lacto fermentation

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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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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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How to make kefir

avocado kefir shake

Kefir is a fermented milk beverage similar to yogurt that’s easy to make and has unique health benefits. It’s thinner than yogurt and I like to use it to make smoothies, like this one flavored with avocado and dates. Unlike yogurt, kefir is the product of a colony of bacteria and yeast called “kefir grains” that is squishy to the touch and looks a little like a cauliflower floret. In this post I’ll tell you how to use it to make kefir.

kefir grains

Here are the grains, rinsed clean. As long as it’s fed some kind of milk (or even sweetened water) regularly, the culture will grow and live indefinitely.

kefir grains

Feeding the grains, and making drinkable kefir in the process, is simple. Add about a tablespoon of grains to a jar with 2 cups of milk—you can use cow, goat, or sheep milk. Put a lid on the jar and leave it out at room temperature for about a day. The culture will consume the lactose in the milk and create lactic acid, which gives the milk a sour taste. The yeast will release carbon dioxide (so don’t be startled if the kefir comes out a little fizzy) and a trace amount of alcohol. (About 1%, or so I’m told. I’ve never noticed.)

The culture will also produce kefiran, a substance that thickens the milk somewhat. The bacteria and yeast use it to build the grains, and it has been shown to have beneficial antimicrobial and healing effects.

jar of kefir

The longer you let the culture sit in the same milk, the sourer it will become. I like to leave it for two days, and sometimes forget it for three or more. If it becomes too sour, you can add a sweeter or you can mix it with fresh milk before eating. As the culture grows larger it will put out more kefiran. When you have more than 1 tablespoon of grains per cup of milk, the kefir yogurt can become slimy and unappetizing. At that point you can either start feeding your culture more milk at a time, or you can split the grains and give them away, compost them, or eat them, which is perfectly safe.

straining kefir

Once the kefir is the flavor and consistency you like, pour it through a plastic strainer to separate it from the grains.

straining kefir

I find it helps to gently stir with a wooden spoon to break it up and help it fall away from the grains. Pour the kefir into a new jar and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to eat it.

Put the grains back in the empty jar and feed them fresh milk to start the fermentation process over again. Don’t worry about the kefir that sticks to the sides and the bottom of the jar—it will help inoculate the new milk. If you’re not ready to eat 2 cups of kefir a day, you can let the grains get accustomed to the milk for half or even a full day and then put the jar into the fridge. The cold will slow the fermentation down and the grains will keep for as long as a month or two. Any longer than that and I like to take out the grains and feed them fresh milk.

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