Pickling is one of my family’s favorite yearly traditions. It has been going on since my family came to Denver in the early 1900’s and I suspect long before they immigrated from Eastern Europe. I can’t recall a meal growing up where meat was served without a pickle to accompany it. I know it was much more commonplace in the past: there is a famous story of a family friend who used to hold a contest to see who was making the best pickles in the neighborhood. He, of course, was the judge, and in the end I don’t know if he ever awarded any prizes, he mostly just ate everyone’s pickles. The point is, at that time just about everyone on the block was making their family’s brand of homemade pickle.
Today, we still get together with my folks once a year and make enough pickles to supply our own pantries, give as gifts to friends, and serve as a favorite side dish at celebrations with the extended family. Although this is a bit of a novelty in our contemporary culture, pickles have played an important role in many culinary traditions. From German sauerkraut to Korean kimchee, pickled foods have added an extra zip to food and have historically been a handy way to bring a bit of summer into the winter months. What we are also finding today is that pickled foods are also important for health reasons.
The health promoting aspect of pickled foods lies in the pickling process itself. Today, much of what we find in the store that is labeled a “pickle” is actually preserved in vinegar. A natural pickle, however, is generally placed in a salt brine and allowed to ferment. This process is called lactic acid fermentation. What happens during this process is lactic acid producing bacteria (generally in the lactobacillus family, which included our good friend l. acidophilus) “eat” the sugars in the cucumbers and turn them into energy and lactate. We know this is happening properly when we go to open the jar (always over the sink!) and it starts bubbling–this is the moment when my dad shouts “It’s working mom! It’s working!” From a chemistry standpoint, this process increases the acidity of the brine and kills any pathogenic bacteria that may be present. From a culinary standpoint, this results is a tangy, probiotic-infused vessel of crunchy deliciousness.
In our family, there are several other important ingredients in pickle making, all of which play a role in making a delicious and healthy food. Fresh dill is what is called a carminative, which means it helps to dispel intestinal gas. The spices in pickling spice, including allspice, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper, are also digestive aids. Garlic is antimicrobial which helps to insure that the “bad” bacteria don’t get a chance to culture. The result is a product that helps to break down heavy foods, dispel gas, and provide probiotic cultures to insure healthy elimination.
In today’s grocery stores, particularly those geared towards natural foods, there are more and more natural pickle options. They will provide the benefits listed above and will probably taste pretty darn good. However, they tend to be rather expensive; I’ve seen as high as $15 per jar, which makes them a bit cost prohibitive. My recommendation is to pull out that ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking (or do a little internet search) and make your own! Start a new family tradition in your kitchen today!