Features Get Yourself in a Pickle
Get Yourself in a Pickle
June 2009

The world’s pickled delights have long been relegated to the role of snacks, side dishes, or accoutrements. But in modern American cuisine, their role has evolved: as part of a composed dish, the pickled element provides a sweet-sour component that cuts through heavy flavors, provides contrast, adds crunch, and refreshes.

In the days before refrigeration, pickling was mandatory for preserving summer’s produce for use through the winter. Today the time-honored culinary tradition is being embraced as a creative tool. The basic pickling equation is ingredient plus hot vinegar, spices, and salt; the possibilities for the pickling liquid and the ingredient it covers are endless. Seasonal vegetables and fruits are a perfect place to start, and often need only a quick sit in the brine (making for easy experimentation that fits nicely into a day’s prep).

In the center of the country, the undisputed pickling master can be found at Vie in Western Springs, Illinois. As a young boy in Missouri, Chef Paul Virant spent the summers pickling fruits and vegetables with his grandmother. Today, the pickling and preserving he does throughout the warmer months (nearly 5,000 jars in all—see his garlic conserve for an easy example) helps add vibrancy to his menu while Chicago waits for the growing season to start. “It really does allow us to stick with buying local stuff. Even in the wintertime, we’re about 75% local,” says Virant. Of the 20 dishes on Vie’s current menu, 10 feature pickled items—specifically, pickled watermelon, asparagus, fennel, baby tomatoes, Swiss chard, garlic, carrots, and pickled onion relish.

Some come from the rows of mason jars in the cellar below the restaurant; others come out of containers of quick-pickling vegetables in the walk-in. “Right now we have spring onions and ramps—we wood grill them and then quick-pickle them. We just got spring cattail shoots from a local farmer—you can pull up the shoots and they have this hearts of palm/cucumber-y taste and texture, so we did a quick pickle with lemon juice and tarragon.”

At George’s in the Cove in La Jolla, Chef Trey Foshee adds quickly pickled shallots to basil-breaded mackerel, beets, arugula, and aioli to add a sweet-tangy counterpoint to the rich, savory fish. At Bouchon in Napa, Chef de Cuisine (and Napa Sonoma Rising Star) Philip Tessier quick-pickles sunchokes for a warm mushroom salad with a sunchoke glaçage; the sunchokes are blanched and then flash-cooked in a pan with Champagne vinegar to give the dish a balance of acidity with the earthier and richer components.    

Hamachi’s richness pairs well with a sweet-tart pickle, and the combination has been sighted on both coasts. In a riff on sashimi and pickled ginger, Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten in La Jolla pickles baby shiitake mushrooms and serves them with hamachi sashimi, scallion vinaigrette, and soy fluid gel. Joe Magnaneli of Laurel in San Diego pairs hamachi crudo with pickled watermelon radish cubes, avocado, ponzu gelee, white soy vinaigrette, and fried shallot, for a multi-layered, sweet-salty-sour combination. At New York’s David Burke Townhouse, Sylvain Delpique envelops hamachi tartare in pickled watermelon rind and tomato water gelee, and drizzles the “ravioli’ with a Southeast Asian-inspired sauce of watermelon, red curry, and coconut milk.   

Pickling isn’t just for the savory kitchen—sweet concoctions can be enlivened by a bit of tangy sourness, too. At Bin 36 and A Mano in Chicago, Pastry Chef Tom Laurell pickles blueberries in a vinegar-sugar-spice blend, and uses them to garnish a baked-to-order Bourbon waffle. The 1:1 vinegar to sugar ratio makes for a simple syrup-like pickling liquid. The brown spices and brown sugar echo Bourbon’s flavors, and the sweet tang adds another dimension to the sweet, rich dessert.

Fruits and vegetables are a great starting point, but why stop there? Each of the world’s cuisines has a pickle (or ten) to call their own—and the pickle fodder often goes beyond the vegetal realm. The Spanish pickle white anchovies, boquerones, in vinegar, garlic and oil. In Britain, vinegar-pickled eggs are a common pub snack (their mid-and southwest American descendents are often bathed in bright red beet juice brine). The Chinese pickle pig feet, cabbage, and duck tongue. Nordic cultures pickle fish like herring—a standard in Jewish cuisine and a specialty of Hokkaido, Japan. Japanese pickles, tsukemono and karashizuke, are a traditional craft with regional regional specialties and nuances that chefs-in-training study at length.

A few words to the wise: start with only the freshest, best-quality ingredient. Only use whole or roughly crushed spices in pickling brines, as ground spices will cloud the water and leave a fine particulate coating on the pickle. The calcium and magnesium in unrefined sea salt helps add crispness; alum powder is another traditional crisping additive. If you’re preserving, rather than quick pickling for a dish later that day or that week, pickles should be canned in glass jars and heat-treated to kill bacteria (30 minutes between 185-200°F will do the trick).

Canned pickles* will last indefinitely; quick-pickled items can last a few weeks to months if properly stored. Always keep them refrigerated and submerged in pickling liquid. An easy way to do this: fill a large Ziploc bag or vacuum bag with water, seal it, and lay it over the top of the pickle container. The water in the bag will spread to cover the pickling liquid’s surface, and will prevent excess air from getting in. If kept cold and covered, and not cross-contaminated by double-dipping spoons or by returning unused mis en place to the container, refrigerated pickled items can last up to a year.

Start experimenting with spare produce and you’ll quickly see—the flavor combinations are endless. As are the ways you can use your crunch, tart results to spruce up a dish. It’s as easy as heat-douse-wait…and enjoy.

*NB: If you’re planning on canning, Virant suggests using a neutral brine (so you have lots of options for flavor pairings when you use them half a year later). His standard ratio is 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar (Champagne or white wine), 1-2 teaspoons sea salt, and a bit of sugar, honey, or sweetener to taste.