I bought a pickle crock a few months ago, and after a few batches of normal pickles, I put in a batch of kimchi a few days ago. You might think I’m being trendy, and maybe I am. One thing for sure is I really love home made pickles, and don’t know how I’ve lived for so long without them or what took me so long to start making my own!
Making your own pickles is very easy.
There’s an astonishing amount of misinformation about pickles on the Internet! For years we’ve been told they are dangerous, and if you can them you have to add so much vinegar it makes them impossible to eat, and then cook them in a canner until they are a mushy mess. None of this is true. There are virtually no cases of people getting sick from fermented pickles. It’s also not necessary to can them in order to preserve them or to make them safe.
True pickles are made without vinegar, because the fermenting process creates lactic acid which together with the added salt, is more than enough to preserve them and keep them safe.
I think I’ve spent hours looking for a good kimchi recipe, because most of what’s on the Internet completely misses the point of how pickles are fermented, and the recipes simply can’t work. I’ve heard lots of people who tried to make kimchi say ‘oh, it didn’t work for me because I didn’t wait long enough.’ That’s what I said the first time I tried! People who say this are simply using the wrong recipe.
Vegetables Without Sprays
For pickles you have to use organic or unsprayed fruit or vegetables. Yes — you can pickle fruit too. Pesticide residues, as well as changes in bacteria balance and so on will interfere with the fermentation process.
Anaerobic Process Under Water
This is critical to making pickles. Under water. Room temperature.
Whatever it is you are fermenting has to be submerged under water, and since most vegetables float, some sort of weight is necessary to put on top to keep it submerged. This process will give off gas, and exposure to oxygen should be minimized, so either you need some sort of airlock or you need a jar with a tight fitting lid that you loosen every few hours. If you forget to loosen the lid it will explode! You have been warned.
If your pickles are exposed to oxygen when they are fermenting, a little mold will probably form on top. This is harmless and can just be removed.
Any vegetables not completely covered with water will rot during the fermenting process, and should be removed.
A ceramic pickle crock is not very expensive, and very handy. These have a built in air lock on top, that you can just add a little water to. The air lock will let the pickle gasses escape, and prevents oxygen from entering. Pickle crocks come with purpose made weights, that hold the contents below the water level. With a pickle crock you are unlikely to have mold problems. Also pickle crocks are usually partly made from unglazed ceramic, which can’t normally be completely cleaned, and will hold some of the pickling bacteria from one batch to help inoculate the next. If necessary, the unglazed parts can be sterilized in boiling water.
A common mistake is to buy a pickle crock that’s too small. You might think you could never eat 10 liters (2.5 gallons) of pickles, but they will lose volume as they ferment, and will taste very good once you’re finished! They will also store a long time. It is true, when making speciality pickles, like beet relish or similar things, that 10 liters might be a little on the large side.
If you find a recipe for fermented pickles or kimchi on the Internet that doesn’t have this step, it won’t work! Pickles cannot be fermented in the refrigerator!
Pickles Need Salty Brine
It might be technically possible to make pickles without salt, but that’s defeating one of the important reasons for making pickles in the first place. Salt is a preservative, and pickling foods is a way of preserving them. Pickles with minimized salt content will have a very short shelf life.
The pickling process requires an astonishing amount of salt. A typical recipe with 2-3 Kg (5-6 lbs) of vegetables may need as much as 5-6 Tablespoons. The amount of salt is not usually very critical, so some people add more or less and often don’t measure it. The salt needs to be very pure, without iodine or minerals, as these will cause the pickles to brown.
How can it be that so much salt gets added and the pickles are not ruined? Even for people who normally salt their food, this seems like a lot of salt. The trick is that the salt stays in the brine, and draws the water out of the vegetables. Of course pickles are a little salty, but this is mostly because they are in salty brine. Adding more or less salt to the batch as a whole, won’t significantly change the salt content of the pickles themselves, and if you discard the brine virtually all the salt gets discarded with it. If you think the pickles are too salty after making them, you can rinse them then if necessary.
By starting with fresh vegetables, and salting them, they often have enough water in them to make their own brine. In this way, a minimum of flavors are lost. It’s very common to need to add a little water or brine, but you want to keep this to a minimum because it will dilute the flavors.
If you see a recipe on the Internet that calls for first salting the vegetables, then rinsing and discarding the liquid, look for another recipe! This is not how fermented pickles are made.
The fermentation process occurs at room temperature, and slows down considerably at cooler temperatures. This is mostly the issue for storing pickles, stopping the fermentation and keeping them from getting too sour. The salt and lactic acid in pickles are very effective preservatives, and when stored in a cool place like a refrigerator or root cellar, they will keep a long time. Ideally, they will be kept as close to, but above, 0C/32F as possible. The salt content will provide some protection from freezing, and a light freezing won’t harm them. Canning or deep freezing are also possibilities, and will stop the fermentation process, but will also change the texture and flavor of the pickles. Canning has the advantage of being able to store the pickles at room temperature or transport them easily.
Pickles will keep longer if they are stored covered in brine.
If you have a pickle crock and a root cellar, the traditional way is to just put the entire crock of pickles in the cellar for storage.
Special Issues for Kimchi
Kimchi needs a special kind of red pepper flake powder called gochugaru. This is milder than normal red pepper powder. This can be bought online or at Asian groceries.
In traditional kimchi the basic ingredients are scallions, garlic, gochugaru, napa cabbage, daikon radish, salt and if you aren’t vegetarian also shrimp or fish sauce. The spices are made into a paste, with a little added water, then rubbed on the cabbage with the salt. This is then fermented at room temperature for about 3 weeks. The cabbage has enough natural fermentation bacteria and doesn’t need any added inoculant, and it probably has enough water it doesn’t need any added water or brine.
Beyond the traditional ingredients, many people also add ginger, carrots and other things.
Ignore all the recipes out there that call for salting and rinsing the cabbage, or making the kimchi in jars without liquid in the refrigerator!