Food 0.001 – pickling is old school

September 14, 2008 in Gardening, Humble Garden, vegetable


I have been looking forward to doing this project for several years. I have distinct memories of when I was a child in Iowa, down in our basement in the bathroom we always hid in when the tornado sirens went off several times a summer. In that bathroom, near the shower, was an antique crock that was filled with little pickling cucumbers that were floating in this fascinating brine. A plate was put on top to keep the pickles from floating onto the surface.

I remember what it smelled like – a very distinct pickle aroma that makes my mouth water as I write this. I remember also being captivated by the scum that would float on the top and how it was ok that this scary odd concoction was being grown in OUR basement and by MY mother to be eaten by US kids.

Humble Garden: lactofermented organic homegrown pickles

I say that pickles are old school because there are records of pickles going back 4400 years to Mesopotamia. If you follow this link to the Wiki page on pickles you will learn that pickling has been a strategy used by humans for a long time and also by peoples across the globe.

  • Aristotle of Ancient Greece (1100 BC – 146 BC) promoted pickles for their health promoting effects
  • People on the move with mouths to feed figured out that pickles were a GOOD THING to have – Julius Caesar‘s army ate them but likely didnt understand that it was the vitamin C in the pickles that saved them from scurvy

Pickles have been immensely popular for 1000s of years across Asia, from India to China to Japan. Each region has its own special character and history. Each type of pickle is like a barometer of local authenticity.

What you likely do NOT know about pickles is that what you think of as pickles, those mass produced jarred pickles in the hot dog section of the grocery store are very little like the ones of history and do not possess the health promoting qualities attributed to pickled foods through the ages.

Humble Garden: lactofermented organic homegrown pickles

The difference is a matter of temperature and time, namely pasteurization and lactofermentation.

Most of us know what pasteurization is – the process of heating liquids for the purpose of destroying bacteria, protozoa, molds, and yeasts. (WIKI) We know that it is used to “make safe” our milk supply. This method has been used to “clean” up a vast majority of our foods that we buy from the store.

This is all new school – it was applied to our milk back in the time around 1900 (see this link about this whole saga) when milk production was industrialized and the dairies were crashing from management issues (conditions just like CAFOs today – crap in crap out).

Cows were fed the mash from nearby distilleries, cramped into standing room only pens with crap piled knee high and never cleaned, untested workers (think tuberculosis) worked in slavery like conditions – people and cows alike dropped like flies due to the conditions.

To be able to utilize the milk, which was burdened with e coli, brucellosis, tuberculosis, high cell counts from udder disease (mastitis) pasteurization was used.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

This same broad spectrum bacterial killing method is now used in pickle making. Whats more, because bacteria are “bad guys” (ignoring the fact that our bodies are made up of something like 10% bacterial mass) pickles are not allowed to go down the fermentation route – they are pickled with vinegars or industrially produced lactic acids.


Lactofermentation is what has historically been used to make things like wine, beer, and pickles. Its what you get when you take a raw vegetable from the garden, add some salt, and then let it sit at room temperature a couple of days and then put it in the root cellar (fridge).

At first, there is a broad spectrum of bacteria and molds and yeasts, just like on your skin (no matter how many showers you take) in the jar.

Then a dance takes place.

Bacteria are like us – they care about where they live. For them it is life and death tho. Certain types of bacteria can live with oxygen, some can not tolerate oxygen at all. Some like low pH others need high pH. It goes on.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

Bacteria are used to living in a menacing environment and have evolved ways to compete. They may produce poisons that kill off predators or they may change the oxygen composition or they may change the pH.

If you culture your lactoferment in a certain environment (certain pH, oxygen concentration, temperature) then you encourage some bacterial species and not others.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

This is the art of non-toxic non-lethal very delicious lactofermentation.

Doing lactofermentation in the post-pasteurization post-modern world requires you to take a leap of faith in our ancestors or to read a bit about science and trust your eyes and the collective wisdom of your ancestors.

To successfully venture into the delights of fermentation, I think that you have to be the following:

  • be ready to experiment
  • be willing to fail
  • be curious
  • be a foodie
  • be stubborn

You can learn a whole lot about lactofermentation from Sally Fallon in her book “Nourishing Traditions” and also from Sandor Ellix Katz at Wild Fermentation.

You will find a strong anti-germ theory running through a lot of this.

As a scientist, I can tell you one VERY important take home message – absolutism is foolish and will never serve you well. Its absolutism that has created our industrialized society (along with expensive lobbyists who have pushed massive regulation of food production so that the little farm cannot compete).

It is an absolutist mindset that will reject all germs and it is the same core absolutist mindset that will reject all regulations.

Don’t get caught up in the War of Germs or Anti-Raw Milk.

Moderation is key.

Follow what the germs themselves tell you. Equilibrium with functional moderation leads to a healthy ecosystem and a healthy body.

Delve into lactofermentation, make some pickles, sauerkraut, beet kvass, beer, wine, eat them raw, but also, clean that cut, take a shower, sterilize your bathroom for goodness sakes.

I am not going to give you recipes for these pickles because I think that people need to do some reading on the basics, learn about the lactofermentative process, learn what its supposed to look like when its going well and when its going UN WELL (its pretty obvious).

I have shared shots here of our pickles and sauerkraut. They were all made recently so its not time to taste yet.

I CAN tell you tho that the smell is HEAVENLY! I can’t wait to dig in!

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut