How to Preserve Food with DIY Pickling  

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Pickling involves soaking foods in an acid or brine which prevents harmful bacteria from growing.  It is incredibly easy to do (though some foods do have a high learning curve).

Picking your own food is also very cheap since you don’t need any special equipment.  You can even use recycled jars.

Why Learn to Pickle Foods?

  • Healthy bacteria: With lacto-fermenting, the process creates healthy probiotic bacteria which are very good for your gut health. Researchers now attribute these probiotics (or the lack of them!) to conditions including autism, asthma, obesity, mental health, and more.
  • Preserve food: Americans throw away a huge amount of food – upwards of 40% of food we buy ends up in the trash. If you aren’t able to eat food in time, just pickle it to preserve it.
  • Emergency food: Do you have a 2-week stockpile of emergency food (as the Red Cross and FEMA recommend)? While you shouldn’t rely on pickled foods alone in emergencies, they can be a good part of your food stockpile.  More on that here.
  • Tastes good: Pickling gives foods a tangy taste. It can really make some bland foods taste much more exciting.

How to Pickle Foods

There are two ways of pickling foods: vinegar pickling and lacto-fermentation.  The processes and results are very different.

Vinegar Pickling

The first method of pickling involves vinegar.  You simply soak the food in vinegar which has at least a 5% acidity.  Some methods call for you to boil the food in the vinegar solution.

There is a lot of controversy as to whether these “quick pickles” need to be refrigerated.  So long as the lid stays on, then the vinegar should preserve the food for up to several weeks – even out of the fridge.

However, there is a risk of contamination when the vinegar pickles are left out of the fridge.  Thus, to make the pickles last for a very long time, they should be canned after pickling.  When canned, the pickles can last 5+ years.

Read this post on home canning instructions for more.

pickled with vinegar

Vinegar pickling
These beans are put in a vinegar solution and then canned to make them last for years instead of weeks.

Lacto-Fermentation Pickling

This method of pickling is very popular now, especially because it creates gut-healthy bacteria.  It involves submersing food in a brine of salt and water.  The salt draws natural sugars out of the food.

Lacto bacteria, which are naturally found on the surface of food, eat these sugars and produce lactic acid as a result.

The acidic, oxygen-less environment prevents bad bacteria from growing. So long as the food stays under the brine, it will be protected by the healthy lacto bacteria in the brine.

Lacto-fermentation is as simple as these steps:

  1. Put fresh produce in a clean jar. You don’t need to sterilize the jars.
  2. Make a brine: Use about 1tsp to 1tbsp of salt for a quart-sized jar.
  3. Fill the jar: Leave about 1 inch of headroom in the jar.
  4. Put a weight on the food so it stays submersed in the brine.
  5. Loosely cover the jars.
  6. Allow the food to ferment at room temperature. Fruits ferment in about 24 hours. Veggies usually ferment within 2-7 days.  The longer they ferment, the sourer they will be.
  7. You will see bubbles forming. This is a sign that fermentation is occurring.
  8. Test the pickles: If it isn’t sour enough for your taste, then leave it to ferment more.
  9. Put a lid on the jar and move it to the fridge

Getting the Food to Stay Under the Brine

The trickiest part of fermenting (at least for me) was getting the food to stay under the brine.  Some people recommending boiling a rock to use a weight.

Another popular recommend is to use a cabbage leaf which you press on the pickles.  The cabbage leaf also needs to stay under the brine.

I still ended up with food floating to the top of the brine with these methods.  Better methods are:

  • Baggie filled with water: Fill a sandwich bag with brine water and put this on top of the food.
  • Pickling weights – cheap: You can buy special pickling weights.  I found super-cheap little plastic inserts for the jars which worked very well for whole pieces of food.  They don’t work for shredded foods since the pieces will float up.
  • Pickling weights – more expensive: Or you can buy these more substantial glass weights from Amazon

fermentation weights

Shelf Life of Lacto-Fermented Foods

As soon as the food is fermented to your taste, put a lid on them and move to a cool, dark place (like a fridge or root cellar).  The cool temperature will slow down fermentation.

So long as the temperature stays below 65F, fermented vegetables should last around 4-18 months.  Fruit ferments only last about 1-2 months.

To get your pickles to last longer, they will need to be canned.  This involves pouring the brine in a pan, boiling it for about 5 minutes, and then putting the food and brine into canning jars. The jars can then be processed with a water bath canner or pressure canner.

Unfortunately, the canning process will kill the healthy bacteria in natural ferments.  However, that’s the tradeoff for having food which can last 5 years.

Exploding Jars

The bacteria responsible for fermentation produce gas as a byproduct.  If you seal the jar tightly during fermentation, the gas can build up in the jar and cause it to explode.  To prevent this, you need to only loosely cover the jars while fermenting.  Some people just cover them with cheesecloth or coffee filters.

After a few days of fermenting, the amount of sugar available for the bacteria to eat will be lower.  This will slow down fermentation.  Cold temperatures will also slow down fermentation, which is another reason you need to move ferments to a cool location after they are fermented to your liking.

However, the bacteria can continue to ferment even in a refrigerator.  Over time, the gases will build up and you might end up with an exploding jar.  There are a few ways you can prevent this from occurring:

  • Occasionally “burp” your jars by removing the lid to let gas out.
  • Use special airlock lids. These lids have vents which allow air to escape.
  • Make sure you leave enough headroom in the jar. Thick, creamy foods (such as kefir) need lots of room because air bubbles can get trapped inside the food.

Notes:

jar containing pickled food
This white film is normal. Dark film is not okay!
  • Iodized Salt: Iodine in salt slows down fermentation. Ideally you use iodine-free salt. I’ve had success with iodized salt though.
  • Starters: There is no need to buy a starter. The food will ferment with just table salt.
  • White film: You might see a white film on top of your ferments. This is okay – just scrape it off.
  • Brown or black film: This is a sign that your fermented foods have gone bad. You will need to throw the entire batch away.
  • Garlic: It will turn blue when fermented. It is still edible but just looks weird.

Learn

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