pickle me this

All summer long my friends and I have been embalming lovely fresh produce in vinegar and/or sugar syrup and then subjecting the jars to a boiling water bath* to kill anything that might still be alive.

Humans have been pickling food for thousands of years, but my generation seems to be just rediscovering these frugal-yet-hedonistic techniques. We buy cookbooks from nouveau homesteaders based in places like Williamsburg and Charlotte, NC. We follow modern FDA guidelines — and then some — for safe handling, carefully processing either high-acid or sugar saturated mixtures, and we put together exotic ingredients our forebears never thought of. Don’t get me wrong — I am definitely enjoying strawberry preserves with rosewater, plum noir with cardamom, and spicy squash with cumin (that’s right, in Otsego County, whole cumin is still an exotic — after failing to find it in the four stores within a 15-mile radius, I finally got lucky at the Oneonta Hannaford).

Still, the whole idea behind preserving is about, well, preserving what you have. And I kept coming across these descriptions of old-fashioned lacto-fermentation. In this technique, vegetables are placed in cool salt water, where they wait for microbial organisms naturally present on their skins to ferment and transform them into something delicious.

Yum? We super-sanitary Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with the microscopic creatures with which the air and water teems. And that’s before reading about the mat of mold that periodically needs to be scraped off the top of the bubbling mixture. Still, I was intrigued. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the taste, said to be less sharp than that of vinegar-cured pickles. But more than that I remain intrigued by the idea of food made exclusively from the sun and soil and air — and microbes — present on my little half-acre.

So a couple of weeks ago I filled a crock with wedges of cucumber, yellow squash and green tomato, plus a bunch of dill and a few slivers of horseradish, poured over the brine, and forgot about it.

Well, that’s not true. I also worried a little. While I’m a firm believer that American kids don’t eat enough dirt, and that all this hand sanitizer is actually making us a lot less healthy, botulism is no joke. The fact that I live alone made it all the scarier — I could see myself, drooling, half-paralyzed by the deadly neurotoxin, trying unsuccessfully to reach the phone while Bob mewed worriedly from the stairwell.

So I did what any self-respecting homesteader would have done: I order some pH test strips from Amazon.com.

When I removed the lid from the crock, the sight might have made me sick — if it didn’t smell so good. Here is a picture of the brining pickles, along with their lovely furry hat.

In case you are not sufficiently repulsed, here’s a close-up of the scum.

Botulism cannot survive in pH lower than 4.6, though, and the pH test gave a reading somewhere around 3 — very safe. Also delicious!

*Pickle Trivia: According to the NY Food Museum, we have Napoleon (yes, that one) to thank for the boiling water bath. He valued pickles as a health asset for his armies, so much so that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve food safely. The man who won the prize in 1809 was a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn’t spoil. He’d have to wait for Pasteur to describe why by making the bottle airtight, no microorganisms could enter, and by boiling it, any microorganisms that existed were killed. Known today as the “boiling water bath,” Appert’s discovery was one of the most influential culinary contributions in history.

But who needs it?

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Explore posts in the same categories: cucumbers, experiments, putting food by, squash

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