How To Pickle With Lacto-Fermentation

Lacto-fermented pickles have increased nutritional benefits, more complex flavor and tend to be crisper than pickled foods processed with vinegar and heat.

By Jan Wiese-Fales | Photos By Lily Rochha

Rather than eliminating all bacteria as you do with a sterile pickle-canning process, fermenting vegetables encourages the growth of naturally occurring Lactobacillus, bacteria that convert sugars and starches in fruits and vegetables into lactic acid and other substances. The lactic acid preserves the fermented produce. And the fermentation process produces a wide variety of healthy bacteria.

Also known as probiotics, these beneficial bacteria are associated with a “healthy gut,” which is linked to many wellness benefits, including immune system support and improved digestion.

Vegetables can be fermented in large or small batches, mixed or matched. Many of the same firm vegetables that are suitable for making vinegar-based pickles—cucumbers, beans, asparagus, carrots, okra, zucchini, beets, cauliflower, peppers—also are suitable for lacto-fermentation. Like sauerkraut? That’s fermented cabbage. Many dill pickles? Fermented.

The basic process

Find a recipe you like or have inherited, and gather your ingredients, supplies and of course, fresh produce from your garden. Traditionally, lacto-fermentation is done in a stone crock, but any food-grade container will do. Use mason jars for small batches.

  1. Begin by washing fresh, blemish-free vegetables or fruits. You can use them whole, in chunks, sliced or grated. With whole cucumbers, leave a small piece of the stem, but trim 1/16-inch off the blossom end, because enzymes located there may lead to softening of the pickles. Layer the vegetables into the container with fresh or dried spices of your choice. Hot peppers, peppercorns, garlic and even horseradish can be added for an extra flavor punch.
  2. When making the water and brine solution outlined in your recipe and even when rinsing your vegetables, avoid tap water, which may have been treated to kill microbes. Instead, use spring, distilled or filtered water, and an unrefined salt such as pickling salt or sea salt.
  3. Mix the brine, and pour it over the vegetables to cover them. Place a weighted platform such as a plate or saucer on top of the vegetables to hold them beneath the brine, as fermentation should be anaerobic.
  4. Fermentation speeds up in warmer temperatures and slows in cooler temperatures. The brine will begin to cloud within a few days and will start to bubble soon after.
  5. Check the pickles daily to make sure they remain submerged. Skim off any naturally occurring scum or flecks of mold that form on top of the brine. Begin testing the flavor of your pickles once they begin to have a pleasant “sour” aroma. If during the fermenting process the sour aroma smells more like rotten food, discard the batch and try again.
  6. Whole vegetables and those cut into larger pieces will take longer to reach optimum pickle flavor. Once they reach a flavor you like, it is time to put them in the refrigerator in smaller jars with lids, or store your crock in a cool place that is 50 to 55 degrees, keeping the pickles covered in the brine. Fermented pickles will keep anywhere from two months to a year. If pickles change appearance or smell and/or taste “off” before you consume them all, it’s time to add them to the compost pile.

For more pickling and canning tips and recipes of all types, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The USDA’s Principles of Home Canning contains helpful diagrams.