This story originally appeared on The Nosher.
You’ve tried coaxing a sourdough starter to life or braiding a challah, turned speckled bananas into muffins, maybe even churned out sheets of pasta. For those lucky enough to hunker down at home in good health during the coronavirus pandemic, experimenting in the kitchen can be a welcome escape.
But what about your produce drawer? If you can’t get your hands on baking staples right now, or are looking for a stay-at-home food project that’s a bit more nutritious, consider pickling and fermenting.
By making your own pickles or kraut, you can stretch the contents of your fridge, save wilted fruits and vegetables, and make something that lasts for months. You’ll also be leaning into a long, rich tradition embraced by Jewish cultures all over the world, a tradition of preserving foods to last in times of scarcity and uncertainty.
“It’s more of a lifestyle” than a recipe, says Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founder and chief pickler of The Gefilteria. Pickling and fermenting, says Yoskowitz, who also teaches Jewish food anthropology, is “a way of making sure you don’t waste, using resources to plan ahead,” he says. “If you are someone who does this at home, you always have something to add acidity, freshness, and essential nutrients” to whatever you’re eating.
Which is why, he explains, these methods were a bedrock of Eastern European Jewish cuisine for centuries. To survive the long, harsh winters of that region, preserving cabbage, beets, carrots, cucumbers and turnips was key to making it through to the spring.
In our current reality, “who knows if and when you can go to the supermarket or what they may have,” says Yoskowitz, co-author of “The Gefilte Manifesto” cookbook. “Things are changing so rapidly,” but if you “pick up a bunch of green beans or turnips or beets or carrots,” you can make them last and have more vegetables between crucial grocery outings.
Lacto-fermentation also ups nutritional value, creating good bacteria that studies have shown reduce inflammation, aid digestion and support the immune system. This was also important to staying healthy during those harsh winters.
“I like to think you’re improving these foods” by fermenting them, Yoskowitz says, adding that this nutritional boon is especially valuable now, when processed foods and pantry staples may be in heavy rotation.
A note on the difference between pickling and fermentation:
Fermented pickles are made by submerging vegetables in that saltwater brine, causing naturally occurring good bacteria in the air to gradually turn the vegetables’ sugars into lactic acid. That process of creating acid – lacto-fermentation — is why foods fermented with just salt still taste sour. Traditional kosher dill pickles, for example, get their distinctive flavor this way.
Vinegar pickles, on the other hand, use, well, vinegar, and sometimes sugar and spices, and are not fermented. When stored in the fridge, they are called quick pickles or refrigerator pickles. What you’ll likely find at the grocery store, though, are vinegar pickles that have been canned in boiling water in order to be shelf-stable. Essentially, fermented pickles just use salt, spurring lacto-fermentation, while non-fermented pickles are made with vinegar. So not all pickles are fermented. And not all fermented foods are pickled – think yogurt, wine, cheese, sourdough bread and more.
In a time before refrigeration, “it’s hard to underestimate how revolutionary” and critical techniques like lacto-fermentation were for survival, says Emily Paster, author of “The Joys of Jewish Preserving.”
Plus, to make sauerkraut and other simple fermented vegetables, “if you’ve got clean glass jars, salt and a knife,” you’re ready to start, she says.
Paster points out that though pickling, fermenting, and preserving vegetables and fruit are more often associated with Ashkenazi Jews (like deli pickles, apple sauce and sauerkraut), “whatever part of the Diaspora you come from, this tradition was there and it goes back centuries.”