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Mar 20 2012

On the Farm: Adventures in Pickling

By at 12:30 pm

I love the taste of naturally fermented sour dill pickles. Since I don’t live anywhere near a Jewish deli and I have lots of fresh vegetables on hand from the farm, I really want to learn to make my own. But my initial attempts at pickling have not been a success.

Natural fermentation is the traditional way of making pickles taste like they are fresh from the barrel at a Jewish deli rather than fished out of a jar from the supermarket. They are not packed with any vinegar and not refrigerated, giving them the amazing taste and some say great health benefits. I put off trying my own naturally fermented pickles for years, using the excuse of being pregnant and nursing young children. It seemed to me that if you can’t eat feta, you should think twice about eating food left soaking on your counter for a week or more.

When I finally got around to trying my own batch this past fall it was already November and too late for cucumber or okra pickles. Instead, I collected some beautiful small red peppers, washed them and even boiled a rock to keep them submerged in the salt water. I packed it all in a clean mason jar with carefully measured water and salt. I was so optimistic!

For many days, nothing seemed to happen in the jar. So I let them sit longer until the water turned cloudy and the peppers appeared to be fermenting. But letting food soak for days on the counter goes against all of my food safety instincts and even without the pregnancy excuse, it was making me increasingly nervous as the days past. The next time I checked, the peppers felt a little slimy and I didn’t know if it was the good kind of slimy or something else. After some deliberation and a failed attempt to get my husband to taste them first, I totally chickened out and dumped the whole jar in the compost.

So what went wrong? I decided try to find out and sent an email to Sandor Katz, a top leader in the naturally fermented food movement and author of the widely acclaimed pickling how-to Wild Fermentation. He was quick to reply and happy to help.

After recounting my pickling woes, I asked him if he had any advice for a nervous Jewish mother learning the process. According to Sandor, “It sounds like nothing went wrong at all. Fermenting vegetables is very safe and there is no need to worry about bad bacteria. The process just takes some getting used to.”

So, it sounds like I tossed out perfectly good pickled peppers. Thanks to Sandor, I am ready to give it another try, this time with some radishes that overwintered in one of our fields. And hopefully by summer I will be ready to make sour dill pickles. I will let you know what happens.

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