Nearly every wellness expert on the planet will tell you that the fresher the food you eat is, the better it is for you. While there is definitely some truth to this, fermented products are of late becoming well-known for their healing properties. Fermented products provide a probiotic boost to the body’s digestive tract and are essential to the production of necessities like Vitamin K within the human body. Healthy levels of symbiotic bacteria within the gut not only aid digestion but are also beneficial to the immune system, the skin, and can help maintain optimum body fat percentage.
Some people who have grown up in Ireland have admitted to be pretty limited when it came to their experience of pickled and fermented products. I myself have undergone a forced and unpleasant interaction with a jar of Chef beetroot on a bi-summerly basis for as far back as I can remember. Working with food professionals who care passionately about produce has caused for me a complete reversal of my opinion on many ingrediential processes, not least of all pickling and fermentation.
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— Chef Tomato Ketchup (@ChefKetchup) 4 November 2015
When created with knowledge and love, pickles and ferments can be some of the prettiest and most appetizing food available. You can pickle almost anything, sweet or savoury. When googling for recipes I happened across sweet pineapple pickles, tall jars of colourful sliced radishes, kilners of hard boiled eggs that when stored with beetroot and sliced had taken on a bright purple ring of colour. Whilst aesthetically pleasing, without the process of fermentation we wouldn’t have many of the foodstuffs that we take for granted today. Cheese, yoghurt, wine, beer, soy sauce and miso are all products of managed microbial action. Historically, evidence of fermentation has been dated as thousands of years old and most cultures have a particular fermented or pickled product native to their area or ethnicity.
The motivation to pickle came from a common goal: to preserve for future consumption. Nowadays, the technique is still used to capture harvest’s bounty and ensure ample food for winter.
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Here are some guidelines for pickling at home:
- Produce- Produce pickled at its peak of freshness will invariably yield the best result. The freshest produce will also have the most crispy texture, necessary for a good pickle. Vegetables grown in your own garden make the most delicious pickles, and preserving ingredients you have grown yourself inspires a sense of pride. Otherwise, look to the farmers’ market for fresh vegetables to pickle, avoiding ones with blemishes or soft areas. Fast is equally important—make your pickles as soon as possible after picking or purchasing your produce. Maintaining the integrity of the vegetables is an important factor in the pickling process.
- Salt – Salt is a key ingredient in a wide range of pickling methods. In many brines, salt tempers the balance of flavors, as it also does when you add salt to food at the table. In some cases, salt helps draw water out of vegetables, such as cucumbers, to improve their texture. Kosher salt and pickling salt, which are nearly identical, are the two main types of salt used for making shelf-stable pickles. Do not substitute common table salt. Some people add a lot of salt to brines in order to achieve a pronounced salty flavor—but the subtleties of spices, herbs and citrus can generate equally distinctive final results.
- Acid – Acids are a vital element in making shelf-stable pickles. Properly sealed jars of pickles can remain on the shelf for a long period of time because they have achieved an acceptable level of acidification, the pH of the contents (pickles and brine) has been stabilized, and all bacteria have been eradicated. Acid in pickling takes two forms: vinegar and citric acid. Vinegar, an acetic acid, works on pickled vegetables to stabilize their pH levels. Different vinegars have different degrees of strength, or grain. Most vinegars commonly used in pickling have a grain strength of 5 or 6 percent. Avoid using vinegars with a grain strength lower than what the recipe requires, as this may result in pickles that don’t acidify properly. Citric acid takes the form of juice from citrus: lemon, lime, and orange. It brightens and embellishes the flavors of pickles and complements other ingredients, but it doesn’t usually provide the basis for acidification. Heat penetration is another factor in acidification. Brines are brought to a boil (212°F) and poured quickly into jars before their temperature drops below 195°F, which typically takes a few minutes. Jars remain in the boiling-water bath for a specified length of time to ensure that the core temperature of the contents reaches a level that will kill any form of bacteria present. If the jars have been properly sealed, the combination of vinegar and heat penetration will reliably kill bacteria and the contents will be safe to eat.
- Flavourings – The combination of a vegetable (or fruit), a vinegar and pickling spice defines the pickler’s palate. But it is the pickling spice—the unique and flavorful mix of herbs and spices added to the brine, which plays the most distinctive role. Different combinations of herbs and spices help create pickles with distinctive flavors, and experimenting with these elements is where you can really get creative. In my pickles as pictured at the top I have used pink and black peppercorns with a bay leaf thrown in for good measure.
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