Have you heard?! Being healthy isn’t just about exercise, nutrition or sleep anymore. Nope, these days it’s all about gut bacteria.
The delicate balance of our gut ecosystems determines how we look, think, feel and function. It’s literally what turns our food into us.
It’s an especially important part of my health journey because, as you know, I’ve been dealing with a gut bacteria imbalance called Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). It wasn’t diagnosed until recently, but I suspect I’ve had it for most of my life. It’s affected my digestion and nutrient absorption, which has led to inflammation, allergies, eczema, bloating, blood sugar imbalances and maybe even cavities.
For the past few months, I’ve been on a mission to re-balance my gut by removing the overabundant bacteria and re-introducing the kinds of beneficial bacteria that have been crowded out. After enduring a pretty awful round of specialized antibiotics, I’ve moved on to the much more fun re-introduction phase (!) in which I get to eat all kinds of probiotic goodies like kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles!
Recently however, I realized I’ve been making a huge mistake in my my attempt to go buckwild on good bacteria.
How? Well, it turns out not all pickled foods contain the probiotics we want. In fact, most of the ones on grocery store shelves don’t contain any probiotics at all.
If you’re rolling your eyes at me right now, well…that’s fine. For most people in the paleo world, it’s a dumb mistake. But for the noobs like me who don’t know, it turns out there’s a difference between pickling and fermenting — even though the term “pickles” can refer to foods in either category. Confusing, right?
So, what’s the difference?
Fermenting is a traditional method of food preservation in which a salty brine reacts with the naturally occurring and beneficial lactobacilli bacteria on food to create lactic acid. In addition to preserving the food, lactic acid promotes our health by enhancing food’s vitamin and enzyme content, increasing nutrient bio-availability and improving digestibility – even for non-fermented foods that are consumed along with it!
True fermented foods are therefore “alive” and must be refrigerated.
Foods that are pickled have been cured directly in an acidic medium, usually vinegar. The vinegar prohibits the food’s naturally occurring bacteria from growing, which preserves the food but also eliminates the beneficial probiotics. Thus, pickled foods – even homemade ones – don’t offer the nutritional value of fermented foods.
So don’t be a fool like I was and fall for the the pickles on supermarket shelves. These guys are the product of vinegar, high heat and pressure, which eliminate nutrients and in no way enhance health.
The only exceptions to this rule are the fermented foods you’ll sometimes find in the refrigerated section. These guys are fermented and pickled – preserved using both vinegar and the natural salt-and-water brine — and they’ll usually say so on the package. But chances are they still won’t have as many probiotics as the fermented veggies you can make at home.
Which brings me to my recipe!
I don’t know about you, but before I gave it a try, at-home fermentation seemed like a big scary science project with a lot of potential for disaster. But let me assure you, it’s seriously simple. And unveiling the finished product is so rewarding!
These little cukes are 100% fermented — probiotic powerhouses! They have a wonderfully tangy and slightly sour flavor (similar to sauerkraut, but more mild) with a satisfying crunch.
- 3 clean 16 oz. glass jars (with lids)
- 6-8 small pickling cucumbers (the fresher, the crunchier)
- 1 Tbs. whole black peppercorn
- 1 Tbs. whole coriander seeds
- 9 (or so) sprigs fresh dill
- 1½ Tbs. pure sea salt (or any salt free of caking agents)
- 3 cups boiled water, at room temperature
- Optional add-ins: sliced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, sliced hot peppers, mustard seeds, dill seeds, sliced onion, bay leaves
- Rinse your cukes thoroughly and slice into quarters lengthwise.
- Divide herbs and spices evenly among jars and toss them in.
- Add cucumbers so they fit snuggly.
- Mix salt and water in a large measuring cup, stirring until the salt is completely dissolved. Pour brine over cucumbers until they are completely submerged. Make sure to leave about ½ inch of space at the top of each jar to allow the brine to bubble up during fermentation.
- Place a small non-reactive object such as a shot glass, apple slice or cabbage leaf on top of the cucumbers to make sure they remain entirely submerged.
- Screw on lids very loosely.
- Allow pickles to ferment on the counter (out of direct sunlight) for 5 to 10 days. You’ll want to “burp” them (i.e. crack them open) every once in a while to let the excess gas escape.
- After about 5 days, open one up and have a taste! If they’re done to your liking, transfer them to the refrigerator where they will keep for several weeks. If they’re still a little bland, give them another day or two.
Be aware that after a week or two, the water will get a bit cloudy. This is completely normal.