Pickling with Vacuum Pack Infusions
Though we now eat pickled vegetables for their flavor, they were first created as a way to preserve food before refrigerating was an option. The first evidence of pickling has been traced back to 2400 BC in Mesopotamia, but the process shows up in the histories of every region of the world. Cleopatra, Aristotle, and Napoleon Bonaparte all touted the positive health effects of pickles, and Shakespeare even referenced pickled foods in his plays. With such a long history, you might think that every possible pickling method had been discovered, but recent technological innovations can help you pickle vegetables in a flash.
In modern-day America, the word ‘pickle’ most commonly brings to mind the popular pickled cucumber, but almost any food can be pickled. At its most basic level, pickling is suspending food in a solution that prevents spoilage. There are two different types of solutions that can be used to achieve this.
Most modern mass-produced pickles – and therefore the kind most people are familiar with – are pickled in vinegar and brine, a salt-and-water mixture. Because vinegar is an acid, most bacteria cannot survive or reproduce in it, making these pickled foods safe to store for long periods of time if their jars are sterilized first. When pickling produce at home or in restaurants, this is often the preferred method because it’s relatively quick; the final product is ready in as little as a few hours to no more than a few days.
The slower, but arguably healthier option is fermented pickles. Fermentation uses a salt brine and the natural bacteria that live on produce, which are encouraged to grow by storing the ingredients at ambient temperatures. These bacteria are mostly comprised of lactobacillus, one of the most common types seen in probiotics. These organisms consume the natural sugars in the food and produce lactic acid, turning the brine acidic naturally over the course of a few days to a few weeks, depending on the products being pickled.
Pickling seems like a pretty basic process, so it may be hard to imagine how technology could improve upon it. Enter vacuum pack machines. While they’ve been getting a lot of attention recently for their use in sous vide cooking, they also have a number of other useful applications, not least of which is infusions.
Commonly used to infuse meats with marinade, vacuum pack machines can also be used to infuse produce with vinegar, pickling the vegetable in question instantly. When the vacuum pack machine sucks all the air out of the bag or chamber that the ingredients are in, the air pockets in fruits and vegetables burst, so when the vacuum releases they will pull in the liquid they are surrounded by, much like a sponge does when compressed and then released under water. This instant pickling technique can help restaurants not only provide customers with fresh pickled produce, it can also work to compress fruit to create new textures or infuse fruit and vegetables with flavored oils or alcohol, opening up a huge playground of textures and flavors for talented chefs to explore.
Thanks to pickling’s cultural connotations, many celebrations have been built around the practice. The third annual French Broad Pickle Fest will commence on Sept. 25, 2016 with live music, vendors, food trucks, contests, and demonstrations. Other large festivals include the North Carolina Pickle Festival, Pennsylvania’s Picklesburgh, and the Beverly Hills Famers’ Market in California.