PICKLING 101: A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO PICKLES
Posted on December 06 2023
In a world awash with fleeting food fads and ephemeral culinary trends, the age-old art of pickling persists as a bastion of both good taste and tradition.
The practice of preserving through fermentation dates back over 4,000 years to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians.
But despite this longevity, pickles are perhaps more popular today than they have ever been. And not just because their acidic, often spicy crunch makes a welcome addition to everything from pies to pizzas.
The popularity of the pickle is also because an increasing body of scientific research suggests that points towards their serious benefits for both physical and mental health outcomes. This is rooted in the fact that fermented pickles are a good source of probiotics which are vital for strong gut health.
“Having healthy gut bacteria can minimise symptoms of an irritable bowel. And it can help us digest food and absorb nutrients”, says dietitian Devon Peart. “We’re even starting to see associations between higher levels of probiotics and lower levels of depression and anxiety.”
Crucially, however, not all pickles are created equal.
Many store-bought varieties and quick pickles, for example, use vinegar and spices rather than actual fermentation to give them their acidic twang. And whilst these can still be a good source of antioxidants and fibre, the frequent inclusion of sugar can negate any health benefits.
Fermented pickles, in contrast, derive their tart, funky flavour from lacto-fermentation alone. This is a two stage chemical process whereby vegetables are submerged in a salty brine. In the first stage the salt kills off any harmful bacteria in the vegetables with only good bacteria (called Lactobacillus) surviving.Then in the second stage these bacteria convert lactose and other sugars present in the food into lactic acid. This creates an acidic environment that safely preserves the vegetables and imparts a distinctive tangy flavour.
Lacto-fermentation works terrifically well with traditional choices such as cucumbers and courgettes; but radishes, carrots, runner and french beans, mangetout, grated, chillies and red peppers are also delicious.
To get started you’ll need to make a simple brine by dissolving salt into a saucepan hot water. Approximately two tablespoons of salt per litre of water works well most for most vegetables. But cucumbers and courgettes can handle a little extra if you like them really punchy.
Once the salt is dissolved, add additional flavourings to the water and allow it to cool. Black peppercorns, coriander, mustard seeds and dill blossoms work particularly well. But you could also include cumin, garlic cloves, fennel or even Szechuan peppercorns for a numbing, citrusy heat.
Whilst the brine cools, slice your chosen vegetables and begin layering them in the bottom of a sterilised fermentation jar. Once the vegetables reach the top of the jar, pour in the cooled brine until it covers everything. Place a cabbage leaf on top so that the vegetables remain submerged in the brine whilst they ferment. Then seal and close the jar.
Store the jar in a warm area in your kitchen to aid the chemical processes happening within. And from time-to-time vent the jar to allow excess carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the fermentation) out. Failure to do this can result in rather messy, very smelly explosions.
Depending on the size of the vegetables and strength of the pickle, it will take about ten days to two weeks for the vegetables to achieve their peak deliciousness. At this stage transfer the jar to a fridge or cool spot to slow down the fermentation. You can keep them here for another week or so; but beyond that they’ll likely be too funky for the faint of heart.