I had wanted to pick mullein flowers today in order to get some cough syrup started, but it was raining, so I made pickles instead.
Mason jars were invented in the 1850s, but the canning jars with sealing lid and rings that we use today actually didn’t exist prior to 1915 (source: A Brief History of Common Home Canning Jars). So what did people do to preserve vegetables before that?
One method they used was salt brine lacto-fermentation. Chances are your great grandmother or great-great grandmother had a crock similar to this one to use for “pickling” vegetables in:
The process of lactic acid fermentation is part art and part science. You’re probably familiar with sauerkraut and kimchi. By the same biological process we can make brine-pickled vegetables from literally whatever is in the garden.
The same beneficial organisms we find in good soil are on the surface of the vegetables we pick. Those beneficial organisms feast on the carbohydrates in the vegetables and produce organic acids as well as enzymes and beneficial bacteria.
It is the acids produced – part lactic and part acetic – that form the brine that preserves the vegetables from spoilage.
This process must happen anaerobically, outside of the presence of oxygen, which is why the vegetables are covered in a salt brine.
I have lots of pickle cucumbers ripe now, and I’ve found some that have gotten a tad overgrown. They taste a bit bitter raw but they are fine to use to make sliced pickle rounds.
First, I sterilized this glass one-gallon jar.
Then I assembled my ingredients:
- about 8-10 overgrown pickle cucumbers
- 6 large cloves of garlic
- 6 T kosher salt
- 6 c water
- fresh dill
I scrubbed and sliced the cucumbers into rounds, then peeled and chopped the garlic.
I started with a layer of dill and garlic, followed by a layer of cucumber slices and kept layering until I was about 3 inches from the top. Then I poured in the salt water brine all the way up to the top of the jar:
Next I took a little walk in our woods in order to pick two wild grape leaves.
A word of caution: wild grape vines like the same shady, woodsy areas as poison ivy, and you do NOT want to put grape leaves that have spent their life cozied up next to poison ivy into your food, for obvious reasons.
I washed the grape leaves well in cold water, then pressed them down into the top of the jar. The reason to add grape leaves is because they will give you nice crunchy pickles instead of soft, soggy ones. The reason vegetables are crisp is because of the pectin they contain; over time, the pectinase enzyme will break down the pectin in the cucumbers and you’ll end up with un-cripsy pickles. However, grape leaves contain tannins which inhibit pectinase.
Finally, I weighted down the top so that everything stays submerged in the brine. This is very important because it’s all going to be sitting around at room temperature for a number of days, and any vegetables that float above the level of the brine will mold. I used a little jelly jar that I had sterilized, but you can use a stone that you’ve sterilized too:
Finally, I put the lid on but did not screw it shut and placed the jar on top of a kitchen cupboard to begin fermenting. I’ll check it periodically and skim off any scum or mold that forms on the top of the liquid; this scum on the top of the liquid is okay and not a problem provided you skim it off.
In about ten days I’ll taste them to see if they are sour enough (if you’re new to fermenting vegetables, read this: How to Know When Your Fermented Vegetables Are Ready for Cold Storage).
Lacto-fermented pickles are easy to make and very nutritious, plus you don’t need to use any electricity or propane to make them!