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!

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