Your go-to lacto-fermentation resources
March 27, 2017 8:26 PM   Subscribe

I am about to start lacto-fermenting at home. I feel like I have always been doing this spiritually, but now I am about to do it physically. Your resources, recommendations and experiences please!

I have a bunch of stuff from Ball arriving later in the week, specifically:

- 6 x 2-litre wide-mouth mason jars
- 4 x air lock lid things
- bunch of standard lids
- a wooden sauerkraut masher because why not

I have Katz's Art of Fermentation at home and am reading it slowly and with pleasure (it's a but unwieldy for the bus and train). I have watched about a hundred YouTube videos and read about that many articles in various places. I know it isn't rocket science but I am going to be investing a lot of time into this experiment on the weekend and then am basically going to have to wait around for a week or more to see how it pans out, so I'd like to get it as right as possible from the outset.

(This all came about, incidentally, because on a whim I picked up a [very expensive] jar of Brooklyn Brine Co. pickles a week ago and ate them pretty much immediately, and they were the best pickles ever.)

My plan is 2 lots of pickles (once spicy, one standard), 1 lot of jalapenos/habaneros/whatevers, and 1 lot of garlic cloves. I will play with kimchi and sauerkraut down the track a little, but those are a bit more involved and I'd prefer to get this batch of stuff as "right" as possible first.

I'd sure love to hear from any home preservers and fermenters and picklers about their own initial forays into this fun-sounding world, and would like to get your insights into the "best" and most reliable and consistent places to get info. I know that everybody does it differently, and I'll probably do it differently too, but I'd like to start out doing it as right as possible.

Difficulty level: Australia, with weather already cooling.
posted by turbid dahlia to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Also re: the Ball stuff, I'm sure it's probably garbage but please don't tell me so. The only other options I had semi-immediate access to were pickling crocks that are madly expensive.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:27 PM on March 27, 2017

These pickles haven't failed me, though I spice them up more and add grape/cherry/horseradish leaves. The Ball jars will be fine...all you need is nonreactive, but place in a cupboard or cover with a towel. I live in the cool northwest US and it may take a bit longer, but they turn out amazing. PM if you want spice ideas. Make a lot - you'll regret it later if not! They'll keep a long time in the fridge once fermented.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:22 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

OneSmartMonkey, I understand the leaves are basically for tannin, to keep the pickles crispy? I don't believe such things can be sourced here in Brisbane, so bay leaves are probably going to be the only way forward - still as good?
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:35 PM on March 27, 2017

Something that changed sauerkraut for me completely was realizing that you can actually make it in small batches in jars, you don't have to go all out with pounds at a time in a crock. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it it wasn't to me!
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:07 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

actually, kimchee is easier than cuke pickles because cabbage contains tons of lactobacillus 'starter' naturally, and cucumbers are much more prone to picking up 'infections' of other microorganisms that ruin your pickles. My easiest kraut/kimchee recipe is to make a brine of 5 cups water to 3 tablespoons of salt, then shred a jarful of cabbage, pack into a jar, cover with the brine, and add a weight to the top of the cabbage (I sometimes use a wide-mouth mason jar and a pint beer glass, and sometimes just a heavy ziplock bag full of brine). I sometimes add beets if I'm using red cabbage , or traditional kim chee ingredients (garlic hot pepper daikon radish etc).

I made cucumber pickles in a hot climate for a while and I got better results if I added some liquid from another successfully lactofermented product, such as the clear whey from yogurt or a little sauerkraut brine.
posted by girl Mark at 10:12 PM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm you in the future!

Not really :) but I have been fermenting for a while now, I started with pickles but actually found saurkraut to be easier to do more consistently. Ymmv if course, but don't be afraid of cabbage and salt! This has been awesome for me.

As for cucumber, don't be afraid of the white stuff that sometimes appears towards the end of a ferment, I was nervous at first and was worried that I'd ruined my batch, but it turns out it's fairly common and not a huge cause for concern.
posted by Carillon at 11:26 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh also I've occasionally had the end product taste fizzy, which also isn't a cause for concern, according to the internet that is. It can be disconcerting at first, but try swapping out the brine, it's worked for me.
posted by Carillon at 11:30 PM on March 27, 2017

I am a physical as well as spiritual fermenter too. So some spiritual advice for you: you have your whole life to pickle.

It takes the edge off to know that if you make some gross pickles (this has never happened to me, but...) you can make more pickles and move on with your life. What's a week compared to a life-time of pickling? This is also kind of an addendum to the advice above that you can certainly lacto-ferment in small batches. Marathon not a sprint. It would take my two person household a long time to eat 4 liters of pickles so we make a few pints at a time. You can always make more so it's not total pickle-city in your fridge!

I will rep kimchi as being extremely easy, and then you are set up for awesome dinners of kimchi fried rice.
posted by athirstforsalt at 12:44 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just made my first batch of Vietnamese style pickled veggies! SO EASY! Is this lacto-fermentation? I don't even know!

What I do know is that if you get two daikon at the store, they make amazing tusks before they make amazing pickles!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:50 AM on March 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I started pickling after reading Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation, which is still my go-to for everyday pickling. I can honestly say that book changed my life by making live fermentation a regular part of my kitchen routine.

I agree with those recommending kraut or kimchi for the novice pickler over cucumber pickles. We make three or four gallons of kimchi every few months. We eat it with everything and always have something easy and good to bring to a potluck or give as a gift. Also good and easy: Mexican-style carrots and jalapenos; Brussels sprouts (after fermentation, drain off most of the brine and replace it with balsamic vinaigrette); and beets (reuse the brine afterwards to make beautiful pink pickled eggs).

The sad truth is that—after numerous attempts, and despite adding grape leaves, oak leaves, etc. (and no, bay leaves are not the same—it's the tannin you need, so try tea leaves instead)—my cucumber pickles have never turned out as crunchy as my beloved Claussen's Kosher Dills. When it's crunchy cukes I want, I make refrigerator pickles, which use a vinegar brine rather than fermentation.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:25 AM on March 28, 2017

Seconding kraut and kimchi as the best starting points. When I saw Sandor Katz speak, he was emphatic that everyone should start out with kraut, because it really is foolproof. The audience asked him about cucumber pickle problems (especially texture) and he confirmed that they are one of the hardest items to get good consistent results from. If you really want pickles, carrots are reasonably easy too.
posted by veery at 6:25 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

chesty_a_arthur, that (delicious-looking) recipe uses vinegar, so it's technically a quick pickle rather than a fermented pickle.

I started as a fermentation purist, but I've gotten more into quick pickles over time, because you can get crunchy pickles in a few hours or overnight—rather than days to weeks, as with fermentation.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:31 AM on March 28, 2017

I make Kefir and it is incredibly easy once you have the grains up and running. Pour milk over grains in jar. Let sit on counter. The next day, strain out Kefir.

The home made Kefir is really fizzy and tangy compared to the store bought kind, which I enjoy. It's also much cheaper.
posted by pravit at 6:32 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

As for jars, I just buy kimchi jars from the store and wash them after I eat it all. They make perfect fermenting jars.
posted by pravit at 6:34 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Difficulty level: Australia, with weather already cooling.

Cool weather is the perfect time for fermenting. Summer ferments gallop along, but they often don't have the best flavor and texture, while cool weather ferments taste better and are crunchier. In the summertime, we do our fermentation in the basement to keep it cooler.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:38 AM on March 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Here's another tip. The only remotely difficult thing about fermentation is keeping the vegetables submerged so your ferment doesn't get moldy. I struggled with this for years before discovering this solution. We do our ferments in a five-gallon crock, but I think this method could be adapted for other containers.

Once the vegetables are in the crock and ready to ferment, I cover them with a clean, unscented kitchen trash bag, bringing the bag up and over the sides of the crock. On top of the bag, I put a plate that's just smaller than the diameter of the crock, and weight it with two two-liter soda bottles full of water.

The area between the bag and the ferment seems to act like an airlock. As the ferment bubbles, the CO2 forces the O2 out, making the small surface area of the ferment that's exposed at the edge of the bag inhospitable to mold.

Since we've started using this method, we've had no problems at all with mold. Our current batch of kimchi is almost two months in the crock, and totally mold free.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:50 AM on March 28, 2017

Relax! Fermentation is really easy. The only thing you really have to do is keep the food under the liquid and keep the whole system as airtight as you can manage. But as Katz says over and over again fermentation is one of the oldest food preservation techniques; it's not rocket science.

Seconding the advice that sauerkraut / kimchi is likely to be easier than cucumber pickles. Also I'm curious what "air lock lid things" you got. I found fermenting got a lot simpler when I got some Pickl-It lids, which has a simple wet airlock system to let CO2 out without letting air in. They also sell a handy weight to keep veggies submerged, but honestly anything the right shape will work for that purpose.

ottereroticist, don't feel bad comparing yourself to Claussen's Kosher Dills. Those are vinegar pickles, not fermented.
posted by Nelson at 7:34 AM on March 28, 2017

If you would really like to dive deep into a definitely pseudo-spiritual Kefir evangelist, look no further than Dom's Kefir Site. It's a lot.
posted by sazerac at 7:36 AM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

One resource that I am fond of is talking with locals who do this, some commercially, as this is often a community that values sharing and support.

For pickles, as people above are saying, they can be trying to get things just-so... and this can be one of the thrills of fermentation! Some batches turn out much better than others, and that is part of the fun and magic. Here's an approach that I have used, and have been advised on, to greater and lesser success: get pickling cucumbers, which I'm told are drier than many other varieties, toss them in a jar with your seasonings, AND a tea bag (with staple removed, or free-tea leaves, horseradish, or grape leaves, which might be available from some wineries, even at fall-time... or another tannin source of preference) and weigh them down, covering everything with your brine; leave them out for about seven days, depending on the weather (and whether you are already using a cultured brine), contemplating the bubbles, taste-testing toward the end; then throw them in the fridge when they get to your bliss point, to keep them from getting over-done.

Personally, I like to toss in a bit of garlic and an abundance of dill into things, even if I'm making a spicy batch. And as far as air-locks, I find that you can get by with regular mason jars and lids just fine.

Sometimes you are left with a jar of mush, and if that is to your liking, then enjoy it! Other batches mold-over (compost food), and some... are the best pickles you have ever had. Start small, so as to afford experiments, good and bad, two litres sounds like a lot for pickles to start with. I'd use those for krauts/kimchis, much more than pickles as an initial step, unless you have a large number of people eating a lot of pickles at once, or have a lot of fridge space for such a large jar, once the process needs slowing.

Enjoy the process!
posted by the letter at 9:33 AM on March 28, 2017

Re: tannins. I've had success using bags of black tea, which is always around.
posted by vers at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2017

There is zero shame in using Ball jars for fermenting. That is exactly what I use. I disagree with your opinion that sauerkraut is "involved" in some way - it's one of the easiest ferments you could possibly make - cabbage and salt.

I agree with some other comments about weights or another means of submerging your vegetables. They need to be completely covered by the brine.

I've only done a few ferments myself. A scale for accurately measuring salt amounts is nice, but not essential. Also, I don't really have one go-to reference online, but I do find the Wild Fermentation group on Facebook to be pretty helpful.
posted by O9scar at 11:33 AM on March 28, 2017

Also I'm curious what "air lock lid things" you got.

Just skimming before I delve in, but yes, they are basically Pickl-It lids - here.
posted by turbid dahlia at 12:44 PM on March 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I disagree with your opinion that sauerkraut is "involved" in some way

I just mean the time spent slicing cabbage and then massaging it, really. My plan with the jalapenos etc. was to just throw those bad boys in whole.

We have a farmer's market in town today, so I might see if there are some fermenters there and buy a few batches of their own sauerkraut or whatever so I can use the brine to help my own stuff along. Courier tracking has my delivery leaving Sydney today but it's a shithouse courier so I'm not sure if I'll have the equipment by the weekend :-(
posted by turbid dahlia at 12:49 PM on March 28, 2017

I usually have a jar or two of sauerkraut style mix on the go so I can only give tips on that. The only resource I used was the Art of Fermentation, patience and not being bothered when I messed up.

One thing that's obvious in retrospect but threw me at the time is that fermented vegetables taste very different to unfermented ones. I always threw a few carrots in when I was making a sauerkraut-esque mix because I really like carrots normally but it turns out I don't like them when they're fermented. I like my mixes a lot more now I leave them out.

Also, again with sauerkraut-style things, try waiting longer before eating it. My current batch sitting in the cupboard started in mid-October and has a far richer flavour than after a few weeks. I always take some out after a few weeks for the fridge as that's how my partner likes it but I'm happy just letting it develop away.
posted by coleboptera at 2:04 PM on March 28, 2017

I have a friend that does cuke pickles, and they are tricky. I haven't tried them myself, as I don't much like them. The temperature in Brisbane may make it hard. Cut the fermenting time short if it's warm in your house. Don't be too upset if they go squishy. I believe my friend has had the best luck with teabags as a tannin additive.

Do you have a decent scale? Because that's the easiest way to make the correct strength brine consistently. People insist on using tablespoons though, so remember that the US has a different tablespoon to us, and you may also have to compensate for the type of salt, as they all have different densities.

Make sure you keep the veg below the surface of the brine. I use a plastic bag full of the brine, which seems to work fine for what I've made, but there are other more traditional ways to manage it.

My favourite ferment is green beans in order to make pork and fermented bean stirfry (scroll down for recipe), which you should totally try, because it's awesome. I've also made this Indian style cauliflower ferment, which is also great, even if it does look a bit like tiny brains.

There is a facebook group called Fermenter's Kitchen that is super friendly to beginners, and is perfectly happy to confirm what is normal or not if you aren't sure. They've also got a bunch of recipes in their files.

I find that fermenting takes very little time, actually. Often the longest bit is waiting for the boiled water to cool down so that it is not chlorinated.
posted by kjs4 at 3:35 PM on March 28, 2017

We have a farmer's market in town today, so I might see if there are some fermenters there and buy a few batches of their own sauerkraut or whatever so I can use the brine to help my own stuff along.

By all means taste the wares and chat about how they're made, but you really don't need a culture to make lacto-fermented pickles. The vegetables come with all the lactobacillus you need already on their skins.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:19 PM on March 28, 2017

Wrt salt amounts, I've always winged it using Sandy Katz's heuristic: "good and salty but still palatable." The salt is really a matter of flavor—fermentation still happens across a wide range of saltiness, including none.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:21 PM on March 28, 2017

Ok well, just in case anybody is interested, I assembled my first batch today. Here.

My notes are thus:

"Brine: 3.5%ish (1 tablespoon Himalayan salt per 500ml distilled water)

Cabbage lids for all, glass weights for air-lock jars. Everything washed in rainwater in a big bucket.

From left to right (these are 2 litre mason jars, btw):

1. 3 x cucumbers lengthwise quartered, with dill, pickling spice, garlic, small red onion, bay leaves.

2. 3 x cucumbers sliced, with dill, pickling spice, garlic, small red onion, bay leaves, 2 x Carolina Reapers.

3. I dunno like a dozen jalapenos, halved lengthwise, with dill, pickling spice, garlic, small red onion, 1 x Carolina Reaper, to create a super-jalapeno.

4. Ten or fifteen or something small white onions, dill, garlic, small red onion, 1 x Carolina Reaper, straight brine.

5. Leftovers of everything in straight brine, no air lock.

Not a fan of these air lock lids as they feel flimsy and insecure, but whatever, we'll see what happens."

I figured that the best advice was, really, just to have a crack at it, and see what happens, and I woke this morning champing at the bit. Work was called off because of the cyclone and flooding etc. anyway.

The ingredients were only a few bucks, though it certainly took a lot of time to prepare. I've got a good idea of quantities required and so forth now, though, and it was a ton of fun to do. Next time around I won't go overboard with a hundred different things, and I'll just use these as baselines for perfecting the three primary ingredients show.

Thanks for all y'all's help! You are all best answers in my heart. I will be referring back to this thread frequently in the next few weeks, for sure. Fingers crossed!
posted by turbid dahlia at 12:07 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, sad news. I tested the cucumber batches today and they were both soggy, slimy boluses of fail. The jalapenos were soft but quite flavourful, so I am keeping those going. The onions were...wet, briney onions, but they weren't slimy, so I'll keep those going as well.

The best thing I tested were the jalapenos from the "leftovers" jar, which were at the top, along with cucumbers, onions, garlic etc. They were better than the jalapenos from their own jar. I took them out and put them in their own jar into the fridge, even though they couldn't be considered fermented yet, simply because I didn't want to risk them being wasted as well. The cucumbers from the mixed batch were slimy logs as well, but the couple of onions and the garlic were fine, so I'm just going to cook those up tonight with spag bol.

All in all, pretty disappointing, but not totally unexpected. The cucumbers were, after all, English cukes, which are big and girthy, and I kept the seeds in, so that's a big lump of sludge right there. I've also learned not to go OTT and do a million things at once. Tomorrow I'm going to go grab some cabbage and go through the motions of straight sauerkraut, and I might see if I can find some Lebanese cucumbers, which are much smaller.

I also was reminded today, visiting mum, that she has a grape vine at her house, so I can nick some grape leaves too.

No big deal, but I guess I was too cavalier about the whole affair, and wasted a lot of good produce. It's going to compost in the backyard, at least, and I picked up a Trinidad Scorpion and a habanero plant today, so I'll have something good to feed them.
posted by turbid dahlia at 11:53 PM on March 31, 2017

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