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All the Pickles
The term pickle is best known as the soured cucumber you get in a delicatessen or jarred on the supermarket shelf, but pickle refers to any soured food made through different processes, which can take anywhere from minutes to weeks to complete.
There are several different types of pickling that we’ll explore in this book. While the end result may taste similar in its mouth-puckeringly sour crunch, some distinctly different practices can create very diverse results.
Fresh pickles are the quick-pickling choice and are the most common type of pickles found in supermarkets. Soured using a mixture of an acetic acid (most commonly vinegar) and water, they are typically flavored with salt, a variety of spices, and sometimes sugar. Most canned pickle recipes are this type of quick-process pickles. These pickles can span the gamut of pickled food items, from vegetables to fruits to even eggs.
The term fresh in this pickle’s title means they have not been fermented, but soured just enough to retain their bright color, crispy texture, and fresh taste. Despite being called “fresh” they are not ready to eat when the recipe is complete, but rather, many fresh pickles must be stored from days to weeks to obtain their full flavor.
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Fermentation is the process of using bacteria and yeast to convert the sugar in foods to acid or alcohol. In pickling, this process is called lacto-fermentation. Bacteria and yeast produce lactic acid, giving pickles their desired sour flavor. In order to prevent spoilage, salt or a starter culture is added. Starter cultures can include whey, kombucha, or commercially prepared starter cultures.
Fermented pickles can be just as sour as fresh pickles, but the actual processing time is much longer. Fermented foods, such as fruits, can take just a day or two, but harder foods like carrots and beets and those containing less sugar can require several weeks to obtain full sourness. While this process may sound complex, it is actually quite manageable and safe in the home kitchen where it originated and has taken place for hundreds of years.
Chutneys are a type of pickled condiment that uses a wide variety of fruits, spices, and vegetables. Most common in South Asian cuisine, these fruity, tangy mixtures can range considerably in their consistency, ingredients, and heat level. Typically divided into sweet and hot varieties, chutneys are preserved using vinegar, lemon juice, or citrus, as well as through fermentation. Fruit is most commonly the base for chutney, though vegetables can make an appearance as well. Common seasonings are garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, cumin, cilantro, and mint. Chutneys are often paired with meats, poultry, and fish, or can be served with breads and other grain-based dishes.
Relishes, like chutneys, are largely condiments as well. Originating in India like chutneys, the term relish today most commonly applies to Western staples such as sweet pickle relish, zucchini relish, and corn relish. Relishes are also closely related to ketchups and salsas, and are very similar to chutneys in their complexity, but are often associated with more Western-style flavors. Relishes can be made with whole, ground, or infused spices, and in the case of ketchup and other similar condiments, can be pureed into a thick sauce. Other types of relish can be used on sandwiches, in dips, and as spreads.
There are a few different methods for pickling various types of foods. While pickling is a rather simple method of food preservation, the process will vary slightly based on what foods you are pickling. Here are three types of commonly used pickling:
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Pickling using salt is primarily a method used for fermentation. Salt is used to process foods such as cabbage that once salted have enough natural moisture to produce a brine. By drawing the water from the vegetable, salt pickling leaves the pickled vegetables crisp, yet changed from their original state. Salt protects food during fermentation from bacteria and yeasts that would otherwise cause decomposition to take place. This allows for the good bacteria and yeasts, also present in the air we breathe, to take hold and transform the sugars in the food to lactic acid. Once this transformation is complete, the lactic acid protects the pickled food from spoilage. Japanese pickling also employs salt pickling, although in this case, the pickling process is typically stopped before fermentation takes place. Salt is also added to quick-process pickles, but in this case it is for flavor and not preservation.
Using a brine is another method of fermentation pickling. For this method, you create a mixture of salt, water, and spices, then submerge the produce into this brine until the pickling is complete. Depending on the food item, this can take a matter of days or several weeks. A brine is used for foods that would not otherwise create their own liquid through dry salting, such as carrots, cucumbers, beets, and beans. This method is also used for making kimchi. The term brine additionally applies to a liquid mixture made with vinegar and used for fresh pickling.
Vinegar is used for quick, fresh pickling. Any type of vinegar, as long as it is 5 percent acidity, is fair game for pickling, though different recipes call for different types, based on the desired flavor of the finished pickles. Apple cider vinegar, distilled white vinegar, and white wine vinegar are all commonly used to obtain that pickled flavor. When pickles are made through vinegar pickling, vinegar is typically mixed with water, salt, and spices to create a tangy brine. It is sometimes added to fermented pickles, as well, at the end of fermentation to extend shelf life.
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FAQ: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PICKLING AND FERMENTATION?
Pickling is a broad term that describes all foods that have been purposely soured. Many people think the two words — pickling and fermentation — are interchangeable, but they are not. Quick pickling uses vinegar or another acidic medium, while lacto-fermentation, the type of fermentation used to make pickles, requires a starter culture or salt. The end result produced by both taste similar, but the process to arrive there is completely different.
All food items made sour by adding an acid can be considered pickled. Quick, fresh pickles using vinegar, lemon juice, or citrus can include many foods. The end result is, for instance, cucumber pickles, pickled beans, pickled asparagus, pickled strawberries, chutneys, and relishes.
Foods such as old-fashioned dill pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi are typically made through the addition of salt and left to sit for a longer time until lactic acid causes the bubbling action signaling fermentation. In these cases, the foods are both pickled and fermented. (Wine is also fermented but because grapes are high in sugar, it turns into alcohol rather than lactic acid.)
Most pickled products made through quick pickling can also be made using fermentation; therefore, to determine if a commercial food is made through fermentation or fresh pickling, check the label. When food is produced through fermentation, the label will most likely tell you so, but the main clue is an ingredient list that includes only items such as vegetables, salt, and spices, and does not include vinegar or another acidic substance.
FAQ: IS PICKLING DANGEROUS?
Pickling is a traditional craft that has been practiced for generations. While you should maintain basic food sanitation measures in your kitchen, there is no need to worry about pickling being dangerous. Be sure to thoroughly clean all items used for pickling in warm, soapy water before you begin, and carefully follow directions to ensure success.
If you are canning your pickles, you need to follow a recipe specifically designed for canning to prevent spoilage or bacteria leaking into the jar. Not all types of pickles can be canned, and it is important that if you want to can pickles you follow a recipe for doing so. Additionally, you should make sure you are up-to-date with the most current canning practices and familiar with how to operate your water-bath canner.
With both fermented and fresh pickles, there is the chance that something may go wrong, such as mold growth, off flavors, or other spoilage. However, by simply inspecting your pickled foods before eating, you should easily be able to determine if this is the case. If there is a problem, you will know it. Smell, texture, and visible observation will give you the clues you need to determine the safety of a pickled food. As with any food item, if it seems off, do not taste it to check. Instead, discard the food safely in a place inaccessible to humans and animals, and then clean and sanitize the storage container and workspace thoroughly.
More from DIY Pickling: Step-by-Step Recipes for Fermented, Fresh, and Quick Pickles:
- Lacto-Fermented Asparagus Recipe
- Lacto-Fermented Beans Recipe
- Lacto-Fermented Spiced Apples Recipe
- Bran Pickles Recipe
Reprinted with permission from DIY Pickling: Step-by-Step Recipes for Fermented, Fresh, and Quick Pickles by Rockridge Press and published by Rockridge Press, 2015.