Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crock Fermented Garlic Dills

This is just an introduction to lacto-fermenting in crocks; there is much more to know about lacto-fermentation and I'll post some of it as time goes on.

In the past few years I have pretty much stopped eating garlic-dill pickles; actually, stopped eating most pickles in general. I think it is because they all taste like vinegar, which has become the 'norm' for any store-bought pickles, and for almost all homemade pickles. Last year I made and canned dozens of types of pickle relishes, but I no longer consider those a 'true' pickle... or at least not a fermented pickle.

There are several differences in a fermented pickle and a vinegar-based canned pickle, whether it is a cucumber, cabbage, carrots, beets or whatever you choose to ferment. A ferment is the action of bacteria producing lactic acid, which makes the food more digestible. As the lactic acid works on the fruit or vegetable, it also produces additional vitamins and amino acids that were not in the raw foods. We all know the benefits of the probiotics in fermented milk (yogurt), and it is the same for fermented vegetables and fruits.

There is lactobacillus bacteria all around us... in the air, on our skin, on the vegetables, and even IN the vegetables. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of harmful bacteria. The basic idea in fermenting is to use salt, or a salty brine, which keeps the bad bacteria at bay until enough lactic acid is formed. The bad bacteria cannot exist in a lactic acid environment. Keep in mind the growth of lactic acid is very dependent on temperature. If you try to ferment at an initial temperature that is too cool, the bad bacteria will grow quicker than the lactobacillus can make lactic acid, and your 'pickle' will spoil.

The range of suitable temperatures varies for different vegetables. Carrots ferment best around 68ºF, cucumbers @ 64-68ºF, and sauerkraut @ 68-72ºF. Since I cannot control my kitchen temps that closely, I depend on length of time instead. Generally it takes about 2 days of room-temps to get the lactic acid-producing bacteria going. I have found if I use some fresh whey along with the brine, it seems to jump-start the lactic-acid bacterial action. After 2-3 days to as much as a week depending on room temperature, the bacterial action slows and you can move the crock to a cool place like a basement or a root cellar. 

The remainder of this post is about crock fermenting but for the most part, I am no longer doing my fermenting in a crock unless I have a huge batch of something. Instead, I am fermenting in the old fashioned jars with a rubber gasket and a wire bail to fasten the lid, sometimes called 'Fido' jars. The next post tomorrow will discuss that method, which I think is much safer for the novice fermenter.

Two things happened this year to change my attitude about making and eating pickles... my determination to eat nutritionally better foods, and my neighbor, Buster, losing his 19 year old son. Buster's wife cannot tolerate the thought of making pickles now because it reminds her of her son and his love of pickles of any kind. Although Buster loves them too, she can't get past the reminder of her son enough to make pickles for her husband. So I made some for Buster.

The traditional way my grandmother and my mother made pickles or sauerkraut was to put the ingredients in a crock, add a brine, put a clean plate with a weight on top to keep the contents submerged, cover with a clean dishcloth, and let them ferment. They will develop a harmless white yeast film on top, which they just skimmed away. With a Harsch crock it's almost the same, except if you have confidence in what you are doing and don't open the crock, the water seal will keep a yeast film from forming.

Several weeks ago Buster gave me a big bag of cucumbers he picked that morning, and I drug out my Harsch Crocks (7.5L) to be cleaned, and to start some garlic dill pickles. I think in New York City, these are called 'half-sours' and most delicatessens serve them. I have only made pickles in my Harsch crocks once before, right after I got them 3 years ago. Those pickles spoiled. (In retrospect, they probably didn't spoil; I saw the white yeast film that developed and assumed they were spoiled.)

The Harsch Crock has a moat around the top where the lid fits, and you keep it filled with water so no bad bacteria can enter the ferment. I had my crocks sitting on the kitchen floor after they had fermented about 10 days on the warmer counter top. (You can keep pickles in the Harsch crocks for months if the temperature is cool, the contents stay submerged in the brine, and you keep water in the seal; just occasionally skim the yeast film.) Buster and his son had already tasted the pickles and said they were great, just needed to mellow in the crocks.

Every morning when I went into the kitchen to make coffee, the water would be completely gone from the lip of the crock, so I'd fill it. It wasn't warm enough for that much water to evaporate overnight and I was quite perplexed. After about 2 weeks of filling the water trough every day, I thought the pickles were beginning to spoil, and just before I decided to trash them, I came into the kitchen late at night and found my sister's CAT drinking the water from the rim!

So, this current batch was made in my pantry room which has a door I can close, keeping thirsty cats out. One crock had cucumbers cut into spears, and the other had whole cucumbers. (The whole cucumbers need a longer time to ferment and I haven't opened that crock yet.) In each crock I put a large horseradish leaf on the bottom, added half the seasonings, then half the cukes, the rest of the seasonings, the rest of the cukes, 4 tablespoons of fresh whey, and the brine. Put another horseradish leaf on top, add the weights (photo below)... making sure 1-2" of brine covers the weights, place the top on the crock and fill the rim with water. Notice the lid has 2 notches; those are to let the build-up of CO2 escape through the water moat.

If you never open the crock until you want to taste a pickle, you will not get the white, thin film of yeast on top of the brine (see photo just above). However, every time you open the crock, all the CO2 that developed from fermenting will escape, and oxygen contacting the brine surface will allow the Kahm yeast (I'm not sure of the spelling) to grow. It is harmless, and you can skim it off daily in an open crock or in a Harsch crock.

This morning I opened the crock of spears, transferred them to 3 quart jars and took 2 jars to Buster to store in their refrigerator. (Once they are out of the crock, you need to refrigerate them.) The pickles are cloudy in the picture above, but they taste just fine. Buster said they had just the right amount of garlic, seasonings and salt to suit him.

My seasonings, per 7.5 liter crock about 1/2 to 3/4 filled:
4-6 cloves peeled garlic
1 onion, sliced into rings
4 fresh dill heads, medium to large
1 teaspoon dry dill seed
1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole coriander
1 teaspoon whole mustard seed
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 large bay leaf, torn smaller
3-4 fresh horseradish leaves
4 tablespoons fresh whey (drained from yogurt)

The brine had 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons sea salt per 4 cups non-chlorinated water; if you don't use whey, increase the amount of salt, to taste. Should taste like the sea; if it's too salty after fermenting, you can always rinse, or soak and rinse before eating. Since the only reason to use salt is to keep bad bacteria at bay until the lactic acid starts to take over, and by adding fresh whey, I have jump-started the lactic acid process, I felt confident to reduce the amount of salt.

Fermenting can sometimes be hit or miss; even long-time, accomplished fermenters lose a batch now and then. First-timers lose more than one, I'd bet. I lost my grape leaves because I used an airlock (like for fermenting wine or beer) on a half-gallon canning jar lid that came loose. I lost a jar of sugar snaps because I didn't blanch them. If a jar has slimy and smelly contents, just trash it; do not be tempted to taste it! Start small, so there's not too much to lose.


  1. I have a similar crock but I stopped using it. I don't have a cat, but the water in the moat still drops too low every day, and those notches in the lid then allow fruit flies to get into the crock and spoil the batch. The notches go high enough that the moat needs to be *completely* full to work, meaning I need to refill it twice a day. I don't understand why the notches are really necessary and would be interested in getting a crock without them if anyone knows where to buy one.

    1. I've heard that from more than one source. I don't use either of mine anymore, but more because there's only me to consume the quantity a full crock makes.


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