By Cat, Sept 2016 (Photo, right, by Cat)
The following article was originally written by me for The EssentiaList, the blog for our local sustainability group. I’ve updated it with learnings and new-findings.
What are Pickling and Lacto-Fermentation?
Pickling, or fermentation, is a method of preserving foods, primarily used for fruits and vegetables. Today when we think of pickled foods, we think of vegetables, such as cucumbers, pickled with vinegar (acetic acid). But in times gone by, the preferable way to pickle was simply by fermenting the food in a saline bath, utilizing good microbials present everywhere.
Pickling vs Lacto-Fermentation
Many people don’t realize how different true fermented foods are from “pickled foods;” but it is the former that is addressed in the quote, above. From Wild Brine [coloring text, and text in square brackets is mine]:
- “Pickling vs. fermenting? It’s the difference between a tasty sour treat of no great health benefit [i.e. pickling]; and a food that’s raw, rich in nutrition, alive with beneficial probiotics, and that beats pickles hands down for great flavor [i.e. fermented].”
- “Pickling is an ancient method of preserving vegetables by immersing them in a solution of boiling vinegar. .. The hot liquid kills microorganisms on the food, including any probiotic “good guys.” The heat also destroys any enzymes in the vegetables.”
- “Fermented vegetables [and/or fruits] are chopped raw and placed in a vessel with a light, salty brine—usually about 2 or 3 percent salt. Filtered water is mixed with the vegetables’ natural juices to make enough liquid to keep the vegetables submerged. … Within a few days, lactic acid bacteria turn sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid and a range of other delicious and nutritious compounds. The more lactic acid the bacteria produce, the more spoilage organisms are eliminated. Within a short time, the acid buildup cleanses the fermented mixture of all unhealthy organisms.”
The practical difference between Pickling and Fermentation is:
- Pickling with vinegar does not preserve the product, so it needs to be heat-treated (canned), which destroys the probiotics and some of the nutrients.
- Lacto-fermenting does preserve the product (if it is stored in a cool place) so that canning is not needed.
For example, when making wine, certain yeasts living on the grapes, convert the sugars in the grapes to alcohol. A similar process is used in making beer, or sourdough bread. You don’t have to add these yeasts, they are simply present everywhere.
In addition to fermenting yeasts, there are also fermenting bacteria present all around us (and also in our gut), that convert the sugars in foods to lactic acid. Lacto-bacteria do the hard work of lacto-fermentation to preserve foods, and provide health benefits, and they are naturally present in the fresh foods you want to ferment. A perfect example is old-fashioned sauerkraut.
Lactic acid is preferred over vinegar (acetic acid) because it is beneficial to our body. Unlike other fermentation products such as acetic acid and alcohol which have to be de- toxified in the liver, lactic acid is actually used by the body. Furthermore, the lacto- bacteria also produce other beneficial substances during fermentation, such as choline.
NOTE: while acidophilus and bifidus present in dairy whey are lacto-bacteria, they ferment lactose (a type of sugar), but not the sugars present in vegetables. For this reason, they don’t produce as good a product when used as a starter for fermenting vegetables. Instead, let the native bacteria in the vegetables do the work, or add a powdered culture for vegetables.
Benefits of Pickling and Fermentation
- Preservation of raw foods;
- Aid digestion: Fermentation produces enzymes, lactic acid and beneficial bacteria that play important roles in proper digestion of other foods;
- Increase nutrient content: Lacto-bacteria produce many enzymes, vitamins and other nutrients not available in the food before fermentation;
- Stimulate the immune system.
How does this work?
The idea is to keep putrefying and disease-causing micro-organisms from establishing colonies in the food. An acidic environment (from vinegar or lactic acid) inhibits the growth of these bad bugs. But until a sufficient level of acidity is established, salt is added to the fermenting food, because it prevents the bad bugs from becoming established.
Using a starter culture
About the starter culture used to jump-start the fermentation process and eliminate (or reduce) the need for added salt. Lacto-bacteria also produce antibiotic substances to keep bad bugs at bay:
It is an inoculant that contains the lacto-fermenting bacteria that ferment the fresh food. While a culture is an optional ingredient for fermenting veggies (cabbage, etc.), it is a must when fermenting fruits like mango, papaya, peaches, apples and even cucumbers (yes, that’s a fruit, technically).
In these recipes (from Eat Fat, Lose Fat; or from Nourishing Traditions, both by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.) liquid whey (from culturing milk and milk products) is used as the “culture;” whey is rich in both lactic acid and lacto-bacteria, and is easily obtained from cultured yogurt. However, it leaves a fine white color in the juices of the fermented product.
For this reason, and after much experimentation, I prefer to use leftover culture from a previous fermentation batch. I make fermented orange frequently, so use the excess liquid from that as the culture for other fruits. I can also use it for fermenting sweet veggies such as beets or sweet pickles (like Bread and Butter Pickles). For other veggies, I use excess liquid from fermenting onions or garlic as the culture if I don’t have leftover culture from a previous batch of the veggies.
Another option is to use powdered culture, such as Body Ecology’s Starter Culture (see Amazon ASIN B018KTH30W). See also Probiotics Center (13) for more info.
Adding a starter culture is optional for pickling vegetables, but essential for pickling fruits.
I used to recommend whey as the starter (as I learned from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enid, Ph.D.), because whey is rich in both lactic acid and lacto-bacteria, and is easily obtained from cultured yogurt. But after experimenting, I’ve concluded that using fermenting liquid from another lacto-fermented vegetable product (such as sauerkraut or fermented garlic) produces a better result.
See also Delicious Obsessions (5) for more.
Submerge the veggies: It is important to keep the fermenting food submerged in the salt-water bath during the fermenting period. Typically a stoneware crock is used to contain the fermenting brew, and an old dinner plate or wood ‘lid’ weighted with a brick or stone is used to keep it submerged (see ‘Crocks’ below).
For smaller batches in a Mason jar, keeping the contents submerged can be tricky. (see ‘Mason Jar with lid’ below). Another option is to add a Go-Ferment! (8) or FARMcurious (9) kit, which provide an anaerobic environment in a Mason Jar, so that complete submersion is not necessary.
Anaerobic environment is recommended by those who believe fermenting fruits/veggies do best in an oxygen-free container, plus it prevents mold and eliminates the need to keep the fermenting food completely submerged. (4) While maintaining an oxygen-free environment is controversial, it makes the process easier; see Sandor Katz’s post on the Wild Fermentation blog (10).
Temperature: For the first few days, keep the ferment at room temperature. Then move to a cool dark place for long-term storage where it will continue to ferment and develop flavor.
Crocks: These are useful for large batches, such as sauerkraut. Crocks for pickling and lacto-fermentation should be glazed inside and out with a lead- free glaze, to be safe for food. Be sure to select a size into which one of your plates, or a wood ‘lid’ (weighted down with a sterilized brick or stone) will fit snugly.
Mason Jar with lid: For smaller batches, if you don’t have a small fermenting crock, keeping the contents submerged can be tricky. Most people use a mason jar with lid, but it can be difficult finding a way to weight down the contents inside the jar. Options:
- Use rocks or a glass fermentation weight (such as from G0 Ferment (8) or Year of Plenty as in photo, right (12)) that are well washed and sterilized, to place on the contents. This does not provide an anaerobic environment.
- Use a smaller jar that can fit inside the mason jar’s opening, then fill the smaller jar with water to weight it down. For an anaerobic environment, insert the smaller jar upside down, and push it down so that it is below the top of the jar. While lowering the smaller jar, work it so that the fermenting contents are inside the smaller jar. Then screw on the outside jar’s lid. NOTE: I have not tried this ‘upside-down’ method.
- Use a Pickl-it, G0-Ferment, or Probiotic jar; all of which provide an anaerobic environment. (see below).
Anaerobic jars: A Mason jar does not provide an anaerobic environment; while this need is controversial, if you want an anaerobic environment for your ferment, don’t despair, as there are options, as in photo, right, from Pickl-it (6):
- Pickl-it jars (with airtight lid that allows carbon dioxide to escape) (6). See photo, right;
- The Probiotic Jar (7), similar to Pickl-it.
- Use a Pickl-it kit to convert a Fido glass jar (with rubber gasket and clamp lid); convert a Mason jar with a Go-Ferment! kit (8) or FARMcurious kit (9)
- Use a FermenterClub’s low-profile air-lock lid with optional extractor pump (11)
References and Sources
- Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz, available online at: wildfermentation.com
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, with Mary G. Enig PhD. (see Beloved Cookbooks for more about this book)
- The Wellness Education Center, 103 Ponderosa Lane, Kalispell; 755-8423
- Delicious Obsessions: We’ve Had it All Wrong (about the jars used)
- Delicious Obsessions: Why I stopped using whey in my vegetable ferments
- Pickl-it: pickl-it.com
- The Probiotic Jar: probioticjar.com
- Go-Ferment!: goferment.com; kits: goferment.com/products/fermenting-kit-grey; or glass weights: goferment.com/products/weights
- FARMcurious: farmcurious.com
- Wild Fermentation article wildfermentation.com/aerobic-vs-anaerobic-fermentation-controversy
- FermenterClub airlock lid on Amazon, ASIN=B06XSQ8XHM; and pump: ASIN=B071CM13VX
- Year of Plenty glass weights: on Amazon, ASIN B01C6MI80S