Written By: Lillian Chou - Lillian Chou is a Chinese-American whose passions for food drive her occupational hazards. After working for years in restaurants she evolved from the kitchen towards editorial work involving food to include food styling, writing, and photography. After living in Asia for eight years she returned to the U.S. to present for Chefs in the City (UK Living) and has written for New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene and Art Culinaire.
Call it Kimchi, Kraut, or Cornichon. For those rare individuals who are fickle about their pickle, there is more to this flavorful technique than garlic or dill. Pickles are universal- the mind and palate need wander just slightly further east or west to surely find something delish. So have a Gibson Martini, munch on some olives, sit back and read while getting pickled.
Universally, every culture pickles something as a means of preserving. Pickles are food preserved in seasoned brine or vinegar. Simple enough, but all pickled foods take time to prepare. Some take weeks or longer to pickle while others are done in days, and some pickles require a fermentation process that can take months. Often when it comes to pickling, old techniques are constantly rediscovered, revived, and reinvented. However, the definition can vary and often slip towards the process of preserving. While the two are related, not all things preserved are considered pickled, but pickles are positively preserved.
In North America, fewer edibles are more cherished alongside a sandwich or burger than the classic "pickle"- most commonly referred to as Kirby cucumbers brined or marinated with herbs, vinegars, and/or salt. However, just about anything can be pickled-meat, fruit, vegetables, even cheeses. In the Deep South, pickled pigs parts, peaches, or watermelon are common but up where the Yanks hover, who could imagine having anything but pickled corned beef and cabbage downed with green beer in honor of St. Patrick-maybe with a shot of pickle juice? And if your deli-sandwich maker doesn't give you a choice of spear, half, or slices of pickle...be very afraid. However sweet or savory these may appear, there are endless varieties between the old and the new.
Hop over to Europe and enter a traditional English public house. Anyone in search of quintessential pub fare must indulge in a "Ploughman's Lunch." No self-respecting establishment would be caught without an offering of a crusty hunk of bread with a generous slab of cheese (preferably Cheddar) accompanied by something pickled (preferably the famed Branson pickle) and of course, the necessary pint. Each pub prides itself on the variety of cheese offered, but most importantly, it is the pickle that ties the whole meal together.
Just across the channel only the French could refine something as humble as a gherkin by using a daintier cucumber and calling it a cornichon. There are countless others - most commonly, brined olives found all over Europe, the delightful vegetable based giardiniera found in Italy and who doesn't love German sauerkraut? Could the Spanish fish-based escabeche be pushing it? Definitely not. While in Scandinavia, pickled herring (a.k.a. rollmops) reign. These more popularly known varieties prevail just about everywhere, but generally it's the condiment that we are addicted to.
In China, there are hundreds of preserved vegetables - all pickles. Salted duck eggs, lettuce hearts, even bamboo shoots-if it's edible in China, it's probably pickled too. And Korean meals are incomplete without at least one type of kimchi. The addictive spicy cabbage is buried in a clay vessel underground to ferment over the winter and later consumed throughout the year. Anything from pickled oysters to dried fish can be found on the Korean table. Not surprisingly, it is the official national food of Korea and comes in as varied a selection as the Chinese offerings.
In Japan it can be the gari or pickled ginger that accompanies your sushi or all things tsukemono that whet the appetite. These brightly colored packages of vegetables wrapped up neatly with leeks or scallions are palatable gifts-typical in Japan. Thailand and its Southeast Asian neighbors have everything from mango to papaya in all colors and shapes (but not necessarily all-natural). And any authentic Indian meal must have an offering of chili-doused lime pickles or spicy-hot vegetable achar while we burn our throats and beg for more.
In North Africa, there are endless varieties of preserved foods available primarily thanks to the nomadic nature of the people and the local climate. At least once in a lifetime, a tagine of couscous with Moroccan salted lemons must be experienced. Then there is the pickled green mango-a huge export in South Africa.
Down under in Australia they even pickle walnuts (although this allegedly
originates in England).
Amazingly they are all considered pickles yet literally worlds apart. Am I Blue?
While some pickles are colored unnaturally, blue garlic is a strange phenomenon. This is not a new variety of exotic allium, but rather a reaction of enzymes in the garlic to sulfur usually from a copper utensil and in some cases natural minerals in the water. In the case of green garlic, this is a reaction of young or not fully dried garlic. Both are generally considered safe to eat, but if there is any doubt, practice prudence and discard. Fresh garlic contains allicin which gives a characteristic pungency in flavor. Pickling neutralizes the allicin and changes the flavor. This is why pickled garlic is not as strong and overpowering as fresh - fine fare for a first date.
Salt to taste:
Corned beef, olives, and just about anything cured in liquid is considered a pickle. Salting helps to draw out water from the item to be pickled, allowing it to later soak up pickling solution and flavor. The recommended salts are pickling salt, kosher salt, or canning salt. Free-flow and low sodium salts should be avoided as they may cloud or discolor the solution whereas flake salts vary in density. Proper salting also keeps the crunch in vegetables.
Previously saltpeter and sal prunella were used to maintain the pink-red hues of charcuterie and other meats, and were effective against most aggressive bacteria (including botulism). Since these were nitrates, overuse could be toxic. In fact, the U.S. military used to keep a strong stock of saltpeter to spike the mess hall chow, thus taming the beasts in the barracks thanks to its definite libido-reducing powers. Today, most countries have banned or limited the use of either and often the common replacement used today is called sel rose.
In some older pickle recipes, grape leaves may be required. The tannins naturally occurring in the leaf produce enzymes that inhibit bacteria. This measure is often replaced with the addition of alums or pickling lime. Neither is necessary, and the use of alums should be carefully measured or toxic results can occur. Traditionally speaking, vegetables should be pickled within 24 hours of harvest to ensure crispness. No one likes a soggy pickle!
Brined pickles are fermented and generally have enough salt to be considered safe. Quick pickles are just as they sound, quickly made and ready in days with the use of vinegar or other acid. However, flavors will intensify over time.
Drizzle of oil:
Pickling in oil is something less common in the West (often called pantry pickles) but more prominent in Asia. Since most of the Indian pickles are comprised of watery ingredients (limes and mangoes) the possibility of spoilage increases. Often these types of vegetables are cured in salt to reduce water content. A paste of chili and other ingredients is often used to coat. The heat-causing capsaicin in the pepper is usually strong enough to ward off any unsuspecting bacteria. However, just because they are highly spiced and laden with chili is not enough to avoid spoilage, therefore a slick of oil on the top of a bottle or jar provides an airtight seal (as with wine), and preserves.
Pickle connoisseurs know that all good things take time. Fermented pickles such as kimchi or sauerkraut take weeks or months at a time to finish. Lactic acid is often a by-product of the gases emitted from the process which actually preserve the vegetable. For newcomers, strong kimchi or Chinese stinky tofu are not always appreciated, but they do offer complex and wonderful dimensions to the palate throughout the meal.
Juice of one lemon:
The traditional sour pickle is just as popular today as ever. Often, these are sold as "fresh-packed" or "quick-process" pickles requiring refrigeration. These pickles often incorporate the use of vinegar (usually distilled white or cider) and even lemon juice. Homemade vinegar should be avoided unless the percentage of acidity can be determined. Commercially made vinegars often have 5% acidity (50 grain) whereas older recipes were determined with vinegars at 7% (70 grain). Why the fuss? If there is insufficient acidity, harmful pathogens could develop. If the solution is too sour, increase the sugar rather than dilute with water unless a recipe calls for it.
The existing risk factor of bacteria in the form of mold growths could eventually reduce acid levels. Over time, this low acid level could dramatically introduce the wicked spores of botulism at worse case scenario. But often enough, sufficient acid exists to avoid any potential hazards.
Pickle Precaution and Purity:
Water has a lasting effect, so make sure the water being used is clean and pure. Equal consideration should be exercised with sugar. The use of brown sugar will affect the flavor and color of a lighter product as well. Sugar substitutes should be avoided. Some pickles such as American gherkins are so sweet and actually pickled with a high-sugar solution producing a result that is almost candied.
One last thing to note is that the boiling-canning method is often used and strongly advised. Pasteurization is always a safer bet, eliminating unwanted would-be spoilers in the forms of yeasts, molds, and bacteria. As an added bonus, a vacuum seal is created allowing for long term storage. And don't forget to sterilize the jars; a very basic, yet important step-boil them clean.
According to the USDA, recipes with equal parts of vinegar to water are
generally considered safe. Avoid using copper, zinc, iron, brass, or galvanized
metal utensils to avoid contamination of the solution. For a list of USDA
Federal Safety Guidelines on pickling, go to: http://eesc.orst.edu/agcomwebfile/edmat/PNW355.pdf
(Acrobat reader required).