Free Pickles at a sandwich bar, photo from frankh's photostream
In the last few years, we have become focused on probiotics, and a spot-check of many refrigerators will find a container or two of yogurt, along with real cheese (naturally fermented; processed cheese is not) and maybe some wine, also naturally fermented. There might even be a bread box with some sourdough bread (which is naturally fermented). We all know that eating yogurt will increase the good bacteria in our intestines. As a cost-saving and ingredient-control, many of us even make our own yogurt, kefir and kimchee for the health benefits of the good bacteria cultured in the batches we make.
Why then, did we discontinue the old-time method of fermenting pickles, sauerkraut and other vegetables, which were probiotic? That older method is what today is known as lacto-fermentation or lactic acid fermentation (and sometimes called wild fermentation), the very same fermentation process that takes place in turning milk into yogurt. This process was known by earlier generations merely as 'pickling' and most general stores had a barrel of pickles where for a pittance you could spear one to eat.
Today, many of the same folks that are focused on eating yogurt and kefir for the good bacteria, are still making pickles with vinegar and heat-processing them, killing all the good bacteria, vitamins and enzymes in the process, and leaving the ingredients tasting of vinegar. Why? Lacto-fermentation is the simplest type of fermentation, and produces a superior tasting and healthier product. No canning necessary!
"The prized cultures of a San Francisco sourdough, or the finest Bleu cheese, have their roots in someone's kitchen or farmhouse long ago." ~Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation, The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.
When we 'lost' this old method of food preservation, we lost the incredible health benefits that came with it. Canned sauerkraut and pickles, whether home canned or store-bought, simply do not give us the same healthy benefits.
The pickling method our grandmothers used was easy: put your cukes or sliced cabbage or vegetables in a crock in layers with salt (which draws out the vegetable juices and becomes a brine), weigh them down with a plate and a jug of water, cover, and ignore. Pretty soon they had tasty pickles or sauerkraut, loaded with beneficial bacteria. Over time, recipes evolved for different tastes in their pickles... garlic, dill and mustard seed come to mind. Adding fresh grape leaves or fresh horseradish leaves produced a crunchier pickle. Sauerkraut might include caraway seeds, or juniper berries... or even cranberries. They found they could pickle all sorts of vegetables including carrots, cauliflower, radish, beets and even pickle eggs and pigs feet. Soon they had a whole cellar-full of healthy eating stored for winter.
The brine serves as a protection against the growth of putrefying microorganisms, and favors the growth of desired strains of bacteria, Lactobacilli. Fermentation breaks the nutrients down into more easily digestible forms. For example in making yogurt, Lactobacilli transform lactose (milk sugar) into easier-to-digest lactic acid. (Many meat products like salami are also fermented, although today it may be a chemical imitation rather than the real thing.) These bacterial cultures also create new nutrients – B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, essential for cell membrane and immune system function. Some ferments have been shown to function as antioxidants, scavenging cancer precursors (free radicals) from the cells of the body. No matter how you look at it, it is simply this: Fermentation makes food more nutritious.
There are many ways to preserve besides the brine method. Vegetables can be submerged in whey, or wine instead of a salty brine. There are dry-salt methods used around the world for foods such as lemons, anchovies and salt cod. However, an easy way to start is with vegetables in a brine. The only trick is to keep everything submerged as the bacteria work in the absence of air. My mother kept a big pickle crock in the unheated garage. You could dip out a few into a jar (with some brine or just added water to keep them from drying out) and refrigerate them for weeks, and as long as what remained in the crock was submerged in the brine, the pickles or sauerkraut would keep all winter.
I will be posting how to make a variety of fermented vegetables as my vegetables mature in the garden throughout the coming months, and it can be done in canning jars if you don't have a crock. Right now I am fermenting grape leaves to be used for the Mediterranean foods known as dolmas, or dolmades. Look for it soon.
Update July 7, 2010
After more trials and a few errors, I am refining my fermentation procedure, away from open crocks although I have 2 of those going right now too. I will start posting my newer methods in about 5-7 days, so stay tuned.