We like to brag about successes here on Burnt My Fingers, while learning from failures privately. Take the experiments in which I ferment vegetables. I wrote about the Kosher dills which were a near-ringer for Patricia Fairhurst’s, but not the next batch which was dreadful in every way:
bitter without being sour, and turning to mush before the cucumbers were fully pickled. I suspect most home fermenters have a similar rocky path, just like most sourdough bread bakers. (In fact the same cure is involved—lactobacillus which breaks down starch enyzymes to produce a tart loaf or a delightful sour and well-preserved pickle.)
I am not anywhere close to having a “best way” yet but here are a few (possibly) best practices for doing your own ferments. If you have others, or differ with these, please share.
1. Start with everything thoroughly cleaned, but not sterile. Wash out the jars or crocks you will be using with detergent and hot water, then rinse away every trace of soap. Thoroughly wash the vegetables with several changes of water to remove any pesticides or other environmental contaminants. Then stop. Too-hot water and too much soap or other sterilizing chemical will kill the microbes which you want to grow, just as surely as sloppy hygiene will encourage the wrong kind of beasties.
2. Use a fermenting brine ratio of 1:20 salt to water. Or maybe it’s 2:98? My kosher dills were made with a concoction of 1 T Kosher salt for every 1 ¼ cup of water. But when I made the celery pickles shown here, I dropped back to 2 ½ t (just under 20 grams) to 4 cups of water. So far it’s working fine. You need just enough salt to retard spoilage and too much salt may give you an unsatisfactory result or even kill the lactobacilli. Just as with sourdough baking, a smaller initial batch of ferment likely gives a more complex taste eventually. So I’m going to try keeping it as low as I can without spoilage.
3. You probably don’t need fancy crocks and fermentation locks. I’ve recently discovered the lively “Pickle Me Too” blog which writes with a respect for the people who have seriously impaired immune systems or guts and are eating ferments for health reasons but can’t stand contaminants. For them it’s worth extra precautions to keep out foreign bodies (which she does with an airlock gizmo on top of the jar) but for most of us it’s enough to be sure the vegetables are completely and continually submerged in the brine (we’re talking about anaerobic fermentation, in other words), then periodically clean out any scum on the top of the vessel.
My preferred vessel, for now at least, is a great big clear glass recycled pickle or kimchee jar. It comes with its own lid (which you need to remember to “burp” at least daily to keep the CO2 from the ferment from building up and possibly breaking the glass) and you can see what is happening inside the jar. (Between peeks, it should be wrapped in a towel and kept in a cool dark place.) This is better, certainly for your first ferment, than a romantic earthenware crock where the fermentation is not visible and the lid is a plate or other improvised solution so mold is more likely to creep in.
4. You don’t need water kefir, whey, Caldwell’s or other fermentation kickstarters either. I have run across lots of people who use these aids; but as Pickle Me Too (she initially used them them but now doesn’t) points out, they skip natural steps in the fermentation process which lead to flavor. Let nature do the work, in the form of the beasties that are all around you. You don’t add yeast to your sourdough preps so trust those same lactobacilli to make your veg ferments.
5. The duration of your ferment will vary (with temperature, brine strength, atmospheric condition and other mysterious and uncontrollable factors) but will always follow the same sequence. A day or so after the start, the water will turn cloudy and tiny bubbles will appear as fermentation begins. Over the next few days, the fizzing activity will become more pronounced. Then after a week or so it will begin to die down and that’s when you can taste your product. If it’s sour and fermented to your taste, transfer to the refrigerator immediately. If not, give it a few more days before refrigerating. I’ve found I like the way cucumbers keep getting more sour for several more days till they are finally too sour to eat (hopefully before I finish the last one) but you might also arrest the fermentation by replacing the liquid (see what to do with it here) with new, fresh brine. This should add at least a week or two to their keep-ability.
My batch of pickled celery is underway with all the tactics described above. It was just plain conventional celery from the store (organic unavailable at the time), with an extra thorough wash to remove likely pesticides. I’ll report shortly on how it turned out.