Sour Grapes? Nah, Sour Pickles!

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Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky

Here’s how you can make your own at home in a flash.

It feels uncanny. Put cucumbers in a jar. Cover them with clear salt water. Add a few spices. Wait a week or so, and you have delicious sour pickles in a tangy, cloudy green brine. Unseen little creatures transformed ordinary cucumbers into that culinary delight.

Hannah Lewis with an assortment of her own fermented veggies and sauces
Hannah Lewis with an assortment of her own fermented veggies and sauces

This process does not resemble pickles from the supermarket: cucumbers in a bath of sterile distilled vinegar. New Yorker Sandor Katz, apostle of fermentation, says that do-it-yourself pickles are the opposite of fast food. Corporations produce standardized fast food to maximize profits, so passive customers just have to pay and consume. Do-it-yourself pickle-makers grow, barter or buy fresh produce, process it to their own individual tastes and enjoy their personal pickled products.

Our ancestors in Eastern Europe — or anywhere else — knew the uncanny trick of fermentation. They needed the trick. In Ukraine, for example, as in Michigan, local cucumbers appear in gardens and markets for a few weeks in high summer and then not again until the next summer. Cucumbers do not keep. Anyone who wants to enjoy cucumbers the rest of the year needs to know how to make pickles.

The same trick works for green tomatoes, cabbage, turnips, green beans, okra and almost any other kind of produce.

Valeriya Epshteyn
Valeriya Epshteyn

Valeriya Epshteyn of Detroit came to Oak Park from Ukraine as a young child 19 years ago. “We fermented vegetables at home as far back as I can remember,” she says. “When I was in first grade, I told my teacher how my father pickled tomatoes. He would boil water, add salt, let the brine cool off, pour that over the green tomatoes; a week or so later, we would have pickled tomatoes.”

When she moved to Ann Arbor for college, Epshteyn rediscovered fermentation. The local stores sold delicious kimchi; her friends made kambucha. “I developed a taste for those, but I didn’t think I could make them myself. I was way overpaying for fermented foods from the store.”

Later, living in Detroit, Epshteyn organized a fermentation party, where Raya Samet of Oak Park demonstrated how to make sauerkraut. I thought, ‘That’s all it took? Less than a dollar’s worth of vegetables!’”

Epshteyn now has an extensive backyard garden that produces nearly all the vegetables in her various fermentation jars. She sees the urban vegetable garden and the craft of fermentation as part of a larger vision.

“Every individual could become a food sovereign, empowered to understand, value and steward the system that brings them from food seed to supper,” says Epshteyn, program associate for Detroit Jews for Justice.

Hannah Lewis, also of Detroit and a massage therapist who owns Detroit Massage and Wellness, recalls how she learned the craft: “I got started pickling eight or nine years ago. I learned to ferment pickles from Blair Nosan (now in New York), who had been teaching this craft in Detroit for years.”

She touts the advantages of having a refrigerator filled with jars of fermented vegetables.

“When I feel busy, it is so convenient to have fermented foods around. I have a fridge filled with already-prepped vegetables — veggies ready to go even without a cutting board. In not a lot of time, I can convert a routine meal — say rice and a fresh item — just sprinkle a handful of fermented cabbage on that and it turns into a satisfying meal. It takes the meal up another level. “

Fermentation Benefits

The benefits of pickling are spiritual, physical, physiological and social.

Spiritual: There is so much life in a pickle jar. Unseen forces bring about a transformation that arouses awe, admiration and wonder. It is so healthy for human beings to experience that wonder.

Physical: Lacto-fermentation gives you the opportunity to take control of the process. You can engineer the flavor you like: new pickles, half-sours, sour pickles. Just go along for the ride. Taste the pickles, and you control the process. You also control the ingredients: Use only vegetables from a local farmer or from your own garden. Those are probably the most healthful, picked at the peak of ripeness, right in season and transported only a short way.

Physiological: We are just beginning to learn how important probiotics are to our health, which apparently depends on microbes in our gastrointestinal tract. We have the idea that sterilizing everything will protect us; we have a fear of bacteria, of soil, of dirt. But we also contain a diverse community of microbes. Our immune system, even our nervous system, seems to depend on this diverse community.

Social: Community-building happens when you call a bunch of friends to help process too much cabbage from the garden or the market. You share the work, and then you share the fruits.

Carly Sugar
Carly Sugar

Carly Sugar, also of Detroit, who is director of the Giving Gardens at Yad Ezra in Berkley, sees urban farming and home fermentation as part of a larger movement.

“Folks in the city are growing food, building community and inviting newer residents like me to join in the work. There is a thriving local food system as a result.”

Sue Salinger, managing director of Hazon in Detroit, teaches pickling to groups. “We were at Congregation Shaarey Zezdek a year or so ago with the sisterhood, hearing the wonderful Rebecca Starr tell her story of growing up on a farm Up North. We broke from that do-a-little to do-it-yourself pickling — we made sauerkraut.

Hannah Lewis prepares beets and turnips for fermentation.
Hannah Lewis prepares beets and turnips for fermentation.

“As the intergenerational group of 25 men and women were cutting up the cabbage, packing it into jars and sampling spices, people began sharing their stories of the best pickles they ever ate.”

Make Some Sauerruben!

Hannah Lewis and Valeriya Epshteyn both recommend pickled turnips as a delicious project for beginners. Sauerruben (sauer = sour, as in sauerkraut; ruben = turnips), according to Epshteyn, “tastes like mild horseradish, but not overwhelming like horseradish.”

Valeriya’s Recipe

Grate turnips. Add salt. Massage the turnips until they weep some liquid into the bowl. Put the salted turnips into a jar. Make sure the liquid covers the turnips; add salted water, if needed. Keep the jar out of the refrigerator, but let it burp. Open the cover every day and then screw the cover back on. Or have some sort of valve to let the burp escape. It smells for two or three weeks. Then seal and refrigerate.

Kosher Dill Pickles

  • Make a brine of 3.5 to 5 percent salt by dissolving two or three tablespoons of non-iodized salt in a quart of water.
  • She adds salt to the grated vegetables as a prep for the brine.
    She adds salt to the grated vegetables as a prep for the brine.

    Put a bunch of fresh cucumbers (pick small, green, under ripe ones) into a glass jar. It is traditional to add spices: a hot pepper, cloves of garlic, dill seeds (or fresh dill), peppercorns and mustard seeds. Add enough of the brine to cover the cucumbers.

  • Some people add a leaf from a horseradish plant, a grape vine or a raspberry or currant bush. They say it makes the cucumbers crisper.
  • If you can, find a non-metal weight to keep the top cucumber below brine level. Close the jar with a non-metal lid.
  • Remember to open the jar once a day to let gasses escape. If you have a valve to let the mixture burp, you do not need to open the jar. In a few days, you will have new pickles; a few days later, half-sours; after a week or so, sour pickles. When the pickles taste the way you like them, move them to the refrigerator.

More Recipes

Recipe: Lacto-Fermented “Kosher” Dill Pickles

The so-called “kosher” pickle is not necessarily kosher in the sense that it complies with Jewish food laws. It is called kosher because of its flavor profile made popular by New York’s Jewish pickle makers, known for their natural salt-brined pickles heavily seasoned with dill and garlic. So any pickle that is seasoned in the same fashion is referred to as a kosher dill.

INGREDIENTS:
  • 5 Tbsp. sea salt
  • 2 quarts chlorine-free water
  • 4-6 grape, oak, horseradish, or bay leaves
  • 6-9 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 large heads of dill
  • Spices to taste: black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, etc. (Secret ingredient: for an extra bite, add a few strips of fresh horseradish to the spice mix!)
  • Enough pickling cucumbers to fill a ½-gallon jar
INSTRUCTIONS:
  1. Make a brine by dissolving 5 tablespoons sea salt in 2 quarts of chlorine-free water. (Note: this recipe will possibly make more than what is needed, you may save extra brine to be used in future ferments.)
  2. In a half-gallon jar add a couple of the tannin-containing leaves, a few cloves of garlic, the heads of dill, and ⅓ of the spices.
  3. Pack half of the cucumbers tightly on top of the spices. (The longest ones work best at the bottom.)
  4. Repeat a layer of leaves, garlic, and spices. Add another tightly packed layer of cucumbers and top them off with more garlic and spices.
  5. Pour the brine over the pickles, leaving 1-2 inches of headspace. Place another tannin-containing leaf on top of the pickles as a cover between the pickles and the surface of the brine. Use a fermentation weight to keep the pickles under the liquid, if necessary. Cover the jar with a tight lid, airlock lid, or coffee filter secured with a rubber band.
  6. Ferment at room temperature (60-70°F is preferred) until desired flavor and texture are achieved. If using a tight lid, burp daily to release excess pressure. The brine should turn cloudy and bubbly, and the pickles should taste sour when done.
  7. Eat right away, or store in a refrigerator or root cellar for months and enjoy them all winter long.

Recipe: Sauerruben

Yield: 1 Quart

How you make your turnip pieces is a matter of taste and time. Something approximating a julienne works best for me, but I sometimes spiralize, sometimes hand cut and sometimes use the mandoline. It’s up to you. I like slightly larger pieces, so I don’t grate my turnips, but that’s an option as well.

I also prefer to keep this one simple. The turnip flare comes through the best when additional seasonings are limited, this is one that I generally do with no spices added, but again, that’s your choice!

Lewis adds liquid from the bowl to fill the jar to cover the veggies.
Lewis adds liquid from the bowl to fill the jar to cover the veggies.
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds (900 g) unpeeled, purple-top turnip, ends and rooty bits removed
  • 1 tablespoon (18 g) kosher salt
How-To
  1. Rinse turnip/s. Cut them according to your preference (see headnote) and place them in a medium bowl. Pour salt over turnips and toss with clean hands to combine.
  2. Massage the mixture until the vegetables have released some liquid. The larger the pieces, the more mixing you’ll have to do to draw out the water.
  3. Once you see a small puddle at the bottom of the bowl, they’re ready to be packed into the jar.
  4. Press the turnips into a quart jar, smushing them down  thoroughly with the flat of your fist until the jar is full to about 2 inches below the rim. If there’s not at least 1/4 inch (1 cm) of liquid covering the turnips when you press down on them, pour a bit of liquid from the bottom of the bowl into the jar.
  5. Apply a weight (ideas here) to keep the vegetables under the brine. Cover your jar and move to a room temperature spot away from direct sunlight. Let it ferment at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. Once it’s sour enough for you, remove the weight, secure the jar lid and stick it in the fridge to slow fermentation.
  6. Sauerruben makes a great addition to salads and sandwiches, but you may accidentally eat the whole jar before it makes it to that slice of bread.
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