Pickling, also known as ‘brining’ or ‘corning,’ is the process of preserving food with acid. Pickling began 4000 years ago using cucumbers native to India. It is called ‘achar’ in northern India. This was used as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors before the days of steam engines. Although the process was invented to preserve foods, pickles are also made and eaten because people enjoy the resulting flavors.

Pickling may also improve the nutritional value of food by introducing B vitamins produced by bacteria (when pickled in a process utilizing fermentation). The term ‘pickle’ is derived from the Dutch word ‘pekel,’ meaning ‘brine’ (salt water). In the U.S. Canada, and Australia the word ‘pickle’ alone almost always refers to a pickled cucumber (other types of pickles will be described as ‘pickled onion,’ ‘pickled cauliflower,’ etc.), except when it is used figuratively. In the UK, ‘pickle’ refers to Ploughman’s pickle, a kind of chutney; a pickled cucumber is referred to as a ‘gherkin.’

Foods are pickled by either marinating in an acid solution, usually vinegar (acetic acid), by an anaerobic fermentation (oxygen-less conversion of sugar into lactic acid — also called ‘milk acid’ because it was discovered in soured milk). This procedure gives the food a salty or sour taste. In South Asia, edible oils are used as the pickling medium with vinegar. Pickled foods have a pH under 4.6, which is sufficient to kill most bacteria. Pickling can preserve perishable foods for months. Antimicrobial herbs and spices, such as mustard seed, garlic, cinnamon, or cloves, are often added. If the food contains sufficient moisture, a pickling brine may be produced simply by adding dry salt. For example, sauerkraut and Korean kimchi are produced by salting the vegetables to draw out excess water. Natural fermentation at room temperature, by lactic acid bacteria, produces the required acidity.

Unlike the canning process, pickling (which includes fermentation) does not require that the food be completely sterile before it is sealed. The acidity or salinity of the solution, the temperature of fermentation, and the exclusion of oxygen determine which microorganisms dominate, and determine the flavor of the end product. When both salt concentration and temperature are low, Leuconostoc mesenteroides dominates, producing a mix of acids, alcohol, and aroma compounds. At higher temperatures Lactobacillus plantarum dominates, which produces primarily lactic acid (sour tasting). Many pickles start with Leuconostoc, and change to Lactobacillus with higher acidity.

India has a large variety of pickles, made from mango, lime, Indian gooseberry (amla), chilli, vegetables such as eggplants, carrots, cauliflower, tomato, bitter gourd, green tamarind, ginger, garlic, onion, and citron. These fruits/vegetables are generally mixed with some other ingredients i.e. salt, spices, vegetable oils and is set to mature. A special variety of mango pickle prepared in India’s Andhra Pradesh State called ‘Avakkaya’ is very popular. This pickle, often described as king of all pickles, is a fine blend of cut mango pieces, red chilli powder, mustard seed powder, salt and sesame oil each ingredient used in specified proportion all raw and allowed to mature for few weeks in porcelain containers in hot summer.

China is home to a huge variety of pickled vegetables, including radish, baicai (Chinese cabbage), zha cai (pickled mustard plant stem), chili pepper and cucumber, among many others. Japanese ‘tsukemono’ (pickled foods) include takuan (daikon), umeboshi (ume plum), gari & beni shoga (ginger), turnip, cucumber, and Chinese cabbage. The Korean staple kimchi is usually made from pickled cabbage and radish, but is also made from green onions, garlic stems, chives and a host of other vegetables. Kimchi is popular throughout East Asia. Jangajji is another example of pickled vegetables. In Arab countries, pickles (called ‘mekhallel’ in Arabic) are commonly made from turnips, peppers, carrots, green olives, cucumbers, beetroot, cabbage, lemons, and cauliflower.

In Britain, pickled onions and pickled eggs are often sold in pubs and fish and chip shops. Pickled beetroot, walnuts, and gherkins, and condiments such as Pickle (chutney) and piccalilli (Western interpretation of Indian pickles) are typically eaten as an accompaniment to pork pies and cold meats, sandwiches, or a ploughman’s lunch (a cold snack). Other popular pickles in the UK are pickled mussels, cockles, red cabbage, mango chutney, sauerkraut, and olives. An Italian pickled vegetable dish is ‘giardiniera,’ which includes onions, carrots, celery and cauliflower. Many places in southern Italy, particularly in Sicily, pickle eggplants and hot peppers. In Northern Europe, pickled herring, rollmops, and salmon are popular in Scandinavia. Pickled cucumbers and red garden beets are important as condiments for several traditional dishes. Pickled capers are also common in Scandinavian cuisine.

In the United States and Canada, pickled cucumbers (most often referred to simply as ‘pickles’), olives, and sauerkraut are most popular, although pickles popular in other nations (such as the pickled tomatoes commonly offered in New York City delicatessens) are also available. ‘Giardiniera,’ a mixture of pickled peppers, celery, and olives, is a popular condiment in Chicago and other cities with large Italian-American populations, and is often consumed with Italian beef sandwiches. Pickled eggs are common in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Pickled herring is available in the Upper Midwest. Pennsylvania Dutch Country has a strong tradition of pickled foods, including chow-chow (Nova Scotian pickled relish) and red beet eggs (includes whole beets in the pickling solution to impart a pink or red color to the eggs). In the Southern United States, pickled okra and watermelon rind are popular, as are deep-fried pickles and pickled pig’s feet, chicken eggs, quail eggs, and pickled sausage. In Mexico, chile peppers, particularly of the Jalapeño and serrano varieties, pickled with onions, carrots and herbs form common condiments.

The World Health Organization has listed pickled vegetables as a possible carcinogen and the ‘British Journal of Cancer’ released an online 2009 review of research on pickles as increasing the risks of esophageal cancer. The report cites increases of cancer by about 100% in Chinese areas relying on pickled vegetables for nutrition. Results from the research are described as having ‘high heterogeneity’ and suggested that further studies were necessary. However, their results stated ‘The majority of subgroup analyses showed a statistically significant association between consuming pickled vegetables and Oesophageal Squamous Cell Carcinoma.’

2 Comments to “Pickling”

  1. I love pickled foods- cancer, really?

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