Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cookin' It Old School: Fermented Refrigerator Pickles

I love the idea of preserving fresh foods. There’s just something about taking a vegetable or a fresh crisp piece of fruit, stuffing it in a jar and boiling the hell out of it that just makes my heart sing. My first experience of preservation was several years ago when my sister invited me over to help her can some dill pickles. Having always wanted to learn this process, I grabbed my purse and headed on over, first stopping by my local farmers’ market to pick up some pickling cucumbers. For those of you who have purchased these, you can probably vouch for the fact that most often they are quite expensive. I assure you that unless you have your own farm or garden, saving money is not usually the main objective in pickle making.

Fermented Refrigerator Pickles

To get started you really need to sanitize most everything in the kitchen. My sister made this easy by putting the jars in the dishwasher and hitting “sterilize” and simmering the rings and lids in a small pot on the stove. While that was going on she made a salt and vinegar brine by combining two old recipes that she found in a couple of church cookbooks. We washed each cucumber thoroughly and packed them in ice to thoroughly chill them (she swears that this make the pickles crisp).

We packed the very cold cucumbers and hot brine into the jars, along with some garlic and a few spices and fitted them with lids and rings before gently dropping them into the boiling cauldron she had on the stove. After a few minutes, we removed them from their water bath and left them to cool on a towel and waited for the vacuum to form and the lids to pop. Mission accomplished. We each landed up with six jars of the most delicious $35 a quart dill pickles I had ever eaten.

About 5 years ago I decided to give pickles another try on my own. I assembled all of the necessary accoutrements and went for it. The only sticky wicket that I ran across was the brine recipe. Since it had been a few years, my sister had forgotten which recipes she had used so, deciding that this must be pretty easy, I found one I felt pretty comfortable with and used it. Everything went well, my lids all popped and they looked just beautiful. After waiting the suggested month, I popped a jar open and bit into one. The brine was so vinegary and salty that I can only describe it as one molecule off from gasoline. All that time and expense completely wasted. I was totally bummed and hung up my pickle making gloves for six years. I’ve since had great luck with jams and preserves but have not attempted anything with vinegar in all this time.

As they say, time heals all wounds so this year when I ran across pickling cucs for 49 cents a pound I figured I had nothing to lose but about 5 bucks and a little time. In searching for brine recipes I decided to scrap that all together and try fermenting my pickles. I really liked this idea because since no vinegar is used, I can stop the fermentation process at any time I feel the taste is just right for me. It does take a little more time and patience but the thought of using a time honored and ancient method of preservation was really intriguing to me.

This process, properly called lacto or lactic fermentation, was the primary method for preserving vegetables before heat sterilization was discovered. The vegetables are cut up and seasoned with salt (or a mild brine) and herbs, and left to soak in their own juice. Lactic microbial organisms develop spontaneously and convert the natural sugars of the vegetable into lactic acid. This environment rapidly acidifies, to the point that it becomes impossible for the bacteria responsible for food spoilage to multiply. This process is so easy and effective that it is a shame it has almost disappeared from use.

Day One - Just getting started: fresh cucumbers, spices and salted water are combined in a 2 gallon glass jar with a loose fitting lid and weighed down with a couple of heavy ceramic tea plates

Day Four: Aged to my idea of perfection. The brine is cloudy but with hardly a trace of any "scum" at the top and a fresh dill scent.

Getting started is really simple all you need are small pickling cucumbers, salt, garlic cloves, pickling spices or a blend of your own and some water. I have read that it is best to trim 1/16" off the blossom end of the cucumber as it may contain an enzyme that can cause the pickle to be limp and soggy. Since I was planning on processing mine after fermentation I used one big jar because I thought it was easier but you can also use 5 or so quart jars. You place all of your ingredients together, weighing down the pickles with a weight to prevent any floaters which could cause spoilage, and place them in a dark place to do their stuff.

I checked my brew every morning and removed any scum (I know, sounds gross, but stay with me here) that accumulated at the top of the brine or any foul odor which signals spoilage, and tasted one to check for the perfect flavor. After four days I decided mine were aged to perfection and I drained off the brine and boiled it and ran it through a coffee filter in an effort to clear the cloudiness (which didn’t really work, but oh well they still taste great) and processed them in jars for longer storage. If you want to skip this step, pack the pickles in the brine and refrigerate until ready to use. They can last for up to 6 months when kept sealed and refrigerated. Always check any preserved food for appearance and smell before consuming them. If anything doesn’t seem right, discard them. This is now my answer to gasoline pickles. They are delicious.

Finished Product. Processed, ready and waiting. I got 5 quarts of pickles from my 8 (give or take) pounds of cucumbers. I made 2 quarts of unprocessed refrigerator pickles and 3 processed quarts (for more information about processing pickles click here) that I will store in a cool dry place until I am ready. I know without tasting that my unprocessed pickles with be a bit crisper than the three that were processed but they will last much longer. Give and take. . .

The recipe I used was one from Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking, which was recommended by David Lebovitz. David is one of my personal heroes and always a great source of information. His recipe for sour cherry preserves is my favorite of all time and the only one I ever use. I also used a reference book that I won last year from Angela Buchanan over at Foodie Road Show called Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. This book is packed with great ideas and several methods of preserving foods from packing them in oil to lacto fermentation. What a great book Angela, thanks again. I really had fun with my little science project and plan on trying fermenting cabbage for sauerkraut sometime soon. I will definitely be making some fruit preserves and some sun dried tomatoes packed in oil later on in the summer so stay tuned for more deliciousness in a jar.
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