Quick Pickling: A sweet vs. sour face-off
Have you ever eaten something you found soaking in a bath of sour bacterial waste products? There is a possibility that you have if you’ve ever eaten a pickle. Now, don’t get your panties in a bunch. Prepared properly, pickles are perfectly safe to eat, and some even argue that the bacteria that grow on them offer beneficial probiotic properties. If you want, you can even make your own! Just wait four to six weeks, and enjoy! But what if you want a pickle RIGHT NOW? Or tomorrow, perhaps?
The last produce delivery left me with two cucumbers and in a bit of a cuke quandary. Recalling a recipe I had once seen for quick pickles, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to dabble in home pickling.
Before we begin, let’s learn about the strange and fascinating world of pickling.
Pickling is a food preservation technique that involves storing foods in an edible acidic solution to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. There are two methods for creating acidic storage conditions:
- Fermentation pickling: The food is soaked in a salt solution to promote anaerobic fermentation, which results in the production of lactic acid.
- Chemical pickling: The food is marinated in an acidic solution, typically vinegar.
Although Americans tend to think of pickled cucumbers as “pickles,” the word “pickle” can technically be used to describe any food item that has been pickled. So what else can you pickle?
Things that you can pickle: (Note: I said “can” and not “should”.)
- Cabbage (think sauerkraut, which translates directly to “sour cabbage”)
- Many other vegetables, including beets, carrots, garlic, onions, asparagus, and peppers (recall Peter Piper?)
- Fruits such as watermelon and plums, to name a couple
- Meats such as corned beef and herring
- and much, much more!
I find this pickle primer positively fascinating! Tell me more!
Although there is a prescribed pickling method for certain foods (e.g., sauerkraut and kimchi are pickled by fermentation, while meats and eggs are typically chemically pickled), cucumbers can be pickled by either method. Let’s dive a little deeper into the pickle barrel to learn how pickled cucumbers are made.
- Fermented pickles: Also known as cured pickles, brined pickles, sour pickles, and good old pickle barrel pickles, these pickles are prepared by soaking cucumbers in a salt brine. At the proper level of salinity, the “good” bacteria (lactobacillus) found on the skins of the cucumbers are encouraged to grow, whereas “bad” bacteria and microorganisms are kept at bay. By a process of anaerobic fermentation, the “good” bacteria digest sugars in the cucumber and convert them to lactic acid. The accumulation of lactic acid causes the brine to become acidic, which in turn prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and microorganisms. Fermentation pickling typically takes 3-6 weeks, after which the pickles can be stored in the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process. With proper maintenance (i.e., skimming the bacterial gunk off the surface of the brine), these pickles can be kept in the refrigerator for a year or longer.
- Quick pickles: Also called fresh-packed pickles, quick process pickles, marinated pickles, and refrigerator pickles, these pickles derive their flavor from a solution of vinegar and spices rather than from lacto-fermentation. The vinegar basically kills all the bacteria on the cucumbers, even the “good” bacteria. These can be stored in the refrigerator for about ten days, or they can be canned for long-term storage.
As someone who has been fortunate to enjoy actual pickle barrel pickles at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, I wondered whether quick pickles could come close to the delicious complexity of their fermented counterparts. With my two farm-fresh cucumbers, I decided to make some quick pickles.
The Quickle Face-Off
As I began to research recipes for quick pickles, I sensed a sweet versus sour schism. I wondered whether the sour recipe would more closely replicate the sourness of fermented pickles, or whether the sugar was necessary to build complexity. With two cucumbers, I decided to make one of each. Here are the recipes:
Sour Quick Pickles
(adapted from foodinjars.com)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cucumber, ends chopped and cut into wedges
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon dried dill weed (mine expired in 2006)
Bring the water/vinegar/salt mixture to a boil. (Since I was making such a small recipe, I just boiled the liquid in a measuring cup in the microwave.) Stir in the dried dill, add the garlic, and then submerge the sliced cucumber in the hot solution. Leave it out on the counter until it cools, and then cover the container and refrigerate. The pickles should be ready to eat after 24 hours.
Sweet Quick Pickles
(adapted from seriouseats.com)
Follow the recipe for sour pickles, but add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the water/vinegar/salt solution. For a fair comparison, I added exactly the same flavoring components (garlic and dill) to both pickle preparations.
Taste Test and Edibility Evaluation
I allowed the pickles to soak in the refrigerator for 24 hours. When I examined them, they largely resembled regular pickles with the notable exception that the white flesh had taken on a slight pinkish hue from the apple cider vinegar.
My taste testing was admittedly unscientific, although I can argue that it was a blind taste test because I didn’t label the measuring cups, and they basically looked the same. Both types of pickles were crunchy and juicy, just as a pickle should be. However, I could definitely tell the difference between the sweet and sour pickles, and I strongly preferred the sweet pickle. Nevertheless, both were really, really vinegary! It’s no surprise, then, that the sweet pickle was preferable because the sugar balanced the vinegar somewhat. You’ll find my rankings on the edibility scale below.
After smelling the strong vinegar solution, Bill became vehemently opposed to the idea of quick pickling and decided to boycott the entire experiment. Despite my attempts to reassure him that vinegar is relatively harmless and commonly used for cleaning, he opened all of our windows and insisted that the smell I had created was evil. As a concession, I agreed to make the Hasselback potatoes again that he loved so much.
Luckily for Bill, this experiment has soured me to the idea of home pickling. While the quick pickles I made could pass as sandwich accompaniments in a pinch, I definitely prefer the more complex, less vinegary flavor of regular old pickle barrel pickles.
Wait! There’s more!
Although the sun has set on my short stint in home pickling, I found my pickle research really fascinating. I’ll end this post with a pickle Q&A.
- Is a dill pickle made by fermentation or chemical pickling? Dill pickles can be prepared either way. The name just indicates that they are prepared using dill weed or dill oil as the main flavoring agent.
- What is a kosher pickle? Despite what their name implies, kosher pickles (or kosher dill pickles) do not necessarily adhere to orthodox Jewish dietary laws. Rather, they are prepared following the methods of traditional Jewish New York City pickle makers. Basically, this involves adding a lot of garlic and dill to the brine.
- How are jarred pickles you can buy in the grocery store made? From what I’ve read, it seems that the majority of grocery store pickles are “quick-pickled” (i.e., made with vinegar). Some stores may sell fermented pickles, but they are likely to be more expensive.
- Can I be sure that there are live cultures of “good” bacteria in my fermented pickles? This is a good question to ask if you’re a savvy pickle purchaser. First off, you have to make sure that your pickles were actually fermented and not just soaked in vinegar. However, even if the pickles were fermented, you have to confirm that they were not subjected to a packaging process (such as pasteurization or adding vinegar as a preservative) that can kill the bacteria. Your best bet is to find a reputable source, such as The Cultured Pickle Shop, and buy the real thing. Or you can make your own.
- Should I really make my own pickles? It depends on how much you love pickles. If you really want to make them, I would suggest that you go all the way and ferment your own. Just be aware that fermented pickles can be fickle since they are sensitive to changes in temperature and salinity.
- What type(s) of cucumbers should I use to make fermented pickles? Pickling cucumbers, of course! But seriously, the two major categories of cucumbers are pickling cucumbers and slicing cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers are best eaten raw (on salads, for example), while pickling cucumbers have been bred to stand up well to the pickling process and are said to make for crisper and more flavorful pickles. The Cook’s Thesaurus has a nice description of cucumber varieties. Also keep in mind that you want to use freshly harvested cucumbers that are firm and that haven’t been treated with anything that would kill the “good” bacteria on their surface.
- I just ate a pickle that tasted fizzy/carbonated! Will I die? I had this experience once at Saul’s Deli, and I’ll admit that I was concerned. But I didn’t die. In fact, the carbonation was evidence that I was eating the real deal. Even after they are transferred to a refrigerator, fermented pickles still contain live bacteria. If you take them out of the refrigerator and they warm up a bit, the bacteria will continue the fermentation process, generating carbon dioxide gas as a by-product. This article gives more detail about the heterolactic fermentation process responsible for generating this fizz-producing gas.
- When are you going to stop talking about pickles? This is a question that Bill and some of my close friends probably want to ask me. I promise that I’ll stop now and find a new research subject.