Fermenting pickles is one of the oldest methods of preserving foods, one that develops complex flavors and new textures, a refreshing contrast to the bland, textureless profiles of some more modern techniques. Though it takes advantage of complex biochemical reactions, the process is very simple, and is open to new innovation. Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and preeminent authority on the subject, describes fermentation as a “creative space between fresh food and rotten food where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist.” Katz and others have begun a revivalist movement, with chefs, artisan producers, and even local ferment swap groups manipulating the bacteria that have been nourishing humans for millennia. With a bit of understanding of the science behind it, contemporary chefs can harness and apply these techniques and flavors in novel ways.
Fermentation was discovered, rather than invented, by observing fruits and vegetables that managed to stay safe to eat, and recreating those conditions without understanding the complex biochemistry in action. Walk through an apple orchard and smell the intense, winey, aroma of the apples rotting on the ground and you’ve witnessed the same transformation. The process, however, is relatively simple: produce is submerged in a salty brine, which encourages the growth of beneficial anaerobic (that is, not requiring oxygen) bacteria. A series of chemical and biological transformations further encourages these “good” bacteria, while preventing the growth of the aerobic bacteria that cause spoilage, by consuming the available oxygen and lowering the pH. They also make the food more palatable to humans: they can help preserve the color and texture, make the food more digestible, and develop the complex flavors and carbonation that makes these foods more delicious.
This is the original process for making pickles. Modern methods of marinating or canning vegetables in vinegar emulate that final, acidic state, which preserves the food for storage, but forego the bacterial processes that give the foods their characteristic flavors, and obviate the probiotic health benefits.
While the time requirements and varying results of fermentation pickling don’t always lend themselves to modern foodservice, The Modern Formulator can adapt these principles to develop traditional flavors in less time, and open the road to exploration.
The process begins with a brine of salt, acid, and the appropriate seasonings. All of your pickle ingredients are then sealed in an airtight bag, using a chamber vacuum sealer. As with all vacuum sealing, removing air creates a longer shelf life without the need to apply heat, which can degrade textures and alter flavors and vitamin content. By adding a salty brine, you also create the conditions for ionic transfer, in which moisture is pulled out, producing a crunchier product. At the same time, the vacuum forces the spaces between the cells of the item to enlarge, permitting your flavorful brine to absorb deeper into the product.
Applying techniques from sous vide style cooking without heat allows you to approximate some of the benefits of fermentation, with an increased measure of food safety, while retaining more nutritional benefit. By varying seasonings and acids, traditional flavors and textures can be reimagined in ways that aren’t biological, but are no less wild.
Freshen up traditional flavors: quick pickled shredded cabbage with caraway and apple cider vinegar will give the suggestion of sauerkraut, without the mushy texture or sulfurous smell. Then experiment!
- Add a smoky element to kimchi by lightly charring the napa first
- Utilize the vacuum: as it adds flavor, the vacuum sealer can also improve texture: watermelon sealed with lime juice becomes a dense, edible version of an agua fresca
- Don’t be bland: milder vegetables like jicama become a blank canvas for new flavor combinations
- Consider final plating: vacuum sealed pouches are perfect for portion control. Try sealing caponata or a pickled sandwich spread in individual portions.