The Accidental Scientist: Science of Cooking Exploratorium
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What Is pickling?

Pickling is a global culinary art. If you were to go on an international food-tasting tour, you’d find pickled foods just about everywhere. You might sample kosher cucumber pickles in New York City, chutneys in India, kimchi in Korea, miso pickles in Japan, salted duck eggs in China, pickled herring in Scandinavia, corned beef in Ireland, salsas in Mexico, pickled pigs feet in the southern United States, and much, much more.

What makes a pickle a pickle? On a most general level, pickles are foods soaked in solutions that help prevent spoilage.

There are two basic categories of pickles. The first type includes pickles preserved in vinegar, a strong acid in which few bacteria can survive. Most of the bottled kosher cucumber pickles available in the supermarket are preserved in vinegar.

The other category includes pickles soaked in a salt brine to encourages fermentation—the growth of "good" bacteria that make a food less vulnerable to "bad" spoilage-causing bacteria. Common examples of fermented pickles include kimchi and many cucumber dill pickles.

Pickling is not only an international food-preservation technique, it’s also an ancient one. For thousands of years, our ancestors have explored ways to pickle foods, following an instinct to secure surplus food supplies for long winters, famine, and other times of need. Historians know, for instance, that over two thousand years ago, workers building the Great Wall of China ate sauerkraut, a kind of fermented cabbage.

But pickling foods does much more than simply preserve them. It can also change their taste and texture in a profusion of interesting—and yummy—ways. It’s no surprise that cultures across the globe enjoy such an assortment of pickled foods, as you would discover on your international food expedition. In fact, food experts say, the evolution of diverse pickled foods in different cultures has contributed to unique cultural food preferences, such as spicy sour tastes in Southeast Asia and acidic flavors in eastern Europe.


 

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