To the uninitiated, lacto-fermentation often sounds at best confusing and at worst frightening. Before I got elbow-deep into the world of kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods, I had vague notions of lacto-fermentation involving milk, bacteria, and jars of mysterious contents bubbling away in dark cupboards. Some of this is true, some of it isn't, and I'll get to that in a minute. But one thing is for sure: these lacto-fermented mixed pickles are crisp, tangy, and definitely not intimidating to make or eat. In fact they're one of the easiest pickle recipes out there, perfect to serve alongside sandwiches, salads, or a Ploughman's lunch.
When I first started pickling, I used vinegar brines and water bath canning methods, but these days I'm more likely to go the natural fermentation route. Lacto-fermented pickles are delicious, simple, and don't require a lot of special equipment or ingredients — plus they have the benefit of homemade probiotics. DIY doesn't get much better than that!
To dispel the most common myth about lacto-fermentation, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with dairy. Instead, the lacto refers to lactic acid. All fruits and vegetables have beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus on the surface. In an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, these bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, which inhibits harmful bacteria and acts as a preservative. It's also what gives fermented foods their characteristic sour flavor.
You can pretty much lacto-ferment any vegetable, and here I use a colorful medley of cauliflower, carrots, and red bell peppers. I also throw in a few spices, which you can adapt to your taste, and grape leaves, which help keep the pickles crisp. (If you don't have access to grape leaves, you can omit them or try using black tea, oak leaves, or other tannin-rich leaves.)
Pile the ingredients in a jar, add salted water, cover the jar, and let the bacteria do their thing. You can put the jar in a cupboard, but I prefer to leave it out on the counter so I can see and taste what's going on. The pickles will be ready when they taste and smell good to you — anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks depending on the ingredients and environmental conditions. This batch was good and tangy in three days.
A few notes on equipment: I like to weigh down the ingredients with a small bowl or jar that fits inside the larger jar. This is not necessary, but it helps keep the vegetables submerged under the brine and prevents mold growth. If you do encounter any mold or yeasty scum, simply skim it off. I also like using a jar fitted with an airlock (similar to a Pickl-It), which blocks oxygen yet releases carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. But again, you don't need this equipment. A plain old mason jar works fine.
Lacto-Fermented Mixed Pickles
3 tablespoons sea salt, pickling salt, or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
1 quart water (see Recipe Notes)
1 cup small cauliflower florets
1 cup carrot chunks or slices
1 cup red bell pepper chunks or slices
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1-2 grape leaves (optional, to help keep pickles crisp)
Combine salt and water in a measuring cup and stir until the salt is dissolved. (You can heat the water first to make the salt easier to dissolve, but it's not necessary. Let it come to room temperature before making the pickles.)
Place the remaining ingredients in a very clean, large jar (a half-gallon mason jar works well). Pour the salt water over the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace at the top of the jar. If necessary, add more water to cover the vegetables. (Optionally, place a small bowl or jar on top of the vegetables to hold them under the brine.)
Cover the jar tightly and let it stand at room temperature. About once a day, open the jar to taste the pickles and release gases produced during fermentation. If any mold or scum has formed on the top, simply skim it off. (If using a jar fitted with an airlock, you don't need to "burp" it; just open occasionally to taste.)
When pickles taste to your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. They will continue to ferment very slowly, but cold storage will largely halt fermentation. As a fermented food, these pickles will last for quite some time, at least a month or longer.
Salt: Use salt that is free of iodine and/or anti-caking agents, which can inhibit fermentation.
Water: Chlorinated water can inhibit fermentation, so use spring, distilled, or filtered water if you can. It is also recommended to rinse the vegetables in un-chlorinated water rather than tap water.
(Images: Emily Ho)