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When lacto-fermenting pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc. do you do your salt calculations per amount of brine, or salt per volume of the pickling container?

I mean, if I use 1-3 tablespoons of pickling salt per quart, as I've seen recommended, a number of times, is that supposed to be per quart of pure brine or per quart jar of pickles? The answer could make a big difference in the result.

I've heard you should mix the brine separately and then pour it in. So, perhaps that means to make an entire quart of brine with 1-3 tablespoons of salt in that quart (even if you don't use all the brine when you pour it on your vegetables), rather than ensuring that 1-3 full tablespoons of salt are in the jar of pickles.

It seems like my pickles could use less salt, on average, despite warm temperatures, and I see other questions on here that might benefit from the answer here. So, I'm curious.

Again, is the salt relative to how much brine you have, or to the size of your container?

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Simple answer

In general, when a recipe calls for "x tablespoons of salt per quart", you should add that amount of salt to a quart of water to make your brine.

The "correct" amount of salt

Salt in fermentation can vary wildly. As Sandor Katz notes in The Art of Fermentation (p. 99), "[s]ome traditions of fermenting vegetables, such as those of the Himalayas, mostly ferment vegetables without salt..."

As (very) general guidelines:

  • less salt = faster fermentation and greater risk of unwelcome microbial activity
  • more salt = slower fermentation and lower risk

Factors like the size and cut of your vegetables, or the coarseness of your salt, could make an even bigger difference to overall saltiness than measuring your salt by brine vs. measuring by pickling container size.

So it really depends on the recipe, and on your own taste for salt (and risk).

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Less salt risks putrefaction,

"A mere 0.8 percent salt to vegetable weight will prevent the type of decomposition you don't want... Our standard is around 1.5 percent... For comparison, the salinity of seawater is 3.5 percent."**

While more salt risks halting lactic acid bacteria. I've also seen recommendations for higher salt content for doing whole or nearly whole vegetable brines (~3%?), versus lower salt content (1-2%) for krauts and other minced veggies. Note the above is by vegetable weight; another option is to make a 100% saline solution, then cut that with water to the desired percentage. (Experience and training will also help, as usual.)

** Shockey, Kirsten K., and Christopher Shockey. Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes. Storey Publishing, 2014.

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