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Many people express concern about the wisdom of home processing foods, and a degree of skepticism is certainly warranted. We all know that processing some foods improperly can be very dangerous and lead to illness or even death. The foods discussed in this article may be no exception. The information presented here is based on my personal experience and research. I am not a scientist and I would not characterize myself as meticulously cautious in the handling of foods during preservation, but rather as adequately cautious by my own standards. If you have any concerns regarding the safety of these processes, by all means do your own research. I have satisfied myself that these methods are reasonably safe when combined with due care and common sense or I would not use them, and certainly would not present them for use by others. Still, there is always some danger. But, by using your senses (both common and otherwise!) you will likely come through smiling and eating boatloads of tasty healthy fermented vegetables just as I have. We live in a society where we are constantly told what to do and how to do it by “experts” of various descriptions. This rigid framework does not always encourage acceptance of personal responsibility and can lead to incautious behavior by stifling the mechanisms which lead to reasonable questions like - Is this safe? Why the hell should I listen to this guy? ...and so on, replacing them instead with thoughts like They said it’s OK and They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true. I would like to think that you do not need to read between the lines to see just what context this information is presented in and use it accordingly. If you feel that you need a more authoritative source of information, try the USDA or your local agricultural extention service, but I don’t think they'll have a pepperoncini recipe.
There is a stereotype of the fanatic health food nut with a fridge full of strange and unappealing foods selected for some allegedly magical healing, rejuvenating or life extending properties. This collection of barely edibles must of course include many fermented things of questionable safety and which probably look and smell bad! People like this do exist, I’ve met quite a few and can assure you that I’m not one of them! A rational, spiritual (not to be read as religious) and healthy approach to our food takes into account all of the positive and negative aspects of our relationship to the foods we eat. For me personally, I value foods that taste good, that use a minimum of non-renewable resources in their production, processing and transportation, that don’t exploit the people who’s labor produced it, that cause a minimum damage to diversity of ecosystems, that do not leave a legacy of toxicity behind them, that give my body what it needs without causing too much damage, that make me feel good during and after eating, that look good and, maybe most importantly, to which I have some connection. If I grow food instead of buying it, it means more to me. If I process it further, it is yet more valuable. If I didn’t grow the food, it means more to me if someone I actually know did. And, if I can trade for that instead of buy it, then so much the better. Processed foods shipped from somewhere across the globe passing through the hands of many “middlemen” and purchased with cash or credit are my least consumed and least valued dietary items.
There is a movement afoot to realize and appreciate the real value and potential of food; that it can be much more to us than just a commodity that tastes good and keeps us alive. Unfortunately, Americans tend to want to treat movements and changes of this nature as a commodity and this movement, if it gains any real momentum, will no doubt be subverted by glossy magazines and politically correct food labels. But, while the practice of “putting our money where our mouth is” can create change, the essence of this ideal can’t simply be purchased but must instead be embodied and internalized. Indeed, the essence of the idea of a holistic food ethic flies in the face of commercialism and widely accepted economic ideas. The processes described in this book can provide a small stepping stone in this new direction: where food is more about healthy, functioning social systems, personal responsibility, food security, good feelings and good eating than it is about bargains and profits. To survive, this new emerging paradigm (which can come to rest under the broader umbrella of Sustainable Hedonism) should take the long view into the future, marrying foresight and pleasure to grow a food ethic that creates healthy/satisfied people and societies worthy of being passed on to a new generation.
Lacto-fermentation seems too good to be true for the home food preservist. Here is a method that is quick and easy, uses only a couple cheap ingredients and readily available supplies, maintains something of the freshness and “life” of a food, adds its own unique “life” in enzymes, healthful symbiotic bacteria and vitamins, tastes delicious and after all that requires no time consuming and energy intensive heat canning to preserve the food. Although I have been using this method for some years now, I still expect for some great unseen negative aspect to come and shatter the spell... it never does. The fact is that lacto-fermentation has been used for a long, long time and remains a very viable option today. Not only is it still a viable method in today’s high-tech world, but it’s even easier with modern technology which makes the possibility of completely excluding air from the fermenting and stored food easy and reliable.
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in live fermented foods, but most acidic “pickles” are still prepared in vinegar. Both home food preservists and the food industry use vinegar freely in preparing pickled foods. Most pickles made on the home front are drowned in a vinegar and salt bath (mostly vinegar) and then canned in boiling water for a time. Most of those prepared by the food industry are treated the same, and even those that are initially lacto-fermented are usually drained from the mother brine, rinsed and drowned in vinegar before being heat treated for the shelf.
In this article you will learn a method which is absurdly easy and reliable. A normal pickling recipe as set out here involves mixing a brine of water, salt and a very small percentage of vinegar, covering the peppers in the brine, sealing the container, setting it in a warmish place for a few weeks and then placing in a cool place for storage until the food is needed. Some lacto-fermentation recipes are more complicated, but not much. As a bonus... fermented vegetables also taste better! An excess of vinegar can provide some cheap thrills, but straight vinegar pickles lack the complex flavors found in a lacto-fermented pickle, and lacto-fermented products which are subsequently packed in vinegar brines often have much of their special organoleptic properties masked.
So why do we find ourselves bacteria free and drenched in vinegar? Our modern society and industry value reproducibility, absurdly long shelf life, consumer convenience and often unnecessary safety margins. This may be a good place to look at some real and percieved advantages of vinegar pickles and how they affect, or don’t affect, us as home food preservers.
*Heat sterilized jars of food are very stable while lacto-fermented foods may re-activate in warm conditions and ooze liquids from the lids, or at worst, explode due to the production of carbon dioxide (the same gas found in carbonated drinks).
•Oozing jars might no doubt be found to be somewhat of a hassle to the truckers and shelf re-stockers of the world, but do not present a great or insurmountable problem. Home producers can easily avoid any real inconvenience from this phenomenon.
*Heat sterilized vinegar pickles don’t change in texture and taste that much. Texture and flavor often suffer in heat treated foods in the first place but at least they pretty much stay that way after processing and can sit on the shelf for a very long time. Living lacto-fermented foods are more likely to change in flavor and texture over time- sometimes not for the better.
•For me, this has been only a minor problem and easily outweighed by the benefits of the method. Some foods are prone to softening over time, but this is lessened by cooler storage, and many do not suffer this problem. Selection of varieties and picking time can help prevent this phenomenon.
*Consumers are used to most jarred foods being sealed. Live pickles can’t be hermetically sealed, so they may be seen as unsafe or potentially tampered with.
•Seals can still be provided which insure that the jar has not been opened, and if live lacto-fermented foods are widely available consumers will come to trust them. The general public buys very perishable, and potentially much more dangerous, foods all the time.
*Vinegar pickles are pretty stable once opened. The extreme acidity of a high vinegar brine acts as a very good preservative which virtually nothing will grow in. The acidic brine produced by lacto-fermentation, high in lactic acid and nutrients, will support yeast and bacterial growths. These organisms actually metabolize the acids and can, given enough time and suitable conditions, de-acidify the brine enough to allow dangerous spoilage organisms to multiply.
•Again, we purchase potentially much more dangerous foods all the time. Many store bought canned foods will spoil rapidly once opened. We don’t often get sick from them because we know this to be true. Lacto-fermented products spoil very slowly, especially under refrigeration. Home producers will quickly come to understand the time frame and conditions required for spoilage of finished pickles and can then easily avoid it.
*Vinegar brines are clear and bright while the mother brine produced by lactic fermentation is cloudy with a white sediment settling out on the food. Consumers in our society tend to expect refined, uniform foods.
•It is not inconceivable that, with education and a change in values, consumers would come to value the sediment in a jar of pickles as indicating authenticity and uniqueness. Besides, brines can be filtered to a certain extent.
*Vinegar pickles are seen by home canners as easier and are often called “quick” pickles. They are quick in terms of the start to finish time line.
•For food that is to be stored through the rest of the year this argument is mostly irrelevant. Vinegar pickles, at least those that are sterilized by canning, are not easier and actually require more time and energy to produce than the methods outlined in this publication. They are also more expensive because vinegar must be purchased... a lot of it.
Most of the advantages of vinegar pickles find a good deal of validity in our market driven industrial food systems where people don’t live their lives enmeshed with the origins and processing of their foods. However, in a social context where consumers value quality, nutrition and local production over presentation, uniformity and lowest cost, the benefits of living lacto-fermented foods would easily dwarf the irrational fears, petty inconveniences, maximum direct monetary savings and maximum short term monetary profits which dominate today’s food systems.
For the home producer, greater convenience, lower cost, much greater nutrition and better flavor can all be found with living lacto-fermented foods over heat processed vinegar pickles.
I don’t mean to go on an anti-vinegar tirade; indeed, we use vinegar in pickling some foods and also use a small amount in the process outlined here. Also, the hot sauce recipe contains a sizeable proportion of vinegar to increase “bite” and keeping qualities. However, whenever appropriate I steer toward lacto-fermentation for my pickling needs.
Aside from differences in productivity, color, shape, size, adaptation to different climates, disease resistance, and so on, the variety of pepper you choose will have a great effect on the taste and texture of the finished product. The most important of these is probably texture. Larger and/or riper peppers generally have more tendency to soften during fermentation or storage. Most pepperoncini varieties, being picked while still small and immature, tend to be on the crunchy side when finished, sometimes too much so. Below are some observations on varieties which I have tried in my picky pursuit of perfect pickled peppers.
PEPPERONCINI: My ideal of pepperoncini-hood embodies these virtues: wrinkly, tender fleshed, an appetizing bright color, not hot (or if so barely) and possessed of a deep and complex flavor including a zingy pepper flavor. None of the varieties I have tried so far have completely lived up to this ideal, but some are quite good or even damn close. What I do not like in a pepperoncini are crunchiness, thick skin, bright yellow dyed color, too much heat, a vinegary taste and just poor flavor.
There are two common types of pepperoncini: Greek and Italian. Greek types are shorter with blunt noses, while Italian types are long and skinny, often crescent shaped and come to a point. Both are wrinkly. The hybridized variety Robustini is something else altogether, maybe a cross of the two? In my experience so far, the Greeks tend to loose their color more while the Italians stay brighter and more golden.
Robustini is a hybrid pepperoncini that has a longish shape, but with a blunt nose. The seed is widely available. It is quite crunchy, and can be hot. I don’t like Robustini. I can say though that this pepper keeps its color well.
Greek Golden from Nichols seed company is large. The first year I grew it this variety seemed very tender, but hasn’t lived up to that reputation in the long run. Flavor mediocre.
Golden Greek Pepperoncini from Tomato Growers catalog is not worth the effort. It is large, crunchy, thick skinned, and has a bland yet slightly soapy flavor.
Fedco’s Tasty Golden Greek and Garden Trails Greek Pepperoncini appear to be the same variety. I couldn’t tell any difference. This one is pretty good. Flavorful, smaller, squat shape, pretty wrinkly and not hot. They are a little crunchy, not too bad, but not the tender succulent flesh I pine for. The color is not so great.
Wrinkled Old Man from Redwood City Seed Company. The catalogue says this is the closest thing you can get to a real pepperoncini in the U.S. Wrong! Don’t bother.
Italian Pepperoncini from Territorial Seed Company. They look neat and cure out to a nice yellow color. I would prefer these to any Greek type variety I’ve tried, but they are too crunchy and thick skinned for my taste. Then again, some people prefer a crunchier pepper.
Sigaretta di Bergamo from Gourmet Seed International. Unfortunately, this pepper has been replaced by one called Sigaretta Dulce which is just no good. The original packets of Sigaretta di Bergamo were packaged by the N. Sgaravatti company of Italy. One can only hope that GSI will start carrying the first Sig. Berg again. Peppers are 4 to 6 inches long, pointy, curled and bumpy/wrinkly. They are very tender if picked at the right stage and seem to hold on the plant slightly better than other varieties because they are naturally tender and thin skinned. The finished color is a nice translucent golden yellow, much lighter than greek types I’ve tried. As a bonus, peppers left on the plant mature into sweet and flavorful red frying peppers. For now Sigaretta di Bergamo is my new benchmark and I can live with it indefinitely. I’ve had trouble with this company’s customer service in the past, but they seem to be doing OK lately. (Try their Giant Bulgarian Leek while you’re at it.)
Stavros greek pepperoncini is a very close second to Sig. Bergamo above. The peppers have a beautiful color, nice tender texture when pickled at the right stage and excellent flavor. I'll be growing this variety again.
Italian Pepperoncini from Gourmet Seed International is a shortish stubbed off pepper. For someone who likes a crunchier hotter pepper this could be a good choice. I might be tempted to grow it again.
PIMENTOS: Besides making great pickled peppers, pimentos also make a really excellent, sweet fresh eating pepper. Most Americans have only had lacto-fermented pimentos in their green Spanish style olives (a truly great match) or pimento loaf (yeauck!), but these real live unprocessed ones are a treat to cook with and put on salads and such. Your home pickled pimentos can really liven up otherwise potentially dreary winter meals. In our household they find themselves sprinkled thinly sliced on salads, diced in pilafs, minced in alfredo sauce, simmered in braising meats and nibbled on while cooking. They are such a boon to the winter table that I have anxiety about running out! Fortunately, a little goes a long way. Quite a few varieties are available out there. The keys to a good pickling pimento are that they have a thin skin when red ripe, and that they hold their texture when fermented. I haven’t found a really good one yet. The search continues.
Super Red Pimento. Big sweet cheese type (shaped like a wheel of cheese or a pumpkin) makes a great fresh eating or cooking pepper. Unfortunately, it turns to mush when pickled.
Tennessee Cheese (which is supposedly a Spanish heirloom. Go figure?). Seems fine, but can’t get excited about it. Not even really a cheese type.
Pimento L . With a name like that it’s probably from a breeding program, and it certainly grows like it. Large rapidly growing plant. Big anatomically heart shaped peppers have failed to capture my heart.
Shepards Ramshorn. This isn’t even a pimento, but it’s turned out the best in terms of keeping its texture through fermenting and in storage. It’s also a great cooking pepper. Nice productive selection in general, but thin walled.
HOT SAUCE PEPPERS: I’ve only used serranos and cayennes so far and they work great. I prefer the cayenne slightly. I’ve tried tobbasco, but it didn’t want to grow here. My guess at this point is that just about any thoroughly ripe hot pepper will make passable, if not good hot sauce.
GROWING & HARVESTING PEPPERS
Pepperoncini and pimento plants are not commonly available at nurseries and plant sales. Even if plants are available, starting your own seeds allows you more control over which varieties you grow and will result in more personal investment in the process.
Here in Northern California we start pepper seeds indoors about the middle of February in 3” inch deep wooden flats on a 1 inch grid spacing (staggered rows). Peppers are especially prone to damping off disease in which a fungus attacks the young stem, killing the plant. Damping off is made more likely by the slow germination and growth of pepper seedlings. Taking care not to over water and providing good air circulation are strategies used to prevent damping off. You might even go so far as to sterilize soil for pepper seeds by baking it for a little while. Also, plants have more tendency to damp off in the small plastic “6 pack” type planters, so, stay away from very small plastic pots. Ceramic and wooden planting containers seem to be less inclined to encourage damping off in general, but can require more frequent watering of the seeds and seedlings. Four inch plastic pots can work fine if managed properly.
Be sure to plant more than you think you need as the seedlings are subject to many set backs. Besides, having more plants to choose from allows you to pick out the healthiest ones and any extras can be given away or saved as emergency replacements. As soon as seedlings are up, they go out into the small seedling greenhouse. When they have a couple of true leaves, they are transplanted to a deeper flat on a two or three inch grid spacing, or into four inch pots, until ready to tuck into a garden bed or large pot.
Pepper plants need decent soil and adequate sun, warmth and water. People who live in marginal, cool climates often plant them against a warm south facing wall. If plants are not given adequate water the peppers will be tough and thick skinned which makes a poor finished product. If adequate amounts of good compost made from diverse materials is used, it probably isn’t necessary to add any other supplements unless you have some particular deficiency. They do like to have adequate phosphorus however. Too much nitrogen will cause lots of leafy growth, but maybe not such good production. Plant out when nights and soil are getting warm. Planting out when the weather is too chilly can stunt the plants. If you need to get an early start provide a little protection with a cold frame, cloche or floating row cover. Also, if the plants have been growing in a space that doesn’t cool off at night, be sure to acclimatize them slowly by putting them out during the days and putting them in at night before setting in the ground. This “hardening off” process will prevent shock and stunting. Our unheated seedling house grows hardy, stocky plants that are ready to go in the ground during late spring without any further hardening off.
When the peppers start to come on, they come on fast. Since the fruits are picked while still immature, you don’t have to wait as long as you would for most other peppers. If plants are well cared for, good peppers can be harvested all the way up until first frost.
Picking the peppers at the right time is very important. When picked too young, pepperoncini tend to be a little bitter, lack good texture, and just don’t taste so great. When they are too old they become thick skinned, unpleasantly crunchy or tough and again not so well flavored. However, it is actually a little hard to tell when they are just right, and I still sometimes feel like I don’t know quite what to pick. The flesh should be plumped out a bit, but only just. In very immature peppers, the wrinkles have thinner less filled out ridges, whereas the ones ready for pickling have ridges that are filled out just a little more. Since the peppers ferment quickly in a warm place, you should be able to sample your first batch within a couple weeks and begin to make your own judgments about the proper ripeness level. I find myself tending to wait to pick until there is a pretty good batch of “ready” peppers on the plant by which time there are inevitably a few that are over-developed, but that is OK. Most varieties are still quite green when they are prime for pickling. They turn a pleasant warm golden/green color in the ferment. If allowed to ripen too long they will begin to turn red by which point they are already well overdone and thick skinned. The Italian types are worth allowing to ripen fully into frying peppers if a few get away. Just remember that letting peppers ripen on the plant will reduce the number of new peppers setting on.
The fresh pepperoncini can be stored in the fridge for a little while as long as you don’t leave them so long that they begin to spoil. You can pick the peppers as they ripen and refrigerate them for up to 5 days or so until you get enough for a fermentation batch, but if they stay in the fridge too long the seed cavity turns brown and the flavor goes off a bit. A better strategy in most cases is to just put up smaller batches as they come off the plant.
Pimentos are pickled when completely red and ripe, but just. If left to ripen too far they are more likely to go soft in pickling.
Peppers for hot sauce can be picked very ripe, the riper the better.
Key concepts in lactic fermentation
you should become familiar with:
Acidity: Lactic bacteria, which produce the desired fermentation, thrive in an acidic environment. Most spoilage bacteria do not thrive in an acidic environment (including those which cause botulism), or at least not in the absence of oxygen. By spiking our brine with a little vinegar, we are creating conditions conducive to the growth of our friendly lactic acid producing bacteria, while discouraging common spoilage bacteria. Once the lactic bacteria begin to grow, they produce lactic acid which weeds out the competition further. Domination is the name of the game, and we create ideal conditions for the bacteria types that we want to encourage.
Anaerobiosis: Lactic bacteria can grow and dominate best in an anaerobic environment, which means in the absence of oxygen. Some bacteria and yeasts which require oxygen can spoil our ferment by consuming the acids in the solution, thereby raising the Ph. The culprits are visible as a scum growing on the surface of the brine. To exclude these undesirables we keep the jar sealed so that oxygen laden air cannot get in. Of course, there is some air in our jar, especially in the hollow cavities of our pepperoncinis, but the remaining oxygen is quickly used up by some organisms or other which must then die or go dormant. As long as you top up the jar with brine when you are done, opening your peppers a few times during fermentation is not a problem.
Cleanliness is always a good ideal to strive for when processing foods. However, I confess to being rather sloppy and incautious in the matter when it comes to pickling peppers. Part of this casual approach is due to laziness, part is because I want to know what I can get away with and part is because I have now experimented enough with pickling peppers sloppily that I do know what I can get away with. When pickling cucumbers which are prone to spoilage, I use the freshest fruits and clean jars and utensils.