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The Science of Pickles

Happy gut!

Words: Joe O'Connell
Illustrations: Abby Cook

Bread, beer, wine, yoghurt, soy sauce, miso, gherkins…most of the best things in life are fermented in some way. It’s about time to stop taking the microscopic life happening in our gut for granted and let our tummies revel in the joy of pickled foods.

The magic formula

The definition of “pickling” varies, but basically it means good bacteria getting to work and turning sugar into CO2, lactic acid and alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Whilst many of us consider a pickle and that lovely tangy flavour to be a vinegar based product, the best and most traditional are made using clean water, sea salt and good old lactobacillus. This hard-working, friendly little bacterium gets its pals together and in the presence of salt (which deters the nasty bacteria and draws out the liquid) and water, eats the natural sugars found in our fruit and veg and converts it to lactic acid. And the beauty of it is, it’s already present both in the air and on our soon to be fermented fruit and veg. Providing you get the concentration of salt right, and have a clean mason jar and some delicious fruit and veg, you can’t go too far wrong. With this in mind let’s get to the reason why we should eat these delicious, probiotic foods.

The correlation between pickles and good ideas

Studies into the correlation between the health of the intestines and the brain are many. Without nerding out too much, the body has two nervous systems: the central one, comprising of the brain and spinal cord, and the enteric, which is the intestinal tract. Surprisingly, the gut sends far more info to the brain than vice versa and directly affects mental wellbeing. Think butterflies in your stomach, cramps when you’re stressed, general nausea, these are all examples of your gut telling your brain that something’s not right. Here at Ozone, we’ve well and truly got the bug and controlled fermentation has become a big part of our kitchen ethos. Our
#ozonetestkitchen is bubbling away with various pickles, cultures and ferments in the endeavour to both boost our probiotic count and introduce new and interesting flavours. The kitchen wheel is so hard to re-invent that one of the best tools in our arsenal is developing flavours through controlled cultures. So with that, here’s a couple easy ones for the beginner pickler to do at home.

Lime & ginger pickled rhubarb

Rhubarb grows in abundance in this country and as such we are always playing around with different ideas using this great veg. Here we’ve made a vinegar based pickle to preserve the bright red rhubarb at the height of its colour and flavour. This can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes as the cold weather sets in.

Ingredients:
6 limes
100g ginger, washed and thinly sliced
750ml apple vinegar (or good quality cider vinegar)
500g brown sugar
250ml water, filtered
2kg Rhubarb

Method:
Remove the lime skin with a potato peeler and place in a pot along with the lime juice ginger, vinegar, water and brown sugar and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and allow to steep for 10 minutes.
Wash, trim and slice the rhubarb into 5mm long pieces. Place in sanitized jar.
Pour the liquid and all its bits into the jar with the rhubarb. Note: the liquid should be too hot to touch but not still simmering, we want it to soften the rhubarb fibres a bit as it cools.
Seal the jar and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Refrigerate for at least 48 hours.

Get stuck in!
This delicious treat is great on a savoury cheese/meat board. Alternatively, strain the liquid off, cook it down with honey to taste and turn it into a pickled rhubarb compote for crumbles and ice-cream toppings.

Perfecting Your Gherkins

Whilst this is an incredibly easy ferment to begin with, there are a few “must dos” to avoid your lovely cucumbers ending up like a soggy gherkin in a Maccas’ cheeseburger.

First, the brine. Always use a clean and non-reactive container (a glass mason jar or plastic bucket will do the trick) and clean mineral water. It is also essential to use pure sea salt without iodine, as the added chemicals will prohibit friendly bug growth. The other potential sticking point is the quality of the raw product. Basically, if you ferment bad veg you’ll end up with bad pickles. It’s that simple. So choose crisp, bright fruit that is firm and blemish-free and you’re halfway there!

Ingredients:
2L cold purified water or bottled mineral water
80g sea salt
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
6 sprigs of dill, washed
12 juniper berries
10g earl grey tea leaves (the high tannin content will help keep your pickles crispy!)
12 baby cucumbers

Method:
Brine:
Place half the water and all of the salt in a pot and warm gently to dissolve. Remove from the heat, add the remaining aromatics (garlic, dill, juniper berries, tea) to the brine and allow to steep for 10 minutes.
Pour in the remaining cold water to quickly bring the brine down to room temperature.

Now for the pickling:

Wash the cucumbers and identify which end of the cucumber the flower grew out of (tip: NOT the stalk end that attaches to the plant) and trim off the first 2mm. If any part of the flower is left on, the cucumber is more likely to go soft as it ferments.
Pierce the skin with the very tip of the knife, anywhere along the side of each cucumber around 2mm deep. This will allow the brine to penetrate the fruit quickly and evenly.
Place the cucumbers in your large, clean jar and pour the cooled brine over the top to cover.
Make sure the cucumbers are fully submerged, use a small clean weight if needed, seal the lid and you’re done! Leave in a cool place away from direct sunlight for 2-4 weeks or until they’ve reached the tanginess you like. Then pop in the fridge and see if you can keep your hands off ‘em.

Good luck!