If you are looking for someone or something to blame, start with Lactobacilli. It’s all their fault. Without them, a healthy life just would not be possible. Seriously. (more on this in a moment)
Summertime brings cucumbers, okra, red onions, cherry tomatoes and a whole host of vegetable goodies that can benefit from their association with Lactobacillus, because who doesn’t like a good pickled something or other. Local pickling guru’s like Pickled Perfection have mastered their own unique (and safe) approach to pickling that produces incredible pickled flavors. It’s great if you want a quick pickled product and it’s delicious in its own right, but it’s not a pickled product in the truest sense of the term.
True pickling actually begins with a brine – yes a salt brine and not just any salt (table salt is still bad!) – that facilitates the growth of our little buddy Lactobacillus. There isn’t any acid in the brine to begin with because that would kill little Lacto. He needs a salty environment to thrive in because the salt will actually kill all the other ‘bad’ bacteria leaving him plenty of room to grow.
This process is also known as lacto-fermentation. It’s a project that requires work, time and know-how, but there’s plenty of know-how to go around. You have to supply the work and the time – and a cool place to do the pickling/ fermenting. It doesn’t work well above 72° F or below 68° F because spoilage will occur quickly.
When the process occurs as it ideally should, the starches and sugars found in the fresh produce you choose to pickle will be converted into acid by those good little Lactobacillus. The original pickle never had any vinegar added to the brine, the tart vinegar-y flavor came about through fermentation and conversion of the starches and sugars.
The process will also produce a white, waxy, scummy substance (yeast) that has to be skimmed off the top of the pickling crock or container every day or so until the pickling process is complete. You’ll know when this first stage is done because the white stuff quits showing up on the surface of the brine!
In addition to temperature being key, light is as well! Your pickling project must be kept out of direct sunlight and should not even be kept in any room where there is strong natural light. The little Lacto’s are sensitive to light and will die off too quickly (before they can do their job) if not kept in the dark! Maybe you’ve seen old-school kimchi being made? That fill the crocks full of cabbage and chiles and brine and then bury them in the ground, not because they are crazy, but because burying the crocks is the best way to provide a consistent temperature-controlled, zero light environment.
Pickling is a somewhat complex process that is interesting to learn about and even more fun to observe. No, learning about pickling is nothing like having a root canal or watching paint dry. From a food education perspective, natural, old-world pickling is one of the best crafts you can learn for personal health benefits. Why?
Because those little Lactobacillus belong to a group of bacteria that each of us need to support good gut health – probiotics. There’s a reason why sauerkraut is recommended for probiotic support – if it’s been produced with an all natural lacto-fermentation process. With all the recent studies to support the connection between good gut health and a healthy immune system, lacto-fermented foods need to be part of everyone’s diet.
But what if you are casein intolerant, does that mean you can’t eat anything that’s been pickled or lacto-fermented? Not at all! The “lacto” in lacto-fermented does not have any reference to anything dairy related. “Lacto” is simply a shortened form of Lactobacillus much like “Alex” is a shortened form of Alexander or Alexandra.
If all of this has piqued your pickling passion, then pick up a pickling crock and prepare to start picking and packing some peppers (or your preferred produce) for pickling. Perhaps you and Peter Piper might have a peck of pickled peppers – or at least our friend Lactobacillus as a promoted probiotic presence – in common!
We recommend a bit of research on the interweb and a good book to get you started – we’ve shared our two favorites below!