“As far as I know there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables.”
Fred Breidt, Microbiologist for the US Department of Agriculture.
Although initially brined in salt water lacto-fermented vegetables taste pleasingly sour and refreshing. This is because the amount of salt added to the brine is not so strong that it tastes unpalatable and inhibits the growth of all microorganisms. A 10% salt solution roughly 100 gr of salt per litre (the point at which an egg can float) is too salty for any living organism. A 5% salt solution – or 50 gr of salt per litre, on the other hand, is ideal for encouraging the more saline tolerant beneficial micro-organisms whilst inhibiting the colonisation of pathogenic bacteria.
Salt-sour fermented brines are common across eastern Europe – from Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Russia through southern and central Europe – Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and right across the Middle East – Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and across into North Africa. Our local Polish shop sells salt-brined gherkins and Rachid’s North African shop sells salt-brined onions, carrots, beans as well as salt-brined lemons – not to mention olives which are one of the better known brined vegetables.[*]
Immigrants to the US and Canada from across the world – but especially Jewish populations from eastern Europe – brought with them the tradition of salt brining their vegetables. Sour gherkins soon became associated with traditional Jewish cuisine hence the name “Kosher Dills”. Of course it was not just the Jewish community that pickled their vegetables in this way – many, many other immigrants brought similar traditions with them but the name “kosher” seems to have stuck in North America, at least, and many associate sour pickles with Jewish cooking and delis.
Just about the only global region I can think of which has no recent tradition of salt-brining their vegetables is western Europe. In western Europe from Finland, Sweden and Norway down to Britain, Germany, France and beyond it is far more common to preserve seasonal vegetables in a vinegar, water, salt and sugar medium.
Whether it was always thus is hard to ascertain. Few pickling recipes from before the industrial revolution survive. The few published cook books that do were largely written for royal house-holds and the landed gentry. They reveal that the very privileged were able to preserve food with sugar and vinegars. With sugar being an expensive luxury it seems unlikely that this practice was common amongst the general population.
It is thus perfectly possible that the practice of salt-brining vegetables to initiate fermentation was abandoned in western Europe once industrialisation made both sugar and vinegar more available. This is hard to know for sure. Recipes, to recall, were an oral, rarely a written, tradition. The vast majority of the population prior to the industrial revolution were illiterate and no one could have foreseen that a future food industry would be so effective at obliterating traditional practice so completely.
At the same time we do know that vinegar is a very effective way to preserve food and with vinegar being a cheap, common ingredient in Europe it could just well be one of those curious quirks that populations in western Europe, as opposed to those in eastern Europe, favoured pickling their vegetables in vinegar rather than salt.
Here then is the traditional lacto-fermented brined gherkin recipe
1 litre of water.
50 gr of sea salt (aprox. 2 1/2 tbs)
1.5 – 2 kg of gherkins (any size but not a salad cucumber)
1 vine leaf or 1 oak leaf or 1 red-currant leaf or 1 sour cherry leaf.[†]
Garlic or small pickling onions or onions cut into rings or all of them if you like.
1 TBS of mustard seeds.
1 TBS of red pepper corns.
2 star anise.
1 head of dill.
Begin by washing, rinsing and placing your pickling jar in the oven on 150 degree centigrade for roughly 15 minutes. Use when it has cooled to room temperature.
For the salt brine
For every litre of water add 50 gr of sea salt – or roughly two and half table-spoons of salt. This translates into a saline solution of approx. 5% – an ideal ratio for salt brining vegetables and trying to kick-start beneficial microbial activity.
Gently heat the water and salt together on the hob allowing the salt to dissolve evenly into the water. It does not need to boil. Add the red pepper seeds, mustard seeds – or any other seeds you would like to add and stir into the brine.
Whilst the brine is cooling wash the gherkins rubbing off as many of the prickles as possible.
Place your chosen leaf at the bottom of the pickling jar and place the dill on top of the leaf. If you are using garlic, onions or onion rings add them now. Pack the washed gherkins tightly on top. Once the brine has cooled to room temperature pour the brine into the jar making sure all of the gherkins are submerged but leaving a good inch of space between the top of the brine and lid. It is important to keep the gherkins submerged in the brine so find a suitable weight – either the glass lid of a Weck jar, a saucer or a clean pebble. I used a cherry leaf
Cover the jar with a lid and leave on the kitchen counter out of direct sunlight for two to three days. Then store in either the fridge or a cool dark room with ambient temperatures of around 12 degrees centigrade.
What to expect
Submerged gherkins will be encased in the salt brine thus protecting them from surface moulds and any other non-beneficial microorganisms. The relatively high saline solution of the brine, however, may cause the top gherkins to float above the surface of the brine thus exposing them to oxygen and the potential to grow surface moulds.
To prevent this from happening you can either weigh the gherkins down with a weight, or as I did one of the leaves. If you can’t find a suitable weight push the gherkins at least once a day back into the saline solution to halt the development of surface moulds.
If a white film of mould does develop – do not panic and ditch the batch! All of my brines, thus far, have developed surface moulds. Simply scrape, or cut, as much of it off as possible and once again re-submerge the gherkins into the brine. After four to five days the salt will have drawn water and sugar out of the gherkins, the specific gravity will have altered as the gherkins absorb more salt and they will sink naturally to the bottom of the jar thus making it unnecessary to check on them daily.
Unlike vinegar pickles, which can last indefinitely, lacto-fermented vegetables do eventually succumb to the activity of enzymes and can turn too mushy to be palatable. They do not harbour food pathogens – they just don’t taste great any more. The point at which this happens varies. It speeds up in the summer and slows down in the winter, which is why traditionally these pickles were eaten during the winter and up until late spring before the next season of cucumbers began.
[*] Be aware that most commercial varieties, including the Polish shop’s gherkins, are pasteurised thus destroying naturally beneficial, live micro-organisms. This affects taste as well as nutrition.
[†] The tannin rich leaves keep the gherkins crunchy.