I can still remember the first time I ate a pickle. I was a pretty picky kid, and I did *not* like them. The crunch, and the pungent smell of vinegar and the sharp taste just did not impress me. I always loved seeing the pickle crock come out on the counter though, because that meant we had fresh ripe tomatoes for eating too!
I only remember my parents making pickles a few times, and I also remember my grandma Mimmie making and canning pickles and pickle relish when I was visiting her house in the summer. One year Mimmie gave me my first dill pickle. Now those I liked! It has only been in recent years that I have appreciated the art of pickling a large variety of foods and not just cucumbers.
Pickling is, in fact, one of the oldest forms of food preservation. Have you ever heard the rhyme “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers?” Well it’s a lie. Because the pickling process happens after the peppers are picked! But pickled peppers are amazing on sandwiches. To pickle peppers, or whatever food you want to pickle, you submerge it in a brine of some kind – either a vinegar mix or a salt brine – to keep it from spoiling and give it more flavor.
Pickling is one of the more cost-effective ways to preserve food. While you can put your pickled veggies through a canning process to seal the jars and protect your produce from spoilage even more, you can also keep making fresh pickled veggies year-round, a few jars at a time if you prefer. My grandma called cucumbers pickled fresh “refrigerator pickles.” My kids love to eat freshly pickled beets too. It’s not just cucumbers! Plus, the same type of food can be pickled in a few different ways to offer flavor variety.
Let’s take pickled cucumbers as an obvious example, probably one of the most popular pickled foods in the United States. Kosher pickles are cucumbers preserved in a vinegar solution. Most dill pickles on the other hand are cucumbers preserved in a brine. While that mixture may include vinegar, it also includes dill and other pickling spices and salt. You can also make sweet pickles like the baby gherkins my boys love to snack on.
Pickling is used to prevent bad bacteria from growing in the food. When you use vinegar to pickle, the high acidity of the vinegar prevents most bacteria from thriving, thus preserving the food as long as it is submerged in the vinegar solution.
With salt brine pickling, you actually encourage controlled fermentation such as what you have with sauerkraut and kimchi. This allows beneficial bacteria to grow, which then crowds out the bad bacteria that causes spoilage. The look, texture, and flavor of the food changes during the brining process because of the chemical changes taking place within the food.
Fermented foods are really good for you. The beneficial bacteria in these foods helps you improve the bacteria that lives in your gut. This has a beneficial impact on most of your body’s systems including the immune system. Bottom line? Eating pickled foods on a regular basis is good for your health.
Fermented pickled vegetables can be found across the globe and it’s a preservation method that has been used for thousands of years. There’s no need for power, cold temperatures, or special equipment. As long as you have salt, you can figure out a way to ferment and preserve your harvest. Since each culture ferments different types of foods and in different ways, there are all sorts of different dishes to explore as you cook and create with pickled foods.