What's in a Pickle? Fermentation, Pickling, and Their Common Roots

It can be a little confusing sometimes, can't it? Is a dill pickle the same as a kosher dill? Is a pickle something that's been made in a water-bath canner, or a fermentation crock, or the refrigerator? Yes, is the answer.

English is a funny language. And like all languages, it has evolved over time, in ways that have distorted or clouded the original meaning of words.

Once upon a time...

how to make fermented pickled jalapenos

Once upon a time, all pickles were fermented. As there were no refrigerators "back then," or fabulous stores stocked with canning jars of every type, pickling by fermentation was the primary method of preserving vegetables. All that was needed then, as now, was a vessel, water, and some salt.

The Full Sour Pickle

The original, classic pickle is what is known as a full sour pickle. This means that the cucumber has had a long, slow ferment in a very salty brine. As the fermentation progresses, acetobacter begin to proliferate. These are the organisms that make vinegar, so in a sense, a pickle creates it's own vinegar as it ferments. Generally, these pickles were so salty and sour that they were sometimes washed, rinsed, or even soaked before eating, to lessen the intensity.

The same salt that makes our lips pucker is what preserved the cuke against other bacteria that might otherwise cause it to rot; almost nothing besides lactic acid bacteria can live in the super salty, acidic, airless environment of a fermentation crock.

A traditional full sour pickle had a brine strength of between 5-10%; a 5% brine is about as salty as you would want to eat, these days, and it is made of roughly 3 TBS of salt per quart.

The Half Sour Pickle

Half sours are another form of fermented pickle, which, as the name might imply, are roughly half the salt concentration of the full sours, generally around  3 1/2 % salinity in the brine, or 2 TBS of salt per quart of brine. They do not keep for as long as the full sours, but they ferment more quickly and taste less sour on the tongue.

Then Came the Modern Kitchen

how to make pickles with a water bath canner

As civilization progressed, and kitchen gadgets began to spread, it became easier and more accessible to preserve the season's produce in a water bath canner. Instead of lengthy fermentation times, a batch of pickles could be processed and put on the shelf in just an hour or two, where they would remain shelf stable for many months to come. 

Pickling with a Water Bath Canner

To ensure safety, and to mimic the sour taste of a fermented pickle, vinegar, salt, and spices were added to the jars of canned pickles. Once processed in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, the pickles could be safely stored for a full year at least. Although vinegar itself can contain active cultures that would make it considered probiotic, the process of distillation (for distilled white vinegar) and later, the heat of the water bath canner, kill off any bacteria.

The heat processing can cause a softening of the characteristic pickle crunch, so over the years various additives have been included in recipes to prevent the dreaded mushy pickle syndrome. These days, we use calcium chloride to ensure crispness in a water-bath canned pickle. Ball sells it in granule form, recommending a rounded 1/4 teaspoon per quart. In days past, folks used either alum or pickling lime.

We still stock some of these artisanal ingredients at the store, because some people find great pleasure in doing things just as their grandmothers did. However, we no longer recommend their use, as both products have safety concerns if they are not handled properly.

Alum, or sodium aluminum sulfate, as it is properly called, is toxic in very large doses, and can cause irritation of the skin and mucus membranes in smaller quantities.

Pickling lime was traditionally used to soak the pickles in before canning, but it is very alkaline--exactly the opposite pH that you are trying to achieve in a pickle. Used properly, with several rinses, this alkalinity can be washed away and neutralized by the vinegar; however, improper handling can lead to pickles that are insufficiently acidic and at risk for botulism, among other issues.

Don't Forget Vinegar-Brine a.k.a. Refrigerator Pickling

Another method of pickling is to simply soak the pickles in a vinegar brine solution, with whatever spices are desired. This is known as refrigerator pickling. Because the cucumber is neither cooked nor fermented, this is perhaps the crispiest pickle that can be made. However, it must be kept refrigerated at all times, so it is not as useful for preserving large batches of cukes at one time.

You can learn more about water bath canning and vinegar brine pickling here.

Any Way You Brine It, a Pickle is Delicious

how to make fermented garlic dill pickles

What makes the difference between a kosher dill or a bread and butter pickle is merely the seasoning that is added to flavor the pickle. A classic pickling spice combination contains mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, and dill seed. A bread and butter pickle will often contain all of these ingredients as well, with the addition of granulated sugar.

Any way you brine it, a pickle is delicious. Whether your primary aim is reaping the probiotic benefits of fermentation, or preserving the fruits of your labor to store in the pantry, there's a pickle for every situation.

Get Pickled! Resources for Getting Started Today...

how to make pickled asparagus

Whether you’re a first-time pickler, or whether you’ve been making vinegar-brine pickles for years and you want to enter the wild world of fermentation, you’re in the right place...

Ready to get started? We've got you covered in our online shop.

Over to You

It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.

Keeping a great journal leads to delicious results! Get inspired by new recipes, expert articles and homemade food adventures in our Monthly Journal

This article is part of the August 2015 Issue of our Monthly Journal. Sign up for the Journal to be the first to receive all our new recipes and content each month.