The Basics of Fermentation: When Things Were Rotten
And a belated love letter to Liebman's Delicatessen.
Hello my friend,
A recipe for salt water may seem strange, but stay with me, you won’t regret it. And we’ll be using this — and the science of lacto-fermentation — a lot.
This is a basic brine for lacto-fermenting vegetables. If you have ever eaten kimchi or sauerkraut, you have consumed lacto-fermented foods. The prefix “lacto-” is used because this process was first observed in dairy foods such as yogurt, but lactobacillus bacteria, the critters we will be working with, are present on most foods.1
There are other kinds of fermentation — yeast partying hard in a sugar solution and converting the sugar to alcohol comes to mind — but today we are going to talk about lacto-fermentation because it’s easy. The bacteria do most of the work for you, which is my kind of cooking (the kind where minions do most of the work).
The salt is added to the brine in order to help suppress the growth of harmful bacteria and help keep the pickled vegetables crisp. Lactobacilli flip the bird to salt, and can survive it without harm.
It’s very important to understand what fermentation is and what it does to food — it’s really just a form of controlled rot2 — so we don’t make ourselves and our victims, sorry, loved ones, ill. That’s why we are starting with basics. The explanation of what we will be doing in the future with this particular type of food sorcery follows the recipe, and I’ll link back to this post when we start fermenting for real.
Basic Salt Brine
4 cups non-chlorinated3 water
2 1/2 Tbsp. non-iodized4 salt
Optional flavor bombs to be added to the jar later: Sliced garlic, bay leaf, pickling spices, fresh dill5, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, whole peppercorns, etc.
Add salt to water and stir until the salt is completely dissolved. Seriously, that’s pretty much it. You now have an environment in which our friends the lactobacilli can flourish. The rest is hygiene and patience.
OK, we’ve got salt water. Now what, Deb?
Now we learn why we made this salt water. In my case, it has to do with Liebman’s Deli.
My mother was a refugee from an unhappy Orthodox Jewish upbringing, where religious ritual was used as punishment rather than as a source of comfort and faith. Religion played no part in her adult life, and she identifies to this day as a “cultural Jew.” Combine that with my parents’ subversive sense of humor, and I can remember at least one Seder plate filled with egg rolls from the local Chinese restaurant instead of the ritual foods of Passover. That probably explains more about me than I care to admit.
Mom’s idea of a Jewish education was to take my sister and I to dinner at Liebman’s Kosher Delicatessen in Riverdale, N.Y. once a week. Liebman’s is still around, although I haven’t been able to make it back there since we left the old neighborhood, a fact that I regret deeply. For me, it will always be the Platonic ideal of delicatessens, the culinary shul of my childhood.
The menus were large and heavy in my small hands, and the food at Liebman’s was plentiful and lovingly made. Of course, there were the traditional delicacies. The seeded rye bread that contained the sandwich meat — roast beef on rye, deli mustard and coleslaw, please — was soft and pleasantly chewy. I could not start my meal before holding a slice up to my nose and inhaling its piney, caraway fragrance.
Liebman’s was where my mother taught me to slice a potato knish lengthwise, slather each pillowy half with the spicy brown mustard from the pot on the table, then put the two halves back together and eat it like a sandwich. While my peers were learning the prayers for the bread and the wine in Hebrew school, I was committing the sweet creaminess of the mashed potato and the sharp tang of the mustard to memory.
But it was the stainless steel pickle barrel on each table that made the biggest impression on my young soul.
I don’t remember a time when pickles were not one of my most beloved foods. My mother generally limited me to one pickle per meal, for fear of the gastric upset that could result. But at dinner at Liebman’s, once a week, that parental rule was lifted.
Each icy-cold barrel contained pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes, awash in a tub of fragrant, garlicky brine. Dinner at Liebman’s was the only time my mother allowed me more than one pickle at a meal, and I took full advantage. I have no memory of whether the indulgence ever made me sick, but to this day I have a Proustian memory of the smells and flavors that emanated from that steel barrel.
So now I make my own version. You can, too, with some brine and some patience.
That’s why we are making salt water.
There are different pickling/preserving methods, but many of the pickles you buy commercially today are preserved in acetic acid, also known as vinegar. Those are perfectly serviceable, but they do not have the soul and depth of a fermented pickle.
When you eat a fermented pickle that you have made with your own hands, it feels as if you have worked some sort of witchcraft. And it’s an ancient form of witchcraft. Fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation in human existence.
Lactobacilli are very considerate, as microscopic scavengers go. When you give them a comfy home (I’ll get into what that means in a minute), cheer them on and say nice things to them, they chow down on microscopic bits of your brining vegetables and convert the sugars to lactic acid. That acid, as well as the salt brine that you put the vegetables in, prevents the growth of harmful bacteria.
In return, they give the contents of your project a pleasingly sour flavor. Throw in some flavor bombs, like garlic and fresh dill, and you’ve got something truly amazing. It may even be good for you, if you are into the whole probiotic thing, although I am not a doctor and don’t make any claims about this, other than that lacto-fermented foods taste really good.
Another thing the lactobacilli need, in addition to a sufficiently salty brine, is an anaerobic (“without oxygen”) environment.
Oxygen is the enemy of fermentation, because some harmful bacteria need oxygen to survive. Bad, bad oxygen. We hate it. In lacto-fermentation. I am not suggesting for a moment that you and I don’t need it.
For that reason, we want to keep our fermenting vegetables completely submerged in the brine. Vegetables that float above the surface of the brine and expose themselves to oxygen are prone to mold, and that will ruin your preciouses, rendering them inedible.
The easiest way to keep them submerged is to use some sort of weight to hold the vegetables down. I use glass pickle stones, but it is also perfectly acceptable to partially fill a small Ziploc bag with extra brine and place that on top. Just make sure that you leave enough head room at the top, so you can close the jar without most of your brine overflowing.
The only other things you will need are sturdy glass jars to put the ferments in, some painter’s tape and a Sharpie for cheap labeling (the painter’s tape adheres well, but is also easy to remove when you need to use the jar for another project).
A sense of humor and adventure don’t hurt, either.
Oh, and AIRLOCKS! Sorry for shouting, but this is important. The lactobacilli are gassy little things, and CO2 is a byproduct of the fermentation process. If your jars are tightly sealed, they can actually explode from the build up. One way of expelling the gas, so to speak, is to “burp” your jars every day, but I don’t recommend that. What if you — and by “you” I mean “I” — forget? Or become busy?
Nope, invest in a few airlocks. You will thank me for this. There are quite a few on the market that fit over the wide mouth Mason jars I linked to above, but I like these because you can also track your starting date.
Next time we’ll start a real fermenting project, but as I said, it’s nice to know the basics of the science behind fermentation, because what goes on in the microscopic world is fascinating. It’s also so that your jars don’t get all explodey on you. Not that I would know anything about that.
Let’s ferment all the things,
Seriously. Deliberately propagating bacteria sounds disgusting, but I promise you it’s not. Bacteria are present everywhere, even on your skin. Even after you have washed the vegetables you want to ferment.
There is no escaping them.
Bow down before your bacterial overlords. They make things taste delicious if you cooperate with them.
Anyway, say hello to our little friend, Lactobacillus acidophilus. Try not to think about him too much.
Mmm, appetizing, Deb! Listen, all food rots. But if we can control that rot under specific, hygienic conditions, we can keep ourselves safe while munching on a very tasty side dish or condiment.
Chlorine will kill the lacto-bacteria you are trying to propagate. I use filtered water, but spring water works, too.
Iodine is added to salt to prevent deficiency in humans, but it will kill bacteria. Again, not good for a project where our main goal is to gather a gigantic and enthusiastic army of bacteria that will do our bidding. I just buy a huge box of Kosher salt and shove it into the back of my pantry. The amount of salt you add depends on how salty you like your ferments, but don’t add too little, or other, possibly harmful bacteria may colonize.
Please don’t use dried dill. It’s basically sawdust and tastes like it. Buy a bunch of dill at the supermarket, wrap it in plastic wrap and then put it out of the way in your freezer. It will last a long time. When you need some dill, cut off the part you need, allow it to come to room temperature, and proceed. Put the rest back in the freezer.