Pickling is more popular than ever, and for good reason. This traditional food preservation method is a fun way to extend the harvest and promote good health. Pickling has a long history in many cuisines, and with time and attention you can create a safe product that’s healthier and more delicious than anything you can buy at the grocery store.
Although pickling has some general rules, not all pickles are created equal. Pickling is simply preserving foods in vinegar or another acid. The primary difference is whether you acidify your pickles with vinegar or by fermentation; both methods have been around since ancient times. Fermenting is the cultivation of beneficial microorganisms to digest natural sugars in the food and produce lactic acid; with vinegar pickling you add the acid (vinegar) directly.
“Pickling with vinegar is much faster and easier than making truly fermented pickles with salt brine and time,” says Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D., a cookbook author and fermentation teacher in Santa Rosa, Calif. However, she says there are culinary and health advantages to the week or two it takes to make fermented pickles. “Your pickles develop what is known as umami flavor — a savory, desirable flavor that makes them even more delicious.”
The other difference comes from what you pickle. Pickling isn’t limited to cucumbers — you can pickle almost any food, including green beans, beets, peppers and cabbage (sauerkraut).
Vinegar and fermented pickles have different potential health benefits. A number of small research studies suggest that juice from vinegar pickles can provide almost instant relief of muscle cramps after exercise, although it’s unclear how it has this effect. On the other hand, “vinegar pickles do not have live good bacteria, known as probiotics, which keep your digestive system working well,” Nussinow says.
Eaten regularly, the probiotics in fermented foods can support a healthy gut microbiome by improving the composition of bacteria that live there. As an added bonus, these beneficial bacteria can produce vitamins as they are actively fermenting.
As for reports that pickled vegetables can increase the risk of stomach cancer, this phenomenon (based on population studies that do not prove cause and effect) has largely been observed in Asian populations who eat pickled vegetables daily, often as their primary source of vegetables. There’s no evidence that including a more reasonable amount of pickled vegetables is cause for concern.
Playing it safe
No matter which pickling method you choose, it’s important to use a tested recipe and stick to the specified proportions of vinegar, salt, water, and food. The acid in a jar of pickles is important for taste and texture, but it’s equally important for safety, according to the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation (HFP).
Pickled foods tend to be high in sodium, but the salt in a fermented pickle recipe is for more than just flavor — it’s also vital to safety and texture, according to the HFP. Salt supports growth of desirable bacteria while inhibiting growth of potentially harmful bacteria as the lactic acid slowly develops. On the other hand, because vinegar pickles are quickly acidified with vinegar, it’s safe to reduce the amount of salt used, although quality may suffer.
Vinegar pickles will keep in the refrigerator for about a month, but to make them shelf-stable and longer lasting (about one year), you’ll need to process them in a boiling-water bath, using standard canning jars and self-sealing lids. If you are making fully fermented pickles and want to keep the good bacteria alive, prepare small batches and keep them refrigerated for four to six months.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.