In a pickle

More writing about food today. Yes, I am a one trick pony these days! Plus I had to finally write about all the fun I’ve been having learning about lacto-fermentation, brining, and pickling.

Pickles are yummy, and many kinds of vegetables can be pickled so there are infinite variations one can make. Brining and lacto-fermentation are also great ways to preserve foods and even enhance their effect on your health. Even the mainstream media and advertising is touting probiotics. But you don’t need to buy your probiotics from a multi-national company. You can get the benefits of lacto-fermentation from foods other than yogurt, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and lacto-fermented cucumber pickles.

I’m a huge fan of pickled foods and one of the things I love about shopping in the international markets is that I can get fresh pickles for my munching, not mass-produced shelf stable ones. But why not go one step further and make my own? Since I had a huge crop of volunteer dill in my garden this year, I decided to give it a try.

I remember my grandmother’s garden was also full of dill and that she made pickles. While I can’t pinpoint my exact age at the time (five years old? six years old?), one of my vivid memories of grandma’s house was the big crock of pickles sitting in her utility room years. We weren’t allowed to mess with the pickles and had to maneuver around them as we walked from the kitchen into the back yard.

For my own foray into pickled cucumbers I had to first get some equipment: a pickling crock. It’s not required that the crock be ceramic, although it’s certainly preferred, and a good fermentation/pickling crock can cost a lot. While I would love to use a vintage crock for my pickling, I just don’t have one on hand (I wish I knew what happened to grandma’s crock). So I started by searching the thrift stores for something suitable to use as a pickling crock. Ceramic crocks are something to be cautious about; some of the crocks that can be found in thrift stores may not actually be food safe, and the same is true of many plastic containers (such as buckets), too.

At my second thrift store stop I lucked out and picked up a set of two Tupperware-brand containers that looked very much like crocks. One of them was missing a lid, but a sealing lid isn’t necessary for pickling. (And if you ever are lucky enough to find decent Tupperware at a yard sale or thrift store, remember that the Tupperware lifetime warranty will allow you to order replacement lids if they are missing or damaged; you just have to pay a small shipping fee. Woot!) So for a whopping $1.80 I brought my pickling crocks home and ran them through the dishwasher to get them squeaky clean.

My favorite international market was running a special on pickling cucumbers, too. While I would love to pickle cukes from my own garden, the plants weren’t yet producing, and at 49¢ a pound I thought it would not be a great disaster if my pickles didn’t turn out and I ended up dumping them in the compost. I found a great blog with recipes and information on lacto-fermenting cucumbers, followed the advice, and voilá: pickles.

Lacto-fermented pickles

Lacto-fermented pickles

In this bright blue three-gallon container, I have four pounds of pickling cucumbers, a few heads of dill, a handful of dried hot peppers, about four cloves of garlic, and some leaves from a sour cherry tree. This latter ingredient may seem odd, but it was recommended that some grape leaves be added to keep the pickles from getting soft. With further research on the awesome Wild Fermentation site I found that cherry tree leaves could serve the same purpose, and I had easy access to leaves on my next-door neighbor’s tree.

The brine is basically just pickling salt, water, and a bit of white vinegar. I put a small plate on top of the pickles and force them to stay submerged with a weight, which consists of a bag full of brine. (Just in case the bag leaks, this ensures the brine doesn’t become watered down.) The pickles are supposed to sit for four weeks before they’re ready to eat, and it’s only been two so far. I am quite impatient to give these pickles a try, but I’m holding back!

To satisfy my immediate desires for pickled foods I’ve been consuming kimchi purchased from the market. I actually would like to try my hand at making my own kimchi and sauerkraut*, but for now I want to wait and see how my pickled cukes turn out before attempting anything else.

Pickled cucumbers are what most Americans think of when we refer to pickles, but there are many other types of pickled foods. How about pickled beets? One of my favorite ways to eat beets is pickled, and when I bought some golden beets at the farmers market the other day I decided to make them into refrigerator pickles. I consulted a few recipes and then realized that I could easily make up my own variation, so I did and placed the single jar in the fridge to sit for a few days.

My friend Adrienne stopped by on Saturday on a spur of the moment visit, and she made up some delicious salads for our lunch using the refrigerator pickled beets, walnuts, and some chevré. We finished up the entire jar, but I wasn’t worried; I had more beets on hand that were ready to be transformed.

Golden beets pickled in the refrigerator

Golden beets pickled in the refrigerator

I neglected to weigh the beets before pickling, but I here’s how I prepared them.

Ingredients list:
Fresh beets
White vinegar
Whole cloves
Whole cinnamon sticks
Sliced onion (optional)
Whole allspice berries (optional)
The original recipe I followed did not call for allspice or onion, but they sounded like good options to me so I added them.
  • If using red beets, be sure to wear rubber gloves as you handle them to prevent staining your hands.
  • Twist off the beet greens and scrub the beets well.
  • Cook the beets until they are the consistency you prefer. (I don’t like mine really soft, but you may). Use whichever cooking method best meets your needs. Beets can be roasted in a hot oven, cooked in water on a stovetop or microwaved in some water in a covered container. (Since it is hot and I’m trying to keep the kitchen fairly cool I cooked the beets in a covered glass casserole in the microwave with about an inch of water.)
  • While the beets are cooking, prepare your pickling liquid. Combine equal amounts of water and white vinegar in a small saucepan. Add sugar to taste. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, and allspice and bring to a boil. (The original recipe called for an equal amount of sugar, vinegar, and water. I reduced the amount of sugar since I love vinegar and beets are usually pretty sweet anyway. The original recipe called for a 16-oz can of beets with 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 cup sugar, plus 2 cloves and a cinnamon stick. My proportions for two large bunches of beets with onion were 1 cup water, 1 cup vinegar, 2/3 cup sugar, three cinnamon sticks, 8 cloves, and 8 allspice berries.)
  • Cool the cooked beets in a cold water bath so they can be handled more easily.
  • Slip or peel the beet skins off (using gloves!), trim the ends, and thinly slice the beets.
  • Using clean, non-reactive containers such as a glass jars or a large plastic container, alternate layers of sliced onion (if using) and sliced beet, leaving about an inch of room at the top for the pickling liquid.
  • Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables. Push the vegetables under the liquid if necessary; they should be covered by the liquid. Make sure the cloves and cinnamon sticks are included as they will continue to add flavor. (For my most recent batch, I had to use two large glass jars, and I still had a few beet slices and onion slices left out. I’ll add them in a few days when I take some beets out to eat.)
  • Cover/cap the containers and add them to the refrigerator. Wait at least 24 hours before sampling. The pickles should be good in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

It took me less than an hour to whip up those two large jars of pickled beets, and I’m hoping they’ll last me about two weeks. We’ll see.

How do you feel about pickled foods? Do you like them or hate them? Have you ever tried to make brined, pickled, or lacto-fermented foods?

*Note: if you love sauerkraut but don’t like the um…distress…it can cause your gut, then try rinsing it well before you reheat it. Such a simple step, but one I only recently learned makes a huge difference!


10 thoughts on “In a pickle

  1. I sampled this latest batch of beets last night and today. They’re very yummy! I left the larger jar as a host gift last night, so I’m already down one jar. Must make more pickled beets!


  2. I am trying to find a device like you are talking about here. My daughter and grandkids just got some chickens and we are wondering how to keep the water from freezing in winter without any electricity to the coop. Could you give me a website to order something???

    “If you have a handy, grounded electrical outlet, you can buy or make a heating device that will keep drinking water warm enough to not freeze. Or, you can check your chicken’s water supply a few times a day and switch out drinking containers full of frozen water for those full of fresh, fluid (but not hot) water.”


  3. Pingback: A new flock! « a windycitygal's Weblog

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