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What is Pickling?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pickling is a food preservation method that extends the life of a particular food through the process of marinating it in some form of brine. The method uses the concept of creating lactic acid in a controlled environment with bacteria. This results in the food being preserved by anaerobic fermentation. Usually, the idea of pickling uses a saltwater bath mixed with vinegar and oil. The resulting product has a salty and sour taste that many people enjoy.

The process of pickling utilizes the stable creation and manipulation of bacteria in order to create a finished product. A brine is created using salt, water, and an acid. This is then heated, often with other spices such as mustard or garlic to add additional flavor and help prevent unwanted bacteria from developing. The vegetable or food to be preserved is placed inside a jar or vat and the heated brine is introduced. After a seal is placed on the jar or vat, the pickles can be preserved for a period of time which varies depending on the product.

A variant on the concept can be seen in dishes such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Instead of a brine, this method simply draws the water out of the product itself using dry salt. The cabbage used in both dishes is kept at room temperature for a desired period of time to allow for sufficient fermentation and the creation of moisture. Both can then be stored in jars or other mediums.

Pickling is highly popular in the home canning and jarring industry. The most common example is the pickled cucumber, usually what is thought of when someone refers to a pickle. Other items such as onions, garlic, carrots, cauliflower, asparagus and even fish are also popular pickled products with both consumers and home canning enthusiasts.

Around the world, pickling has long been used as a way of preserving foods for long trips. In addition to salting and smoking foods, pickling enabled travelers to bring with them healthier foods that could be stored for a long duration. Pickling became extremely popular during the ship-fairing days of colonialism and exploration. Sailors would embark for long trips across the vast oceans with large quantities of pickled foods to help sustain them during the voyage.

In modern times, pickled products have enjoyed much popularity as a food that offers special health benefits to people. Due to the natural addition of salt and water, pickled foods can help invigorate the body's electrolyte balance. Pickles are a good thing to eat after a hard workout for example. In addition, pickled foods have the benefit of large amounts of B vitamins, which aids in digestion amongst other things. This is caused by the creation of the bacteria during the process.

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Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Aug 20, 2012

@wavy58 – I can remember my grandparents canning pickles. They had to keep the jars hot to discourage bacteria from forming.

From start to finish, the process seemed really lengthy and complicated. I know it sounds lazy, but I would rather just buy some pickles in a jar at the store!

While shopping for pickles, I recently discovered pickled baby corn. It has the best flavor, and it tastes so good on a salad. I can't believe I'd never seen this before.

By Kristee — On Aug 19, 2012

Some pickled items I have seen on the shelves of the grocery store really gross me out. For example, I saw some pickled pork hocks the other day that made me gag.

Do people actually enjoy eating pickled pig legs? I know that other parts of the pig are good, but you don't see bacon and sausage being pickled and displayed in a jar. The whole concept just seems disgusting.

By wavy58 — On Aug 19, 2012

My grandmother has a collection of old pickling jars that her parents used to use every year. She no longer uses them, but they are a sort of antique.

She still remembers how her parents pickled various things, and she has the processes written down in a journal. She will likely pass this on to me, along with the jars.

It's nice to know that the knowledge won't be lost. Even though I may never pickle a single thing, I will hold onto the jars and the recipes as things of value for history's sake.

By healthy4life — On Aug 18, 2012

Pickled cucumbers are so good in tuna salad. I love to chop them up and mix them in with a can of tuna, along with a few other ingredients.

I chop up some boiled eggs, and I scoop some mayonnaise into a bowl with the tuna and pickles. This makes the fish taste so much better than it does plain.

I like to spread the whole salad onto toasted wheat bread for a sandwich. It's a great summer lunch option, because it is good for you and sits lightly on your stomach.

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