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DO Try This at Home: Fermented Foods and How To Home Pickle

August 26, 2020

Pickles, ICYMI, are all the rage. While you may (or may not) appreciate the tasty benefits that a sour pickle can impart on your next plate, you may not fully appreciate the health benefits. According to the internet, your belly loves a good fermented food and all the healthy benefits that are a side-effect of the fermentation process. And we agree! We feature a whole list of fermented foods on our periodic table.

But before we tell you how to make your own (fermented) pickles at home, let’s take a look under the hood and separate the fact from the hype.

Hype: All pickles are fermented foods.

Fact: Some “pickles” are fermented and some are not. Recipes labelled “quick pickled slaw” contain vinegar, which may have some modest health benefits, but these are not fermented foods. “Quick” does not allow the fermentation process to happen, which involves allowing the right kind of bacteria to multiply, consuming the natural carbohydrates in the vegetables and forming lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and alcohol.

Hype: All fermented foods are good for you because they are “probiotics”- legitimate sources of “good” bacteria (e.g., Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces).

Fact: The reason most fermented pickles are good for you isn’t because they directly supply your body with good bacteria that then spread all over you and work their magic. Nor are they probiotics, defined by The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” There’s not enough evidence that foods contain enough live bacteria to have a specific effect. According to Dr. Rob Knight, Founding Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation, Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering at UC San Diego and expert on the microbiome, the current thinking is that fermented foods act as the “mulch” to support good microbes in the gut. Most of the bacteria in fermented foods don’t survive the acid in your stomach, but even those dead microbes are still beneficial. After all, seeds won’t grow on a parking lot – you need soil and mulch. Research is currently underway to figure out how this translates into dietary recommendations.

That’s the science of why pickles are good for you. But there’s also a really precise science to how pickles are made. The reason precision is important is partly because of food safety. Without the right combination of ingredients, the “bad” bacteria will overpower the “good guys.” What would happen if you left a cucumber out on the counter in a warm kitchen for several days without its pickling bath? As you can imagine, the bacteria in that science experiment are exactly what you DON’T want to creep into your pickles.

So what are the key elements of the pickling process that ensure that the right bacteria can do the fermenting, while keeping the bad guys out? These are the 4 things we suggest you pay close attention to.

1. Salt –Salt is important to the pickling process. This is not the place to go low sodium. (If your doctor has recommended a low-sodium diet, this may not be the recipe for you; on the other hand, you could consult your doctor about whether pickles as an occasional condiment would be acceptable.) For safe fermentation, the brine must contain a minimum percentage of salt by weight. Because most people don’t have a cooking scale, we have recommended a recipe below using kosher salt that approximates weight using tablespoons. Now, there’s a further complication that the two major brands of kosher salt have slightly different properties. One difference is in the size of the granules, so, by volume, 1 tablespoon of each will impart different saltiness. With that in mind, you might need to tweak the recipe a bit as you get good at this (or buy a scale if you become a pickling fan!). Note that you can use table salt, but it contains additives that can brown the final product and make the liquid turn cloudy.
2. Rinse well – but don’t scrub – your cucumbers. Especially now, in the era of COVID-19, you may be accustomed to giving your veggies an extra-thorough wash and scrub (maybe with a vegetable brush). In this case, don’t. The outside of the cucumbers contains Lactobacillus bacteria that act as a starter for the fermentation process. Use fresh, unwaxed (the wax covers the bacteria! Not to mention, who wants to eat wax?) Look for organic cucumbers intended for pickling, with no sign of broken skin, softness, or browning. Any of those blemishes can be a sign that bad bacteria have already started to grow.
3. Try and get the amount of air in your pickling container down to zero. Fill it to the tippy top, let it drip down the sides a bit (see the video for how to use a small weight to keep the veggies submerged), then top it with a well-fitting lid. If the cucumbers are exposed to air, mold may form.
4. Proper storage after fermentation is complete: transfer pickles to a glass jar, top with fresh brine, and refrigerate for weeks to months.

This may seem too hard or dangerous. We usually, as food scientists, tell you all the ways you can modify a recipe to suit your needs and preferences. This time, as food scientists, we’re telling you: DON’T. On this one, you must follow the recipe, especially if you’re new to pickling.

Many recipes give portions relevant to canning huge amounts of vegetables at once. If you are a pro at this, you’ve probably got your own recipe. For those of you who are new, we’re sharing a reasonably-sized, amazingly simple starter recipe via video. Credit: Chef John.

One last note: Many of our recipes are quick (e.g., 15-minute frittata). This is not quick and not to be messed around with. It’s the perfect recipe for anyone with extra stay-at-home time on their hands right now (ahem!).