermented dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs and root vegetables. The Alaskan Inuit ferment fish, and many Asian cuisines are known for pickled vegetables, sauces and kimchi. Farming societies in central Africa are known for lacto-fermented porridges made from soured grains.
Pickles and relishes have always been an American food tradition. At one time they were mostly processed the old fashioned way, but with the advent of industrialization, most commercial products were soon prepared with heat and vinegar, offering none of the health benefits provided with lactic acid.
Besides pickles, I ferment all kinds of vegetables, like cabbage (sauerkraut), carrot sticks, radishes, asparagus and garlic. And recently, while I was south, I discovered a bonus. Don’t throw away the brine—save it for the cocktail hour.
That’s right, folks, the cocktail hour. Be the first on your block to serve a Pickleback, a type of shot in which a shot of whiskey is chased by a shot of pickle brine. Alternatively, the shot of whiskey can be chased by a bite of a pickle or even a whole pickle. The pickle (or brine) works to neutralize both the taste of the whiskey and the burn from the alcohol. Apparently in some areas the Pickleback has become so popular that bars can’t keep up with the demand for brine. Some devotees swear the brine not only prevents hangovers, but will also cure a cold. Who knew a jar of homemade pickles would just keep on giving?
As soon as I get home, unpack the Florida cukes (carefully packed in bubble wrap with obligatory TSA note) and catch a few hours of sleep, I’ll be making pickles. Hopefully I’ll have some brine ready for next week-end.
Makes 4 pounds of pickles.
You can use grape leaves (or other leaves with tannin) or horseradish to produce crisper pickles. Shorter fermentation period also produces crisper pickles.
•4 pounds small pickling cucumbers (about 4 inches long). Trim the blossom end off.
Stir together to dissolve the salt:
•½ gallon distilled water
•5 tablespoons kosher salt
Place in the bottom of each of two clean, ½-gallon mason jars:
•Peeled cloves from 1 head garlic (2 heads of garlic total)
•4 to 5 grape leaves (8 to 10 total) or 4 or 5 strips fresh horseradish root, washed and peeled
•4 to 5 dill sprigs (8 to 10 total)
•2 teaspoons pickling spice
•Wedge the cucumbers into the jars tightly, starting with larger cucumbers and filling in with smaller ones. Wedge small cucumbers in at the top so that the curve of the jars will hold them under the brine.
•Fill the jars with enough brine to cover the cucumbers completely, then cover the jar with a loose lid.
•Check the progress of the fermentation daily. Make sure the cucumbers are completely immersed, they cannot be exposed to air or they will mold (I use clean lids from cottage cheese cartons and cut them a bit larger than the mouth of the jar, and press them past the neck to force the cucumbers below the liquid line). The brine will start to get cloudy and smell slightly sour, and the cucumbers will begin to soften. Taste the cucumbers as they ferment to see how sour you want them.
•In warmer weather fermentation tends to happen faster than in cooler weather. Half sour pickles may be done in as few as 5 days, or they may take a week or more.
•When fermentation is complete, tighten the lids, and transfer the jars to the refrigerator. After you eat the pickles, remember to save the brine!
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