Beyond flavor, there are really just two major types of pickles:
- Quick Pickles - Pickles that are prepared with vinegar
- Fermented pickles - Pickles that are prepared with brine and undergo fermentation thanks to the bacteria naturally found in and on the vegetable
While both are equally tasty, the big difference between these two types of pickles is their probiotic properties. Quick pickles made in vinegar will not hold nearly as much beneficial bacteria potential as fermented pickles. Fermented pickles are considered a probiotic food, which means they contain beneficial strains of bacteria that, if consumed often, can contribute to the population and diversity of our gut microbiome.
Ixcela recommends adding fermented foods, like fermented pickles, to the diet if metabolites related to the diversity of the gut microbiome are not within the optimal range. The metabolites indole-3-propionic acid, indole-3-lactic acid, and indole-3-acetic acid are specifically noted for their roles in supporting the population and diversity of the gut microbiome. That being said, it is important to reevaluate your pickle buying practices to ensure you are adding a variety that will help to support your gut. When picking out pickles, consider these tips:
- Buy local. The farmers market is probably the best place to look for real pickles. Not only can you talk to the provider about their pickle practices, but you can also learn more about the flavors and varieties they offer.
- Check out the refrigerated section. Fermented pickles will almost always be found in the refrigerated section in the produce aisle. Cool temperatures halt further fermentation, and the high heat of canning can harm the more fragile beneficial strains of bacteria present in fermented pickles.
- Spend the extra dollar. Pickles are cheap, and while it is easy to scan the shelf for the cheapest pickle, consider looking for a higher quality pickle. You might find that a more expensive option actually notes the item is a fermented food.
- Read the label. If you are in doubt, read the ingredient list. If you notice vinegar, it’ll tip you off that the quick pickle is disguised as its fermented cousin.
- Make your own! It might sound like a lot of work, but with a few cucumbers, fresh herbs, kosher salt, water, and a glass jar, you can make your own fermented pickles! If you try it once, you’ll realize how easy it is. And it might even save you a few dollars compared to the organic farmers market pickles you were previously buying.
Check out this step-by-step process on how to make your own pickles!
This recipe is brought to you by Ixcela’s Pickle Master, Sam Matson. Sam has worked next to her dad, Ixcela’s Chief Scientist Wayne Matson, for most of her life. From the lab to the kitchen, Sam is our gut health guru, offering insight into the importance of gut-related metabolites and all things fermented!
Before starting any canning project, I suggest visiting https://nchfp.uga.edu/. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a reliable resource for all projects related to fermentation and food preservation.
Slightly Sour Pickle, Lacto-Fermented
Note from Sam: For a beginner, I suggest trying a small batch so you don’t get overwhelmed by the whole process. Try 8 to 10 cucumbers that can fit in one quart jar.
8–10 pickling cucumbers per jar (See notes below about how to find the best pickling cucumbers.)
2 teaspoons peppercorns
2 dill flower heads or 2 tablespoons dill seeds
3–6 cloves of whole garlic, peeled and gently smashed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
A couple of unsprayed grape leaves*, rinsed
* Note from Sam: I use this to help keep my pickles crisp and to also keep them submerged in the brine. I put one on the bottom and one on the top over the cucumbers.
Dried or crushed hot peppers, to taste
1–3 glass wide-mouth canning jars with lids and rings (if not using plastic)
Note from Sam: I prefer to use the one-piece plastic lids for fermenting.
2 tablespoons of kosher salt
4 cups of water
Note from Sam: Make sure you use non-chlorinated water or that you filter your water. If you are making larger batches, just increase amounts.
Picking your perfect pickling cucumbers:
- Be sure that you are using very fresh cucumbers, and
- keep them chilled if you aren’t pickling right away.
- Don’t skip cutting the blossom end off when preparing them.
- Pick a cucumber size that you like. For best results, use cucumbers that have been bred for being pickled.
- Wash the cucumbers well in cold water. Remove any discolored, bruised, or soft cucumbers. Be sure to get cucumbers that are not waxed. After cleaning, soak the cucumbers in an ice bath. (This is optional, but I have found that I get the best results this way. I usually do this for 1 to 2 hours before I pickle.)
- To make the brine, bring the water to a boil and add the kosher salt. It’s important to use water that is non-chlorinated or filtered because you don’t want the minerals or chlorine to prevent fermentation.
- Stir the salt until it dissolves. Set the brine aside to cool while you prepare the cucumbers and the jars.
- Cut the blossom end off the cucumbers, or cut off both ends if you can’t figure it out. You can also slice the cucumbers if you choose. I like them whole or split in half, depending on size.
- Add a grape leaf or two to the bottom of the jar and then add the spices.
- Pack the cucumbers into the jars tightly, leaving enough headspace that the brine will cover them. I go with at least ¼ inch. Ideally, you want to pack them into the jar tightly so that they won’t float up when you add the brine. I use an extra grape leaf on top to help with this too. You can also use a cucumber, placed on top and wedged in to help keep them down. When I do this, it is usually my first “sacrificial pickle” to taste test. If you really get into pickling, there are accessories you can buy, including glass weights that you can use for this purpose. You don’t need to invest in these if you take a little time and you are only doing this once in a while.
- When the brine is at room temp, pour it over the cucumbers. Screw a plastic canning lid loosely onto the jar and set them on a counter to ferment. I ferment in a specially prepared area of my basement now. However, in the beginning you will want to do it somewhere that you will see the jar and remember the jar. It is easy to forget about it if you are very busy and you don’t pickle often. Ideally, the room should be less than 77°F. The warmer it is, the faster the fermentation will happen. If it is too cold, the ferment won’t work well.
- Every day you must de-gas or “burp” the pickle jar. Loosen the lid to let the gas escape and then place it back. Remember not to tighten it too much. You don’t want to build up pressure. There are special lids with little attachments to let the gas escape. These are really handy and time-saving when you are doing a lot of fermenting, but hold off spending the money until you know that this is something you want to do a lot of.
- After 3 or 4 days, if your house is around 77 degrees, and 7 to 10 days if cooler, check the pickles for flavor. Keep fermenting them on the counter until you achieve the sourness you like, and then move them to the fridge to slow down the process. Consume the pickles within a month. The pickles will change color as they ferment.
Who would have thought this sour snack and sandwich component could be so easy to make and so good for your gut health? If you have taken the Ixcela gut health test and find that you need to boost your indole-3-propionic acid, indole-3-lactic acid, and/or indole-3-acetic acid, fermented pickles should be on your list of foods to try. If you find that you enjoy fermented pickles, you don’t have to stop at cucumbers. A wide variety of vegetables can be pickled using a similar method and are a great flavor-booster and accompaniment for meals. Whether you make them yourself or purchase them from your preferred pickling pro at the farmers market, you can expect to get a good dose of friendly bacteria.
About the Author
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rachel Stuck has a background in culinary arts and nutrition counseling. Rachel takes a positive approach to nutrition: she avoids recommending restrictive diets and instead focuses on helping people choose foods that promote health and well-being. She is passionate about empowering and assisting Ixcela members as they develop their unique, gut-healthy lifestyles.
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