Photo:Stacy Spensley / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Summer meant two things to me when I was growing up in the South: hot weather and cold pickles made from cucumbers in my mom’s garden. I was never a big fan of cukes, but something about biting into a crispy pickle straight out of the refrigerator always put a smile on my face.
Even though we made pickles in the summer, we enjoyed them year round, because pickling is an age-old preservation technique. My mom preserved a lot of produce to stock the pantry throughout the year: she dried fruit, froze vegetables, canned peaches, and pickled cucumbers, okra, jalapeño, and cabbage. But how did those vegetables get pickled? With a little help from salt and bacteria!
If you completed our bacteria math lesson, you know that when food is left out at room temperature, all kinds of bacteria grow on it. Some bacteria make the food smelly and unappetizing (spoilage bacteria), while other bacteria can make us sick (pathogenic bacteria). However, there are many bacteria that can preserve and improve the flavor of food, like that the ones responsible for making pickles tangy and delicious.
To make my favorite pickles, my mom begins by soaking fresh cucumbers in brine—a mixture of 5% salt and 95% water. The saltiness of the brine creates an inhospitable environment for the spoilage and pathogenic bacteria. Luckily, the pickling bacteria thrive in the salty solution. (Mom also adds some garlic, dill seed, and other spices for extra flavor.)
One species of bacteria that pickles pickles is called Lactobacillus plantarum. Through the process of fermentation, it transforms glucose, a simple sugar from the cucumber, into lactic acid, which is what makes the pickles sour. The lactic acid not only gives pickles their tang, it also, like salt, fights off pathogenic and spoilage bacteria. To this day, eating a cool, crunchy pickle keeps fermentation on my mind!
What vegetable do you like pickled? What are the strangest pickles you've ever seen? Other than pickling, what other food preservation techniques have you used? Share your stories and your recipes!