As the fall harvest comes to market, it’s easy to dwell on how swiftly the peak flavors of the lush produce will pass, or how, all-too-quickly, their vibrant colors will fade. Preserving vegetables allows us to enjoy the season’s harvest for months to come. And so, we headed to the Brooklyn-based Bed Stuy Kitchen to pick up some pickling prowess. From the communal kitchen, we sliced and diced fresh vegetables, smashed spices, and poured brine, all the while talking about the particular joys of preserving.
“The bacteria present during the fermentation process produces vitamins and probiotics that help populate our bodies with immune boosting microbes,” explains founder Sara Elise, as she sprinkles orange zest over the fresh cut beets in her pickling crock. “The more you eat all of this good bacteria, the more balanced the bacteria in your body becomes, helping you absorb more nutrients in all the food you eat.” While slicing a clove of garlic, Wise chimes in, “For me, cooking is a collaboration with nature: it’s about drawing out the essence of the produce you’re working with, capturing it at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, while understanding the food’s needs, powers, and particularities.”
There is, indeed, a kind of magic in sealing a glass jar up with autumn goodness, leaving it on the pantry shelf for several months, and opening it on a winter night, when eating seasonal vegetables is as delicious and distant a memory as walking barefoot. A note to remember: just like with all food, the success of your pickle depends on the ingredients. Always use the freshest pickle cucumbers (some recommend picking and pickling in the same day). You want a different vegetable than the smaller salad cucumbers. Known as the Kirby, this kind of cucumber has a thicker skin and crisper flesh (often a paler green with light stripes running lengthwise), which doesn’t break down to mush during the fermentation process. Here are two lacto-fermented pickling recipes to get started:
Ora’s Half-Sour Pickles
10-12 pickling cucumbers, very fresh with the stems trimmed off
½ tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp peppercorns
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp crushed pepper flakes
¼ tsp dill seeds
2 dried bay leaves
4 mature dill blossoms
4 cloves fresh peeled garlic
¼ cup pickling salt
5 cups purified water
1. Soak your cucumbers in a bowl of icy water for about 15 minutes while you prepare the pickling spice.
2. Dissolve the pickling salt in the purified water, creating the brine. Don’t try to substitute pickling salt with sea salt or table salt—pickling salt is free of the additives in other salts that can change the consistency of your pickles.
3. Put all your dry spices into a bag and roll over it with a rolling pin a few times. This will crack the mustard seeds open and splinter the pepper flakes without pulverizing the spices too much.
4. Add the garlic cloves, dry spices, and dill blossoms to your crock.
5. Then, remove the cucumbers from their ice water bath and place them into the crock. You can maximize your pickling space by filling the center of the container with whole cucumbers, then lining the top and edges with cucumbers chopped into half-sizes or sliced lengthwise.
6. Pour your brine into the crock, making sure that all the cucumbers are fully submerged. Place the weights on top of the cucumbers so that they do not float to the top during fermentation. Put the lid on, resting it loosely on top of the crock or jar.
7. Store your pickles in a cool dark place for a few days. Start tasting them at the end of each day – they can be ready to go in just 48 hours. The longer they sit, the more they sour – so for half-sours, a few days should be fine, while full sours may take up to a week. It’s possible that the garlic will turn green, and that the brine will get cloudy, or even fizz and foam, all of which are normal parts of the fermentation process.
8. When the pickles are fermented to your desired sourness, move them to the refrigerator. At this point, you can store them in an air-tight and sterilized container, and keep them for several months.
Sara’s Ginger-Citrus Pickled Beets
5-7 large beets
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp whole peppercorns
¼ cup pickling salt
5 cups purified water
zest from 1-2 oranges
shavings from one finger-sized piece of ginger
1. Cut the beets to your preference, keeping the skin, which contains lots of beneficial bacteria that will aid in the fermentation process. The beets can be left whole, sliced into rounds, or cut into half moons (just don’t grate them). The size of the beet will impact how quickly it ferments. Make sure all the beets are roughly the same size so that some don’t get more pickled than others.
2. Dissolve the pickling salt in the purified water, making the brine.
3. Put all your dry spices into a bag and roll over it with a rolling pin a few times to crush up the peppercorns and snap open the coriander seeds.
4. Start layering beets in the crock. Put one layer of beets in the crock and then cover with orange zest, ginger, and the spices. Repeat until the beets are 3 inches below the rim of the crock.
5. Pour your brine into the crock, ensuring that all your beets are fully submerged. Add the weights to the crock so as to keep the vegetables under the brine.
6. Put the crock lid on loosely.
7. Store your beets in a cool dark place for a few days. Start tasting them after the first 3 to 4 days. The longer they sit, the more they’ll pickle. It’s possible that the brine will turn bright pink or even fizz and foam. This is a normal part of the fermentation process.
8. It is also possible that a layer of mildew could form on top of the brine. If this happens, simply scrape it off and put the lid back on. The weights protect the vegetables from getting moldy.
9. When the beets have fermented to your pickling tastes, move them to the refrigerator. At this point, you can transfer them to an air-tight and sterilized jar. The pickles will keep fermenting very slowly once in the fridge. You can keep them there for 4 to 6 months.