safe pickling

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It’s summer squash time! For this recipe I mixed yellow crook-neck squash with a green zucchini from the garden. I spiced them with garlic, red onion, basil, and black mustard seeds. I threw in a few carrots to fill up the jar. Here are the ingredients:


I chopped the larger squash into quarters lengthwise and left the smaller ones whole. The carrots I quartered as well. Similarly-sized veggies will ferment at the same speed, giving you predictable pickles. I cut half the onion into wide strips to make them easy to spear with a fork and left the peeled garlic cloves in one piece. Here they all are, ready to go:


I used Thai basil because I had a bunch of it in the fridge. An Italian variety would probably be more classic. I stuffed everything into a half-gallon jar, and it turned out that I only needed one carrot to fill it out. The rest went back in the fridge. The jar was so packed that the veggies showed no sign of budging when I filled it with brine:


They were so tight in there that I wasn’t worried they would float to the surface where they might meet airborne mold-causing microorganisms. So I didn’t use a jar to keep the vegetables submerged as I did in my pickled asparagus recipe. Nor did I use extra vegetables to make a seal, as I did in the post on how to pickle anything. I’ll have to check on it to make sure the veggies stay submerged, though. (If you jam them in this way, be sure to check on them as often as once a day because they do tend to float up to the surface, and sometimes the brine level changes, which can lead to gross growth on the parts poking out of the water!) All I did was screw a lid on loosely so that carbon dioxide can escape as fermentation kicks in. If I didn’t, pressure might build up and fizz over when I open it later. Then I put the jar in a dark cabinet. It’s been hot the past few days, so the squash might be ready to eat in a week. If it gets cooler again, then two or three weeks should do it. Yum.

Ingredients for 1/2 gallon summer squash pickles:

-8 summer squash/zucchini (adjust number depending on size)
-1/2 red onion
-5 cloves garlic
-4 stems basil with leaves attached
-1 tablespoon mustard seeds
-4 cups water mixed with 3 tablespoons uniodized salt
-1-2 carrots to fill out the jar as necessary

Wash the veggies and basil. Chop off the ends of the squash and carrots, peel the garlic, and chop off the bottoms of the basil stems. Cut the half onion into long, wide slices—about three cuts. Fill the jar with the veggies and basil, standing the squash and carrots all on end, with some basil head up and some head down. Add the onions and garlic on the early side so that they end up in the bottom two thirds of the jar where they’re less likely to float to the surface. Pour in the mustard seeds near the end and shake the jar to distribute them. Save some squash and carrot spears for last; as the hardest and longest ingredients, they’re the easiest to pack in to fill up empty space.

Fill the jar with the brine until the veggies are completely covered. You may not need all four cups. If you’re worried the vegetables will float to the surface, use a jar or some carrot slices laid across the mouth of the jar under the lip, as in this post, to keep everything under the brine. Put a towel or loose lid over the jar to keep out dust. Leave the jar in a dark place for one to three weeks, depending on the temperature and your taste. Check on the pickles every day or two, especially at the beginning, to be sure they’re still under the brine. Once they’re pickled to your liking, store them in the fridge with a lid on tight, so you don’t spill pickle juice everywhere.

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Will fermented food make me sick? People ask me this a lot and the answer is no, they won’t. Just don’t eat something moldy. And the only way you’ll get moldy pickles is if your veggies are open to the air. As long as they’re under water they won’t grow mold and they’ll be ok.

I used to have the same concerns, but when Sandor Ellix Katz passed through Oakland in 2007 he put my worries to rest. Salt, he said, does inhibit some bacteria, which keeps the vegetables from getting an unpleasant, mushy texture. But the salt isn’t the thing keeping the veggies from going bad; the lack of oxygen under the water favors friendly bacteria and keeps the unfriendly ones at bay. This study with balogna echos the same thing. When no salt was used, the sausages came out squishy. (Cured meats are fermented, too.)

Here’s a recording of Katz’s lecture that night at Oakland’s SOL collective.

Cover to Cover – Open Book – December 21, 2007 at 3:00pm

Click to listen (or download)

Katz also brings up a good point about botulism, which is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum and is the illness people often associated with preserved food. It is very very difficult to give yourself botulism by making pickles. These bacteria are all over the place, but it’s only when they’re given room to grow unchecked by other competing bacteria that they can harm you. It just so happens that Clostridium botulinum is very heat resistant and if canned foods are not sterilized for long enough, they can survive while all other bacteria die off.

That seems to me to be a case of humans hurting themselves by making their food too clean, which reminds me of the hygiene hypothesis, the theory that overly sterile food and living environments are making human beings more susceptible to allergies and auto-immune disorders. I’ll write more about that later, but a good starting point is Nathanael Johnson’s article on the raw milk underground is a great place to start. In some states, farmers who sell raw milk are getting arrested for selling a dangerous product. That seems silly to me. What if the police wanted to shut you down for making unpasteurized sauerkraut?

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