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a large mason jar full of cucumber pickles with dill and garlic

My experiment making fermented cucumber pickles with tea is over, and the verdict is: tea keeps pickles crunchy. I’ll definitely be trying it again to see if I get the same results. For the recipe I used, see part one here.

Closeup of a quarter pickle, sliced lengthwise, on a cutting board

I pulled them out of the crock after three weeks of daily temperatures that went from 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night to 80 in the afternoon. They’ve got a good flavor, and I don’t taste the two tea bags, but they are certainly crunchy pickles! They’re also a little too salty. Next time I’ll lower the ratio of salt to water and see how that influences the crispiness.

Tea-fermented cucumber pickles and garlic in a bowl

I added tea because the tannins it contains help slow the pectinase enzymes that break down plants’ cell walls, which are made of pectin. It’s the stuff that makes fruit ripen. As those walls soften, so do the cucumbers. The traditional way to get tannins into fermented pickles is with grape leaves, horseradish leaves, and oak leaves. A lot of other plants have high tannin levels–I almost used plum leaves until I read that they could be poisonous. Tea is so accessible it seems like a great alternative. If you give it a try, tell me how it goes.

Here’s the original recipe.

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A partial image of a New York Times graphic showing some microbes mapped by the Human Microbiome Project

Find out even more about the human microbiome and the relation between microbes and health in a second, more detailed article the New York Times published last week. Here’s a snippet.

In a study published last week in the journal PLoS One, Dr. Kjersti Aagaard-Tillery, an obstetrician at Baylor College of Medicine, and her colleagues described the vaginal microbiome in pregnant women. Before she started the study, Dr. Aagaard-Tillery expected this microbiome to be no different from that of women who weren’t pregnant.

“In fact, what we found is the exact opposite,” she said.

Early in the first trimester of pregnancy, she found, the diversity of vaginal bacteria changes significantly. Abundant species become rare, and vice versa.

One of the dominant species in the vagina of a pregnant woman, it turns out, is Lactobacillus johnsonii. It is usually found in the gut, where it produces enzymes that digest milk. It’s an odd species to find proliferating in the vagina, to say the least. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery speculates that changing conditions in the vagina encourage the bacteria to grow. During delivery, a baby will be coated by Lactobacillus johnsonii and ingest some of it. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery suggests that this inoculation prepares the infant to digest breast milk.

The baby’s microbiome continues to grow during breast-feeding. In a study of 16 lactating women published last year, Katherine M. Hunt of the University of Idaho and her colleagues reported that the women’s milk had up to 600 species of bacteria, as well as sugars called oligosaccharides that babies cannot digest. The sugars serve to nourish certain beneficial gut bacteria in the infants, the scientists said. The more the good bacteria thrive, the harder it is for harmful species to gain a foothold.

Plus: viruses and fungi may be in on the action; strongly worded quotes suggesting that antibiotics could disrupt healthy bacteria in unhealthy ways; and fecal transplants seem to be gaining approval and could be coming to you in pill form someday. Oh and there’s a sweet graphic.

Researchers suspect that, by harming healthy microflora in children, antibiotics can lead to asthma and allergies later in life. Microbes could also influence the weight of the mammals that host them—scientists have made thin mice obese by giving them the gut bacteria of other obese mice. So where do these obesity-causing bacteria come from? Probably a variety of places. Even the food you eat can change your microflora. According to the Economist, a study found that a sugary, fat-laden diet could change a child’s gut bacteria profile, leading to an increased risk of asthma, allergies and other inflammatory diseases. Food for thought.

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I started some cucumber dill pickles this weekend, and I added two bags of tea. Why? It’s said that fresh grape, cherry, oak, or horseradish leaves can add tannins that keep cucumber pickles crunchy. I didn’t have any of those, so I threw in two tea bags instead. I’m excited to find out what happens! Will fermenting dill pickles with tea keep them crunchy? Time will tell.

[Update: See how the pickles turned out in this post.]

Meanwhile, here’s what I did.

pickling cucumbers in a bowl

I washed and cleaned three pounds of smallish cucumbers.

a bunch of dill on a plate

I got a bunch of dill.

closeup of dill flowers

The best dill to pickle with has passed the flowering stage and started to develop seeds. The bunch I found was only starting to flower but it smelled great.

peeled garlic in a bowl

I peeled about two heads of garlic.

whole black pepper kernels in a small bowl

Got some whole black pepper.

Hand holding two bags of black tea

And two bags of black tea.

cucumbers in a pickling crock

I laid the dill stalks into the bottom of a crock and threw in the garlic, pepper, and tea bags. Then I laid the cucumbers on top. For more ideas on pickling vessels, check out this post on storing pickles.

a crock of pickles weighted down under brine

Then I laid down some weights to keep everything submerged and added a brine of three quarts water mixed with 9 tablespoons of salt.

This crock comes with its own lid that forms a water seal to help keep mold-carrying air away from the surface of the brine. You can see more about air-sealing your pickles here.

The surface of pickle brine showing signs of fermentation below

Three days later, my kitchen started to smell like dill and the surface of the brine showed these bubbles, a sure sign that fermentation was happening. If you look carefully at the picture you can also see two white islands of mold on the upper left between the two pepper kernels and another up at the top, at 12 o’clock. The next day those had gotten even bigger, with little blue spots at their center, and I scooped them out with a spoon.

The cucumbers still have a few more days of fermentation to go. I’m curious to know if the tea kept the dill pickles crunchy, and whether it gave them an interesting flavor, too.

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