Last month we started looking at the notion of larder love and what we can all learn from the old-school larder’s traditional techniques. Here we continue the series by exploring the ancient art of pickling.
The process of preserving food by pickling has a colourful history and dates back centuries. As far back as 4th Century B.C., Aristotle praised the healing effects of cured cucumbers and the ancient Roman emperors fed their troops pickles, believing it would give them physical strength. Pickling is mentioned twice in the bible, and archaeologists have dated pickling back over 3000 years to Western Asia, Egypt and Greece.
Napoleon was also a big advocate of the humble pickle. It is rumoured he put up the equivalent of $250,000 as a prize to whoever could figure out the best way to pickle and preserve foods for his troops. Even Cleopatra is believed to have used pickles as a secret beauty weapon!
Despite its colourful ancient history, throughout modern times the simple art of pickling was born out of necessity rather than ancient mythical beliefs. It was seen as the best way to preserve food pre-refrigerator days, for use both out of season and on long journeys by sea or road. Scientifically, pickling refers to any perishable item that has been preserved in brine (salt water) or an acid solution (usually vinegar). But pickling is so much more than science. It’s about tradition, family, community and history. It's about our ancestors, and how they would pickle to survive harsh winters, to save money or to travel to distant lands.
Pickling is an art that transcends geography. In fact, almost every culture in the world has developed its own beloved form of pickles. The Italians pickle eggplants and peppers, Russians pickle tomatoes and let’s not forget the famous Jewish kosher dills. We have such favourites as pickled mangoes in Asia, pickled Olives in the Middle East, Korean Kimchi in Korea and the British even pickled their eggs!
You might be thinking pickles are readily available in stores; but instead of purchasing ready-made pickles, why not put some love back in your larder and experiment with this ancient technique? And don’t just stick to cucumbers; virtually anything that is preserved in brine or acid can be called a pickle - from peaches to turnips, to onions and even watermelon rind can be pickled!
Here are some simple steps to start you on your pickling journey; first things first - to begin home pickling, you need to make sure you have some storage space in a cool, dry, dark place (aka a larder!). Excess light can discolour pickles and if the temperature is too warm it can also affect the flavour.
Next up you need a few simple materials and ingredients:
Some glass jars - this is a great opportunity to repurpose store bought jars so long as the lids aren’t rusted. Mason jars are also perfect for pickling.
A large pot (for boiling water and sterilising the jars).
A wire rack (for cooling the jars).
Some fresh seasonal fruit or vegetables.
Coarse salt (as iodised salt can darken the fruit or vegetables and make the brine cloudy).
For the actual method of pickling, The NY Food Museum gives us the following tips for preparing the veggies and sterilising the equipment:
Firstly, prepare your fruit or vegetables by washing and scrubbing off any dirt (which may harbour bacteria). Then cut them into any shape you like – start with thin disks if you’re unsure. Certain vegetables like beets, peppers carrots or green beans can be enhanced by blanching them first (briefly cooking them in boiling water for 2-5 minutes).
Next sterilise your jars by filling a large pot two-thirds full of water, placing the jars and lids in the pot, and bringing to the boil for twenty minutes. All equipment you use should be sterilised this way. Your lids only have to boil for five minutes but keep them in the water until they are needed.
You can then divide the vegetables among the sterilised jars and add any fresh or dry flavouring you may like. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different flavours. Flavours like bay leaves, cumin or mustard seeds, fresh oregano or fresh or dried chillies if you like a bit of spice!
The next crucial step in pickling is making the actual pickling liquid and there are many recipes for this. However, for a simple sour pickle brine simply combine 3 cups of distilled white vinegar (or cider vinegar), 3 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Bring the ingredients to a boil and stir until the salt is dissolved. Let boil for 2 minutes and then remove from heat.
Finally fill the prepared jars of vegetables or fruit with the brine liquid to within ½ an inch from the rim, completely covering the vegetables. And voila you have pickles! You can begin eating your pickles after 24 hours. Pickles are quite versatile and make a great accompaniment to many dishes. In the Middle East pickles are served as a side dish with virtually any meal – think pickled peppers, lemons and olives. You can also add pickles to salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers – the possibilities are endless! Pickles will also keep in the fridge for up to one month all the way to 1 year depending on the brine used and amount of acidity on the vinegar. Good recipes will always tell you how long it will last (as long as you follow it) so be sure to keep that in mind.
Hopefully we’ve inspired you to try your hand at pickling and make sure to keep your eye on our website and follow our social media pages for more great articles and recipes!