I’ve often wondered about adding brine from a previous batch of pickles to a new batch to “jump start” the fermentation process. I know you don’t need to do this, and a simple salt water brine has worked for us many times. I’ve even read how it could even be less than ideal for sauerkraut because there’s a succession of microbes that thrive and fade over the course of the fermentation, each providing their own flavors.
This all makes sense, and in truth, I don’t think we’ve ever had a batch of sauerkraut that didn’t ferment well or even taste delicious. But with pickles, especially whole cucumbers in brine, when haven’t worked out for us, my feeling is that they often don’t get sour fast enough.
I like to check in on our ferments, usually first thing in the morning, tasting them each day as they transform. The “get in there and see how it’s going” spirit of Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation was one of things that endeared me to the book.
For me, when a pickle brine stays salty rather than getting tart, the brine (and the pickles) can end up flat tasting. Sometimes when this happens, the pickles come around and get sour, but sometimes they don’t, and if the brine tastes tart sooner, I often prefer the end results.
Understanding that the quality of the cucumbers, the ambient temperature and the percentage of salt in the brine all play a role in the rate of fermentation, the question is – if all things are equal, what effect does priming a brine have on the process and the flavor of the pickles?
So I’m doing a head-to-head test, making two small batches from the same set of cucumbers, spices, etc. with only difference between the two jars is the addition of some brine from a previous batch of pickles.
Pickles, head to head, primed and plain, 9/18/2014
In each jar
- 4 Cucumbers, quartered lengthwise
- 1 tbsp Pickling spice
- 2 small Dried grape leaves
- ¼ cup Dill fronds
- 4% Brine
In one jar
- 3 tbsp Brine from previous pickles
Added the spices to cheesecloth and added the bundles to the bottom of the jars. Quartered the cucumbers and packed them as tightly as possible so they wouldn’t float, which lead to one spear being left out of each jar. Added brine half way into one jar, then added the three tablespoons of brine, then filled the jar. Filled the other jar with plain brine.
Our inoculators. These pickles, made with cucumbers from our garden, are the best we’ve ever made.
Prepping the spice packets to be identical.
I find slicing the cucumbers helps me to pack them in the jars tighter, keeping them below the brine. Maybe this was a bad idea for this test, and I should have used whole cucumbers, but at least it’s the same between both jars.
We’re underway. The jar with the band is cloudy from the addition of the brine.
Checking in on day three of our head to head, primed vs plain brine pickle test. I took a look yesterday, but both brines smelled and tasted more or less like sliced cucumbers and didn’t seem to warrant an update. This morning there’s a more noticeable difference in flavor.
- Plain: Getting cloudy, still smells like sliced cucumbers. Flavor is predominately pickling spices, a generic “vegetable” flavor with just a tiny bit of sourness.
- Primed: Cloudy with some white froth. Smells more like pickles. Sharper flavor, more lemony and sour, fewer other flavors (spices, vegetables).
I would say both taste fine. The primed jar seems to be moving along faster, but the plain one is fermenting. I had to top them off with a few tablespoons of new brine to compensate for what I took out in tasting.
It’s day six of our head to head, primed vs plain brine pickle test and there’s a clear difference in sourness and flavor between the two brines.
- Plain: Brine is cloudy, but not much more so than day 3 and much clearer than the primed jar. There’s a pronounced floral aroma, which is kind of hard to place, but not bad at all. The sourness of the brine seems delicate.
- Primed: Very cloudy with a tiny bit of white froth I skimmed off. The smell is more one dimensional, sharper and more “pickley” than the other jar, and the taste is unmistakably sour.
At this point the primed jar is much more sour than the plain. The skins of the cucumbers in both jars have turned a more olive green. It has been cooler in the apartment, and this could certainly be slowing down the process of fermentation in both jars, and maybe more so in the un-primed one. I think I may try to taste them in two days.
Day 11 in our head to head, primed vs plain brine pickle test, and the plain brine is now sour.
- Plain: Not much change in the cloudiness. The floral aroma has subsided somewhat, and the flavor is (at last) sour and lemony-tart.
- Primed: Very cloudy, nothing to skim. Once again, the flavor is more sour than the plain, but now also more complex, more nutty/malty vs the floral/lemony taste of the plain.
Topped off both jars with a bit of brine. The cucumbers are now much more olive green. I know I said I’d taste them last week, but now that the plain are finally genuinely sour, I think I’ll sample both in a few days, maybe on day 14 for a solid two weeks. My interest is piqued – both are sour, but with different flavors. It’d be one thing if one of the jars was somehow bad, but that’s not the case.
It’s been two weeks, and we’re finally tasting the pickles!
First the brine:
- Plain: Now cloudier than the primed. Taste is a very clean, sharp sourness. The odd floral aroma is so mild, I don’t know if I’d notice it if I wasn’t looking for it.
- Primed: Brine seems clearer, as if it’s settled leaving a light sediment on the pickles. The flavor is very sour and complex, more of a chord compared to the single note of the plain.
As for the pickles themselves, the texture is the same – both are a fine firmness, but not as crunchy as our garden cucumber pickles. As for the flavor, as goes the brine, so goes the pickle – both taste very much like their respective brines. The sourness of the plain brine pickles is clear and one-dimensional (but in a good way) and the primed pickles are funkier (also, in a good way) – they’re just a bit more complex tasting, somewhat like the same cheese at two different ages.
Overall, I couldn’t pick a winner, both are very tasty sour pickles, each in their own way. We find pickles sometimes seem to get better after a few days in the fridge, and I think I might try another round of tasting with notes, plus some ABX testing to see if we can identify which is which.
More and more I think the key is a tightly packed brine, where the less liquid, the faster and more efficiently it can be soured by the microbes.
Finally, I have to say that no matter how many times we make wild lacto-fermented food I always find it amazing to think that these tiny living things create all that sourness, all on their own. I know it’s not magic, but it sure feels special. By taking the opportunity to taste the brine every few days for this test, I really felt I gained some insight in to the process.
Everybody out of the pool! They look like pickles and both seem equally fermented.
A closer shot of the pickles themselves.
In this comparison shot, you can see the light sediment than formed on the primed pickles (on the left).
Chopping and tasting and taking notes.