Iraqi beet and turnip pickles, floating egg method

by Sarah on January 5, 2013

beet and turnip pickles

There’s a green grocer down the block from us. For years I would rummage for the choicest tomatoes to the beat of the disco-style Mizrachi music that blasted happily from their small establishment.   Then one day they vanished and a group from Uzbekistan took their place. Now Russian rock and teary eyed telenovelas are the entertainment when there’s a lull in customers. Even when the store is full, the cashier often looks up at the television perched above the bell peppers so he doesn’t miss an episode.  

A few days ago I stopped by to buy “red, red, red apples” for my 7 year old and noticed rows of pickles for sale- tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage- every fresh vegetable had  a fermented counterpart.

They know me enough to expect my questions. “Who makes the pickles?” I asked the checkout fellow. ”Me”, he responded

“How much salt do you add?” “I just throw it in by eye and add some vinegar” he said as he bagged the green onions and strawberries “I make 25 liters at a time and never measure”

I told him I use the egg method and he laughed “Someone told me about that 20 years ago in Bukhara but I have yet to try”

Making salt cured pickles, like sourdough bread, involves nurturing lacobacillus bacteria (some consider it their pet). This probiotic microbe occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables and thrives in the saline, anaerobic environment of the pickling liquid. During the fermentation process these bacteria produce lactic acid which lowers the pH of the brine, acting as a preservative agent similar to vinegar. However it is a delicate balance. Too little salt fosters the growth of pathogenic bacteria, too much and it becomes unpalatable.

For reproducible results, it is important to be able to accurately measure the salinity of the brine. Before the advent of more advance technology, an egg was used as a salinometer, a method still used in traditional societies.  A fresh egg will sink solidly to the bottom of a jar of water but will become more buoyant with increasing amounts of salt.  According to research conducted at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, eggs are not a reliable way to measure salinity.  After testing a range of eggs, they found that the salinity of the brine at the point where the egg just peeped above the surface ranged from 11.6-14 %. This would not be acceptable in commercial enterprises but has worked well enough for households throughout the centuries.  My guess is that an experienced pickler also used other indicators to ensure a well-made product- tasting the brine and inspecting it throughout the process.

Tips for vegetable pickling with brine:

At least a 10% brine solution should be used. A higher concentration is recommended because the vegetables will release moisture into the brine. Below 10% salinity (10 grams in 100 ml of water) undesirable microbes can thrive.

 High salt concentration of 15% and higher retards fermentation.

The ideal temperature for pickle fermentation is 15-20 C.

Water purity is important in the fermentation process. Chlorinated water inhibits bacterial growth. Hard water also has a negative effect on the curing process

Jars and other equipment used in pickling should be sterilized for best results.

The vegetables should be completely submerged below the brine to inhibit contamination from yeasts or molds. Exposure to air can damage the pickles.

beet and turnip pickles

Iraqi turnip and beet pickles


The following recipe was adopted from the blog What You Give Away You Keep. Before beginning this recipe ensure you have enough sterilized jars to hold the amount of vegetables being pickled. These pickles are often served as an accompaniment to Middle Eastern meals and are especially popular among the Iraqi, both in Israel and abroad. I used about equal portion of beets to turnips in this recipe. If only turnips are prefers do include at least one beet to add the bright magenta color.

Although I used the egg method out of curiosity, I’d probably stick to weighing the salt next time I make this. I didn’t sterilize my jars in this experiment which may be why one of my jars went bad.

Turnips, as many as you want

Beets, as many as you want

Salt (preferably not table salt which can contain anticaking agents and iodine)

Jars with or without lids, sterilized


Extras-garlic, chili pepper

Peel and remove any stems or leafy parts of the turnips and beets. Discard any blemished vegetables. Wash under running water  to remove residual dirt. Slice the vegetables into 1 cm rounds. Cut these rounds in half to create half circles. Arrange the slices so they stand vertically in the glass jar. Add chili peppers and/or garlic if desired. The idea is to wedge the slices between the walls of the jar so they don’t float about like drift wood and spoil.

Continue to fill the jar, leaving room on top for a layer of brine. This acts as a barrier against undesirable microbes.

 Now prepare the brine in a large jar or bowl. Add water that has been boiled and cooled into a jar or bowl- about half the volume of the pickles that need to be covered.

Take a fresh egg and place it in the center. If it floats then the egg isn’t as fresh as you thought. It should sit firmly at the bottom.  Now start adding salt, one flat tablespoon at a time until the egg is suspended like a little Buddha in perfect equilibrium, between top and bottom. It might be easier to remove the egg to mix until dissolved. If it peeks over the top, the brine is too salty. If this happens add a bit more water. For every cup of brine add a tablespoon of vinegar (I did this by eye)

Pour this mixture over the pickles. If the pickles disengage and are exposed, try wedging them back down. Alternately, weigh the vegetables down with a bag of extra brine, layering two bags together to ensure it doesn’t leak. Cover with a lid (or towel in case of the bag weighing method) and place at room temperature (room temperature of an Israeli summer would not be good for this) for two weeks. If white mold forms on the top skim off and discard (this is probably yeast). Bubbles should been seen forming after a few days. This is normal. Store in the refrigeratore after the initial fermentation process. 

I admit, I am new to pickling but here are other interesting links for further reading:

The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation 

Your mother was a chemist

Canning: Pickles (from the Iowa State University)

Common pickle problems

Bacterial fermentations  

Playing with food- eggs in brine

Food Preservation Techniques: Learn How to Pickle 

 Are Mason Jar Ferments Safe?

Brine Presevation of Vegetables

 I would love to hear your experience with making pickles!

Related Posts with Thumbnails

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa January 5, 2013 at 11:55 am

Mmmhhh, surely quite addictive! I am a big fan of pickles and love eating them with cheese.




Yael the Finn January 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I have to try this !
The picture of the injera with toppings was taken at the vegetarian Ethiopian restaurant in Tel Aviv.The food there was so yummy!,382,213,11444,.aspx


Zack January 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm

1. To enhance the process of fermentation, start with a 5% sea salt and after a day or two add the rest of the salt.
2. Boiled, peeled and sliced beets result in a better finished product as they will be tender unlike the raw beets which remain hard.
3. there is no need to add vinegar.
4. You may omit adding garlic and spices if you like.
Bon appetit.


Sarah January 5, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for the input Zack, Increasing the salt concentration in increments sounds like an interesting method which I would like to try. I think vinegar gives the lactic acid bacteria an advantage before they start multiplying and start acidifying the brine. That said, many picklers omit it. I’ve read a few recipe using cooked beet but I prefer crunchy ones. Pickling is truly and art which I have yet to learn!


Eha January 5, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Oh my, this is something totally new to me, tho’ the’floating egg’ seems to ring childhood bells! Perhaps when the current summer heat is over I’ll indeed try with a few jars: a Sunday morning meditative exercise with hopefully edible results :) ! Fascinating lesson one way or the other!


Sarah January 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Thanks Eha, It’s curious it took me so long to become interested in pickling with my background in biology. I should have been doing this a long time ago.


Tim January 6, 2013 at 9:04 am

Hi – I just found your blog recently via a link from somewhere. Anyway, I really enjoyed the pickles. I’ve made these before, and I think they really thrive with black pepper. Thanks!


Sarah January 6, 2013 at 11:12 am

Thanks Tim! Hope to be making more pickles in the future…


Nawal Nasrallah January 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Hi Sarah,
Pickles might sound as a simple thing to make but as you have tried it yourself, it really can be a challenge. I remember that all families in Iraq made sure that they had enough stock of the green-glazed jarfuls of turnip pickles stashed in a sunny corner on the flat roof of the house. In Iraq, these pickles are only made in winter. The way they made it was basic, brine with turnips and beets, just enough to color the pickles. No garlic, no spices, nothing.
I experimented with these pickles a lot, and finally settled on the following recipe. It works wonderfully for me. In addition to the basic beets and turnips, I sometimes add cauliflower florets and Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes, in the Iraqi dialect, almaz). Both stay crunchy the way you said you like your pickles.

Here is my version:

3 pounds medium or small turnips
1 small head of cauliflower
2 pounds beets

Uniodized salt for sprinkling

For the briny liquid:
2 tablespoons uniodized salt
12 cups (3 quarts) liquid (blend of beet ‘juice’ and white or cider vinegar)
5-6 juniper berries, optional
A bit of dried wild/river mint (butnij) or dried mint

1. Wash vegetables very well. Cut off both ends of turnips and scrape away any brown areas. Peel if skin is tough. Cut turnips crosswise into halves, then lengthwise into thick slices. Divide cauliflower into florets.

2. Put turnips and cauliflower in a big colander fitted into a bowl. Sprinkle them generously with salt, fold them, and let them drain for about 10 hours. Toss them several times while draining.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the beets: peel them and cut them into thick slices. Put them in a medium pot, and add cold water enough to cover. Bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat and simmer the beets until half cooked. Let them cool off completely.

4. When vegetables are ready, put them in pickling jars, in layers.

5. Combine beet juice and vinegar to make 12 cups of liquid (6 cups of each will be a good proportion). Stir in salt into the liquid, and pour it into the jars. Press the vegetables a few times to allow color to distribute evenly among the vegetables. Add the juniper berries if used, and cover the surface with the dried mint. Set aside for about a week in a cool shaded place and use. I do not need to refrigerate them when made this way.



Sarah January 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Fantastic! Thanks Nawal for taking the time to write out the recipe. It seems the salting step reduces the water content of the vegetables so they are less likey to dilute the brine. More vegetables can probably be added into each jar with this recipe, if I understand correctly. Why do the beets need to be cooked, however?


Nawal Nasrallah January 7, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I find that draining the vegetables will result in a better pickle texture, less watery, more dense, and they stay good longer. I prefer to cook the beets first, because I get beet juice this way, which adds a more intense color to the pickles. They will lose their crunchiness, but I don’t mind this, the other vegetables will compensate.


Yael January 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

You reminded me my basic training as food scientist. I still remember to chemistry behind it all and the fact that fermented veggies were given to sailors in order to prevent vitamin c deficiency (scurvy).


bella January 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Glad to see that you made these! Surprised to hear about your jars.. my grandfather makes these all the time and you will see the jars lined up outside his bathroom in the basement, funny thing is that he uses those tall instant coffee jars with the twist plastic cap and they never go bad on him. No sterilization or anything just washing. Really don’t know how he does it.

Anyway, so glad that the majority turned out and hope you enjoyed! :)


Jessica January 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Wow I love your recipe and photos. Thanks for sharing – pickling is definitely an art and these look delicious!


Sarah January 9, 2013 at 9:40 am

Thanks Jessica! I say pickling is 3 parts art, 1 part science :-)


orly @yumivore January 30, 2013 at 12:50 am

I love pickled turnips, it’s one of my favorites in the pickle line-up. I usually buy these at our local Middle East market, but you may just motivate me to give it a try, and I’m sure these are much better. I’ve pickled carrots (and hot peppers) before years ago, time to find new jars. Informative post!


Sarah January 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks Orly!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: