Pickling is not solely the province of sweltering August kitchens, nor does it require vinegar. Over the years I’ve begun to put up produce in every season, and I am finding that springtime is a particularly good time for pickles: sugar peas, sauerkraut, artichokes, ramps, and the last young carrots of the year.
Instead of suffering in the summer’s heat, with sweat flavoring your brine and forcing yourself up early in the morning to beat what will likely be yet another 100°F day, pickling in spring means you can turn the heat down in the house, open the windows and enjoy the steamy warmth of the stove properly. Or you can skip the boiling pots altogether and go lacto.
Lacto? Lacto-fermented pickles. Stay with me. Springtime is a perfect time to experiment with these natural pickles. Chances are you’ve eaten naturally fermented pickles — sour and half-sour dills are a specialty of good Jewish delis.
I’ve learned a lot about lacto-fermented pickles from gurus such as Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. Katz’s latest book, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World has become an object of obsession for me; it is the kind of book I wish I’d written, but am happy enough just to read.
The key to this kind of pickling is the proper ratio of salt to water and coolish temperatures: Hotter than 75°F or so and you enter the danger zone.
These fermented carrots were the first thing I ever pickled this way, back in 2007, and I’ve been working with lacto-fermented pickles ever since.
You can brine pickle, which is to say lacto-ferment, any crunchy vegetable. The general rule is that you want about 2 to 3 percent salt by weight of the vegetable. You don't need to be exact, but too little and the vegetables rot, too much and they are too salty.
- 2 pounds small carrots, peeled
- 4 cups water
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 dried hot chile
- 1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
- Cut the carrots into discs the size you would want to eat at a cocktail party. Or leave them whole. Or split them in half lengthwise. The key here is to keep the thickest part of any piece no wider than about 1 inch.
- Boil the salt, water, bay leaves, black peppercorns and chile for a minute or so, then turn off the heat and let this cool to room temperature. This gets the flavors melding. Once the brine has cooled to room temperature, pack the carrots and the thyme sprig into a clean Mason jar and pour the brine over them, making sure the jars all get some of the spices.
- You will have leftover brine. Pour this into a plastic bag and tie it off. Push the bag into the jar — you want the carrots to be completely submerged in the brine. Alternately, fill a smaller jar that will just barely fit into the pickling jar with some water, screw on the lid and use that to prevent the carrots from contact with air. If the veggies hit air while fermenting, you get mold.
- Put the jar into a cool, dark place for at least 3 to 4 days. What’s cool? Cooler than 75°F. Like many things that ferment, 55°F is about perfect. Don't go colder that 50°F. I ferment at about 72°F. You can leave the carrots in longer if you want — they will be saltier and tangier. I often ferment these carrots for a full 2 weeks.
- Remove the bag or small jar from your pickling jar. To store your pickles, either do as I do and simply screw the cap on the pickles and put them in the fridge, or you can pour the brine into a clean pot and boil it. When it is cool, pour it back into the jar with the carrots and seal it up. If you want your pickles to be shelf-stable, you must boil the brine and then process it for 15 minutes or so in a hot water bath. Kept in the fridge, these pickles will last up to 6 months.
Note that prep time doesn't include pickling time.