Growing up, I lived two blocks from my Grandma Jeanne, my grandmother on my father’s side. She was a huge part of my early life, often watching my brothers and me after school or when our parents went out on the occasional date night.
I’d spend hours with her, whiling away lazy weekend days playing gin rummy and working in the kitchen. One of her specialties was fermented sauerkraut. When I was young, she would slice the cabbage and let me massage salt into it until it got soft and started releasing liquid. Then, we would work together to arrange the cabbage in mason jars. My favorite part? Adding a single rock to the top of each jar before screwing on the lid.
Decades later, I’ve rediscovered the magic of fermentation and pickling as an adult. Every time I try something new or whip out Grandma Jeanne’s special rocks to make my own batch of sauerkraut or other similarly fermented foods, I’m momentarily transported back to her small kitchen and the lovely days I’d spend learning the techniques handed down to her from her own mother and grandmother.
What fermentation and pickling are about
Pickling and fermentation are two similar, but different, methods for preserving food. It’s been used for millennia — with some of the earliest practices traced back to 7000 B.C. Experts think that fermentation probably started by accident with a wild yeast or another microbe landing in a bowl of food or a beverage.
Pickling is a similar method that enabled people to preserve food to take with them on their travels or even sustain their families during the hard winter months. Kosher dill pickles are a prime example.
These sharply flavored pickles were a staple for Jewish people living in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. The kosher dill pickle allowed generations of people to add pizzazz to their normal potato and bread diet. As Eastern Europeans emigrated to New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought kosher dill pickles with them. The pickles fermented for months and gave the new settlers goods to sell at their new homes.
Fermentation vs. pickling
There’s one very distinct difference between pickling and fermenting. It boils down to one thing: bacteria. Pickling involves soaking food in a salty brine or acid to preserve it and doesn’t involve bacteria. Fermentation does involve bacteria. Many fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, start out in a simple brine too, but then the food undergoes a dramatic transformation as good bacteria eat the carbohydrates in the food being preserved. That bacteria then converts the carbs into substances like carbon dioxide, alcohol, and acids. When you eat a fermented pickle or any fermented food, you’re also eating the good bacteria.
Grandma Jeanne taught me one very important lesson that remained true no matter if we were making a batch of bread and butter pickles or homemade fermented sauerkraut — the flavor of the ingredients should shine. With pickled foods, there should be a bright, salty, sour flavor. Sometimes there might be a hint of sweetness and spice, as in the instance of pickled watermelon rind or other sweet pickles.
For fermented foods, there’s always a distinctive tang followed by a more subdued version of the main ingredients. As a kid, the only way I would eat radishes was to have my grandma’s fermented radishes. The process subdues the sharp flavors, mellowing them out while adding a sour, saltiness that I’ve always loved.
To this day, I can’t take a bite of kimchi, sauerkraut or any pickled or fermented foods without thinking of the time I’d spend in that kitchen with my grandma. Now I’m passing the methods on to my own kids, and I see the light in their eyes every time they get to add grandma’s special rocks to the top of a jar.