How Much Salt for Pickling?

When I started fermenting I approached it very scientifically.  I measured everything, kept notes and wanted to make sure I was ‘doing it right.’

Although I still measure things, (and I will share a common measurement for salt below), I’ve learned why so many people advise just eyeballing and tasting your ferments (they should taste over-salted but no inedible) as you go.  A recent conversation on another post about the ratio of salt to use in sauerkraut highlighted that I haven’t explained why I rely less on measurements and, when I do measure, how to do so.  I love comments like these because they really do help me see opportunities to try and improve things here.

Ferments often start tasting too salty and, as the ferment progresses, they will level out.  Sandor Katz is largely recognized as one of the leading experts when it comes to fermenting; here is his instructions for salting sauerkraut (you can find his recipe here):

Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.

I really struggled with the vagueness this offered and, like many people, I put a whackload of salt figuring it would somehow make it safer.  It doesn’t.  Salt slows down the fermenting process and too much of it can stop it altogether.  I suspect this is the basis of why Sandor uses more salt in the summer – more on that in a few minutes.

When fermenting sauerkraut, consider the following:

  • Temperature plays a giant role; perhaps a larger role than the salt.  Warmer temperatures produce faster ferments; faster ferments are often less crunchy and, arguable, less tasty.  I’m guessing this is why Sandor adds more salt in the summer (to slow it down).
  • Wild yeast (in the air of your kitchen and on the vegetables themselves) and other bacteria will also effect the fermenting process.  These ‘visitors’ will likely  have a greater effect on your ferment than salt.
  • Water content of the vegetables or fruit.  Freshly picked cabbage has considerably more water than cabbage that has been stored through the winter.  Salt pulls water from the vegetables, which is a good thing,  but it makes measuring rather futile.  Vegetables with higher water content will dilute the salt a different amount than those with lower water content.  In other words, even though you can control the salt, you can’t control the amount of liquid in the brine.
  • Additional water and the quality of it.  Many ferments need more water to top the vegetables (food with a high water content is the exception).  When I pickle I generally add the salt to the vegetables for 8-24 hours before topping the container with water.  That means I’m adding salt before I know how much water I’m going to use and makes measuring difficult (water will dilute the salt content).

These 4 variables will effect the flavors in your ferment and the last two will make measuring very difficult as an indeterminate amount of water will dilute a precise measurement an indeterminate amount.

But we still need guidelines, right?  Sandor uses 3 tablespoons (non-iodized coarse salt) per 5 pounds of vegetables.  Roughly 5%.  This is a great starting point but it still leaves my inner geek a little empty because the brine will be diluted an unknown amount.  If you don’t share my inner-geekdom, it’s probably best to stop reading now ‘cus I’m going to get extremely unpractical and unscientific with the following idea…

When I measure salt I base it on the amount of liquid that’s in the brine.  It’s an estimate and far-from-perfect but here’s what I do:

  • Prepare my vegetables, place them in the fermenting vessel (with no salt).
  • Cover them in water, measuring as I go (I measure with mason jars).  Calculate 3.5% of the weight of the water (this is easy with metric though you may prefer imperial).
  • Drain the water completely (no need to dry it).
  • Add salt to the vegetables (in the case of kraut I’d also crunch it aggressively between my hands).  Let it sit for 8-24 hours.  A good deal of liquid will be released from the veg and most of the natural brine is created in the first day.
  • Now the estimating part: add water to the current brine to cover the vegetables.  You’ll need considerably less water than you measured but the total liquid should be approximately the same as you had measured the day before.  Although there is a small bit of guessing here it’s minimal, in part, because I use fermenting weights.  The weights provide a useful visual clue (providing you don’t move them) to remind me of the water level from the previous day (I cover them by an inch).

Do you measure salt when fermenting?  What method do you use?

Comments

  1. For sauerkraut, I tend to go with about 3 Tbsp of salt for an average sized head of cabbage (more or less). If I need to add more water later, I tend to add salt to it before adding (at about 2-4 Tbsp per litre). I don’t vary the salt too much, since it tends to be winter when I make it.

    For hot peppers, garlic scapes, cucumber pickles, etc, I add the ingredients to the jar, then add salt and add the water last. I think I use around 2 Tbsp of salt per litre for those (somewhat varied with the season), based on the volume of the jar I’m using.

  2. Rodney R says:

    I share your inner Geekdom and am new to fermenting (three pepper batches and just starting a batch of carrots). Problem is that none of them really took off. No noticeable bubbles. Just slowly became more acidic over the course of several weeks (temperature around 78 Deg F). Should I be expecting active bubbling? I have a way of determining how salty the brine is if it is important. I can check the specific gravity of the brine with the Hygrometer that I use for home brewing. I’d pour off about 30 CC of brine into my test tube and use the Hygrometer to determine SG. Pour the brine back into the fermenter and make a brine that gives me the same ratio of salt to water. Sound like I should be looking for a ratio that gives me 3.5% salt to water by weight. Is that right? I could now correct the fermenter brine salt ratio by pouring some off and adding unsalted water. Do you think this is worth while. Thanks in advance for any advice.

    • Could you please give me an idea in what range the hydrometer reads (beer wine etc). I would like to compare the reading to natural seawater. Thank you.

      • Jeff,

        I’ve never done it before; it’s a neat idea. We’re into jam and jelly season here – when I get back to pickling I’ll try to remember – would love to sample a few of them. I’ve never done it before so will need a bit of research in advance – I but I really love this idea.

      • Rodney R says:

        Hi Jeff I thought about doing that experiment with my hygrometer but never got round to it. I have a jar of peppers almost all eaten. Give me a day and I’ll pour off the brine and measure it. It was a good batch so I will trust the results. Hygrometers read in different scales so I will us specific gravity.

        • Sea water is usually 1.021 to 1.023, but since some brewing hygrometers don’t have numbers on them like yours, both numbers and something like “high in the beer range” would be helpful to all. Commercial “sea salt” is actually deficient in some of the most soluble salts because they don’t dehydrate it completely before reflooding the ponds.

          I live near the Pacific Ocean so I am thinking of using seawater that has been boiled (or not?).

          I am my own lab rat.

          • Rodney R says:

            Jeff, I’ll get back with you on Sunday

          • Rodney R says:

            Hi Jeff, a bit of excitement over the past few days kept me from measuring the SG of the brine. Should be able to do it tonight when I get home. I’m also going to mix up some brine using Loretta’s ratio for comparison. I’ll share the results.

          • Thanks. Not too much excitement here.

  3. I was thinking about salt this week, too. I have been working on approximately 1 Tbsp sea salt per pint. But, a lot of the ferments I made over the winter were made out of pretty hardy stuff that didn’t radically shrink down when salted. Then, I made a kohlrabi kraut this week and added 2 tbsp to a quart of shredded kohlrabi and onions. It massively shrunk down so that it ended up being about 2 tbsp for a pint of veggies, unless I fill it with so much water that the kraut is just floating around loosely in brine. This is how I do carrots, radishes, etc, but doesn’t seem quite right for kraut or kimchi? So, it’s way over salted. I am thinking about adding some water and then draining it when I use it. Or, I will chuck it. It became so salty it is not super appealing at the moment.

    • Rodney R says:

      Kyle, good point about the green leafy stuff. I can imagine how that type of material would behave when salted. Would you consider adding more kohlrabi to the fermenter? I think I read somewhere that it is the kind of thing that can be done. Keep packing it in till you feel it is full enough to give you the right brine solution. What do you think?

      • Rodney, that is a good idea. Unfortunately, I used all the kohlrabi I bought at the market on Saturday. :( But, in the future, I think having a little extra on hand is a really good idea. Or, I might start with half the salt and taste it once it is wilted down. Lesson learned!

        • Rodney R says:

          Let us know how it turns out in the future. You said you had experience fermenting carrots? I just started my first attempt with them. How many weeks did it take before you started getting a good flavor? Did you add anything like whey to get it going?

          • Carrots are awesome and about the easiest thing in the world. I cut them into thin slices and add some very thinly sliced ginger and garlic. I’ve fermented them for a few days and did one batch for nearly a month. Both were fantastic. I may have gotten a bit more depth of flavor in the longer batch, but not so much that I’m completely sold on that for thin slices. Maybe for large pieces! They are fantastic in any asian-inspired dish: stir-fries, rice bowls, noodles, spring rolls etc.

          • Oh, and I never bother with whey for veggies. I did use some old brine to get a fermented mustard going, but I’ve never had an issue with the veggies getting it kicked off within 24 hours.

          • Rodney R says:

            Thanks for the info. I’m just going to let them ride and see how they turn out. I’ve got two jars so I’ll let one go for a full month and compare the two. I like the ginger addition and will give it a try in future.

  4. Loretta B. says:

    I deconstructed Sandor’s formula to 2 teaspoons per pound of veg. I don’t add water to my kraut, since it usually generates sufficient. I round up to the nearest tablespoon.

    • Rodney R says:

      Thanks Loretta. Peppers are starting to come in here. In a few weeks I’ll need to put some up and will try your ratio. Jamming now. Early strawberry season ends around July 4th. Just did my first batch. Came out great.

  5. Rodney R says:

    Okay, I finally got around to testing the Specific Gravity of Brine solutions with my hydrometer. This is a floating glass type that is used for beer and wine making.
    What I did: I checked the accuracy by first using it on 60 deg F water. reading was .0996 (a little low so i will use a correction factor of .004 for all other readings). Next I took a strained sample of brine from my first batch which came out very tasty. at 60 deg F it read 1.037 after correction. Next, using some information I got earlier I mixed up a solution of 3.5% by weight salt water brine. (0.56 oz salt to 16 oz water) At 60 deg F it read 1.024 SG after correction. My original concern was the slowness of the ferment and lack of bubbles in my first batch of peppers. I believe that I added around 2.5 to 3 tsp salt as I packed the pepper slices into a pint jar tightly packed. I’m concluding that I should have used no more than 2 tsp. Does anyone have an opinion on my conclusions?

    Jeff, I hope this provides some useful information regarding assessment of brine solutions and Specific Gravity.

  6. Rodney R says:

    Missing info from my hydrometer message. After weighing .56 oz salt I determined that was equal to about 3.5 tsp. this will change with air humidity as salt likes to absorb moisture. 3.5 tsp in a pint of just water gets us around 1.024 specific gravity. Packing a pint jar full of peppers and adding 3 tsp salt and enough water to cover them got me well over 1.03 and a slow, almost inactive ferment. Next time I will add only 2 tsp per pint of pepper slices, record fermentation activity, flavor and final SG.

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