Pickling and fermenting foods is a time-honored method of preserving seasonal produce, all while bringing big and bright flavors to dishes. Whether you add pickled onions to tacos, fermented kimchi to rice bowls, or a classic dill to a burger, pickled and fermented vegetables are the perfect finishing touch.
But how exactly does one become a master pickler or fermenter? Here’s what you need to know.
Fermented Foods Vs. Pickled Foods
Though fermented foods may have the familiar tangy flavor of pickled foods, they aren’t the same thing.
Fermented foods—like kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut—are rich in probiotics. “Fermentation creates a change via enzymes that are produced from bacteria, yeast, or microorganisms,” explains Mary Karlin, culinary educator and author of Mastering Fermentation. “This promotes the development of healthy bacteria by raising the acidity, to keep the food safe.”
Pickled foods, meanwhile, are merely preserved. The sour flavor comes from a vinegar brine and not a change to the food’s pH balance. “The use of vinegar in pickled foods keeps any bacteria—good or bad—from growing, therefore pickled foods do not contain live probiotics,” says Rebekah Blakely, RDN, nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe.
In short: “Pickled foods, though tasty, are not fermented,” says Karlin.
Health Benefits Of Fermented Foods
The slow process of fermentation changes food in ways that are helpful to our health.
“Fermentation creates a more digestible product via the development of good bacteria,” says Karlin. “The fermented food becomes ‘bio-available,’ which means one’s body can use it more easily to better their health. Bio-availability equals nutrition, which equals gut health.”
In addition to the easier digestion and the increased absorption of nutrients, fermented foods can offer a wide variety of health benefits due to their probiotic content, says Blakely: “Probiotics can help create a positive balance of good bacteria in your gut, which can support good digestion, a positive mood, a healthy heart, a strong immune system, and even support weight management.”
How To Ferment Veggies
You can ferment vegetables and fruits at home—if you’re willing to invest some time. “For beneficial bacteria to grow, you need to go through the lengthier fermentation process with a salt water brine—no vinegar,” says Blakely. “The process may take a little longer, but it’s still pretty simple and so worth it!”
Depending on the vegetable you choose to ferment and the size of the batch, the process can take anywhere from one to four weeks.
Follow these steps to get started with a simple salt water brine.
- Wash and dry: Clean produce well—use a scrub brush and/or peeler where needed—and dry it thoroughly. Make sure you have a clean jar or vessel that is free from any cracks where harmful bacteria can hide.
- Trim: Cut off the stem end to remove tough bits, and slice off the blossom end, which in some cases contains an enzyme that would make your vegetable soft.
- Make brine: Simply stir salt into water until it’s completely dissolved. “The amount of salt required to make a salt water brine for fermenting vegetables can vary depending on the type of salt you’re using. The majority of items ferment well at about two to three percent salinity level,” says Blakely. If you use kosher salt, that’s about three tablespoons of salt per quart of water. And it’s best to use distilled water, if possible, as any chlorine can inhibit fermentation.
- Give it time: Leave your container on the counter in a cool place out of direct light—and be patient. “To assess if your fermented vegetables are ready to eat, look for bubbles in the fermenting liquid, a pleasant but sour smell, and a fermented flavor,” Blakely says. “It’s recommended you taste them daily after the first week or so until they reach your desired texture and flavor.”
- Store them: Once you’re happy with the flavor, move the fermented veggies to the fridge. They will generally last three-to four-months (and sometimes longer) there.
Fermented Foods To Buy
If you’d rather not wait for enzymes to do their thing, you can increase your probiotic intake by incorporating great store-bought options. Look for these easy-to-find fermented foods to boost your gut health:
- Kimchi: This Korean fermented cabbage is spicy, pungent, and versatile. Think: rice bowls and tofu stews to grilled cheese and egg dishes.
- Sauerkraut: The Germans have their own famous fermented cabbage, and it’s perfect for hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches or stirred into potato salad. Seek out the options in the refrigerator section, not on the shelves. “Pasteurization makes the product ‘shelf-stable,’” says Karlin. “It does not allow for healthy bacteria to develop, which fermentation promotes.”
- Kombucha: This fermented tea beverage has become so popular that it’s now widely available. It’s sharp and tangy and usually effervescent. Be mindful of added sugars, and check the alcohol level.
- Kefir: Many stores now stock this drinkable fermented dairy product near the yogurt. “It’s wonderful in smoothies or oatmeal, or just as a drink during the day,” says Blakely.
Health Benefits of Pickled Foods
Though pickled foods don’t pack the gut-health punch of fermented veggies, they’re still a smart addition to your diet. “Pickles don’t contain live probiotics, but they still contain nutrients,” says Blakely. For example, she says, cucumbers provide a good dose of vitamin K—which is instrumental in blood clotting and our bones’ absorption and use of calcium—so pickled cucumbers are a good source too. “In fact, they can maintain nutrients for longer than if the vegetable was sitting in the fridge or on the shelf.”
Pickled veggies are an easy way to add produce to your diet, and that works for you in multiple ways: “They’re low in carbs and calories, making them a good fit for those on low-carb or keto diets,” she says. “And they can help you maintain a healthy weight by adding fiber to your diet.”
They’re also good for athletes, Blakely add: “Pickles are high in sodium, which can help replace electrolyte losses, which may help reduce muscle cramping.”
Plus, says Blakely, “getting any vinegar in our diets is a good thing!” She notes that it can help reduce the effect certain foods have on our blood sugar.
How To Make Your Own Pickles
The idea of pickling vegetables can conjure images of a cellar lined with jars that are months in the making. But you can make crisp, refreshing pickles in the refrigerator in record time. (Yep, they’re even known as “quick pickles.”)
One advantage of making your own pickles versus buying them: “The DIYer can use organically grown or home-grown produce,” says Karlin. “Starting with organic products makes for a more flavorful and healthier result.”
It also allows you to customize your flavors. “One of my favorites to get people hooked is a Thai-style cucumber pickle,” says Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and Asian Pickles. “You can use regular salad cucumbers, which are easy to find. Peel them—and if you have an extra minute, remove the seeds to make the pickle less watery. Then, slice thinly. Toss with a few thin rings of red onion, a generous splash of white vinegar, some kosher salt, and sugar to taste. Let them sit in a shallow dish, and you have pickles in about 30 minutes that are very crowd-pleasing.”
When making your own pickled veggies, consider the size of the pieces and the vegetable itself, says Solomon. “Smaller pieces preserve more quickly, as do more watery vegetables, like cucumbers, radishes, and cabbage,” she says. Sturdier vegetables, like carrots and peppers, can take up to three days.
You can start with a basic brine and then add herbs, spices, or chiles for flavoring. Follow these steps to get started.
- Wash and dry: Clean produce well (use a scrub brush and/or peeler where needed) and dry it thoroughly. Select a clean jar or vessel with a tight-fighting lid.
- Trim: Cut off the stem end to remove tough bits, and slice off the blossom end, which in some cases contains an enzyme that would make your veggies soft.
- Make brine: A classic ratio is equal parts water and vinegar to cover the produce, plus salt and sometimes sugar. You can always bump up the vinegar if you like your pickles more acidic. Solomon recommends filling a pint jar halfway with vinegar, topping off with water, then adding a teaspoon of kosher salt for a basic brine. You can shake up your brine cold, or you can cook it and use it hot (or let it cool to room temperature). “Hot brine is recommended for canning pickles, but it’s also a good idea to pour over a boiling brine to help brighten the color of the vegetables, and to help speed up the pickling process,” says Solomon. “If you like a very sweet brine, it can also help to dissolve the sugar. Hot brines are also a great way to get in a little bit of a strong flavor. For example, adding raw ginger or garlic to pickles will result in a big flavor. If you boil these flavors in the brine, however, it will mitigate their strength.”
- Store them: Solomon notes that storage is easy: “Refrigerator vinegar pickles are very forgiving. They can be made in a canning jar, a re-used odor-free jar, or even a washed-out plastic food storage container.” Many pickled vegetables will last six to eight weeks.
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