The average trip to the pickle aisle of a grocery store is an uninspiring experience. Rows upon rows of glass jars of things labeled “pickles” offer a surprisingly small range of flavors and textures. Adventurous eaters crave more.
As the bounty of the harvest comes in, it’s hard to keep up with the supply of the season’s generosity. Whether your tomatoes are launching into a final flowering that may not make it all the way to ripeness before the first frost hits, or a bumper crop of garlic hits the shelves at your favorite market, using lactic acid fermentation to pickle most any vegetable can extend the life of your produce by months, while also enhancing its nutritional quality.
If you’ve ever eaten real sauerkraut — the crunchy, tangy kind that has to be kept refrigerated to contain the living fermentation process that’s transforming it from cabbage into kraut — then you have some idea of the range of unexpected and tantalizing flavors that develop when vegetables are salted or brined. And for the recipes here, that’s all that lactic acid fermentation is: The application of salt, or salt water, to vegetables, which are submerged to protect them from oxygen, and left at room temperature for a time to pickle.
It may sound like one of those “one weird trick” ads, but actually, pickling with salt is one of mankind’s oldest food preservation methods. While Roman writers like Cato were noting the preservation of turnips and cabbage with salt some 2,000 years ago, poets in Asia were praising the classic Korean pickle, kimchi.
Lactic acid fermentation is so named because it creates conditions favorable to lactic acid-producing microorganisms like lactobacillus and allied microbes. These organisms are present in the environment and are normal flora of the skins of fruits and vegetables. Salt creates an appropriate acidity (pH) for friendly microbes to ferment, or digest, starches and carbohydrates in vegetables, while creating an inhospitable environment for pathogens. When making ferments at home, always be sure to wash your hands and use clean tools.
Aside from adding a pungent tang to vegetables, lactic acid fermentation changes the nutrient profile in food, boosting vitamins and minerals, making nutrients more bioavailable, and supplying the eater with plenty of live probiotic organisms and an array of enzymes.
But the real fun is in the flavors. Did you know that you can make a good approximation of olives right in your own kitchen, using just green tomatoes and salt water? This recipe will last in the fridge for up to a year, assuming it doesn’t end up in your spaghetti sauces, martinis, and salads long before that.
Green Tomato Olives
- 1 quart small green tomatoes. Grape and cherry varieties are ideal.
- Brine, mixed at a ratio of 2 tablespoons salt to 1 quart of water
- 1-quart wide-mouth jar, preferably glass
- 1 smaller jar that fits into the mouth of the glass jar
Put the tomatoes into the 1-quart jar and cover with brine, leaving an inch or so of headspace. Keep the tomatoes submerged by putting the smaller jar into the mouth of the fermentation vessel.
Leave the jar sitting out at room temperature for about three days. This gives the microbial cultures time to “bloom” and begin their life cycles. There may be some spillage as carbon dioxide escapes the container, so it’s good practice to let fermenting jars sit in bowls or even an empty sink. Securing a towel around the jars using a rubber band is a good way to keep dust and fruit flies out.
After three days, transfer to the fridge for a slow, steady transformation, or leave out longer to pickle faster, to your taste.
For added flavor, try a batch with whole or smashed garlic cloves, or add a touch of citrus tartness with a finely sliced lemon.
And here’s a recipe for real garlic addicts. Keeping a jar of fermented garlic on hand gives you ready access to cloves of crunchy, tangy, raw garlic, whose bite has mellowed nicely. Pickled garlic goes perfectly into recipes calling for garlic, but can also be chopped or sliced raw into the kind of salad topper that steals the whole meal.
Perpetually Pungent Pickled Garlic
- Cloves of 10 bulbs of garlic, peeled
- Brine, mixed in a ratio of 2 tablespoons salt to 1 quart water
- 1-quart glass jar with lid. If the lid is metal, as with most Mason jar lids, cut a piece of parchment as a barrier between the lid and the fumes of fermenting garlic, which will corrode metal. Pungent, indeed!
Place peeled garlic cloves into the jar and add the brine. Top with water until the cloves are covered, leaving at least an inch of head space.
Garlic takes longer to ferment than most other vegetables. Put the lid on loosely. (For safety reasons, always make sure that gas can escape from a fermentation vessel.) Set aside for at least two weeks. The flavor of the garlic will continue to improve over many months at room temperature, and you’ll love the way it livens your meals at all stages of development. Refrigerate according to your preference.
The best thing about your Perpetually Pungent Pickled Garlic jar is that once you get it started, you can add fresh cloves as needed. You may find that having a mix of hot-crunchy-garlic and mellow-softer-garlic is just what the adventurous eaters in your life have been craving.