Pickled Green Tomatoes

Anyone who reads this column regularly already knows that I am a pickle person. I make pickle-themed kitchen gear for fellow pickle lovers and regularly teach folks across the country the art and science behind this delicious pastime. I connect with other pickle-loving kin on Instagram (#yeahIpickledthat) and generally find pickle people to be of the best ilk.

The word “pickle” is derived from the Dutch word pekel, which means brine, and represents a broad spectrum of soured vegetables, fruits and mash-ups of both. The assumed fruit when mentioning pickles—the cucumber—has been in pickling circulation for more than 4,000 years, with beginnings traced to the fruit’s native India. According to the NY Food Museum, Cleopatra attributed her ace looks to a diet complete with pickled cukes.

Pickles are, by definition, a fruit or vegetable in an acidic environment, which most commonly means vinegar (acetic acid) or Lactobacillus bacteria (lactic acid). The case for vinegar-pickling stands as a sure-fire way to put up a bumper crop of peppers or whatever bounty is at hand while maximizing prized refrigerator real estate. Vinegar pickles can be stored in the pantry for up to a year and certainly make nachos more fun, create a mean bloody mary and add numerous other elements of pizzazz to dishes, depending on the foodways traditions at hand.

Those navigating a path toward pickle authenticity should take up fermented pickling though, because that’s what pickling was until the adoption of home canning in the early 20th century. Like many things that have evolved from wartime inventions turned loose on civilians post-war, food processing in the form of canning has shifted how people experience pickles. 

Fermented pickles rely on salt alone to set the stage for acidifying vegetables. The vegetable’s microbial community does the rest. Salt’s long-standing role in preserving food made easy the prospect of preserving everything from vegetables and fruits, to grains, meat and fish, without any sort of equipment besides something to dig a hole and leaves to shield the food from dirt. The slow process of microbes acidifying foods develops flavors that no vinegar pickle can rival, no matter how long it sits.

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Truth be told, vinegar has been around ever since humans delightfully stumbled upon alcoholic ferments. These beer, wine and cider ferments gone sour, a.k.a. vinegars, were used to preserve fruits and vegetables and create unique flavors in cuisines (though it is thought that the produce was originally dropped into beer and wine before it went sour, thus the two actually acidified together—which is fermentation).

Thankfully, nowadays no one needs to dig a hole in their backyard to make pickles (phew, considering the caliche). Those concerned with fermentation and food safety should rest assured that vegetable fermentation is quite possibly the safest form of food preservation. The lactic acid bacteria that dominate a fermented pickle make the environment inhospitable to pathogens and dangerous bacteria that can survive other methods of preserving.

Fermenting vegetables not only preserves them for a longer period of consumption—thus preserving the vitamins found in them (vitamin C, specifically)—but also physically changes the original vegetable compounds. Once microbes set to their work of breaking down the carbohydrates in vegetables, the effects are well worth the chopping effort put forth to make the pickles. These microbes enhance vitamin and mineral content, assist our bodies with digestion and offer a probiotic punch to each meal in which they are served. Ideally, we should all eat a bite or two of a fermented pickle with each meal to reap the proven benefits of lacto-fermented foods.

Fermented pickles can be made from any vegetable that is enjoyed better whole (versus shredded or chopped as in the case of dry-salted sauerkraut and kimchi ferments). Some annual favorites of ours include the season’s arrivals of green beans, cucumbers and cornichons, carrots and even okra.

Fall brings a second tomato harvest to Austin, a boon to those who can’t get June’s crop of homegrown tomatoes off their minds. Sometimes the fall crop doesn’t fully ripen, though, as temps begin to fall or other mysterious tomato-growing factors come into play. I love to reserve some of these tomatoes for a batch of fermented green tomatoes, our family’s hands-down favorite pickle.

If dill doesn’t incite the same level of personal happiness and flavor fervor for you as it does for me, then try other combinations of dried spices, such as coriander, cumin, mustard seeds or curry powder. Use this salt brine ratio to preserve any other vegetables that are to be preserved whole or in large pieces.

By Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo