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Pickling Pickles

January 16th, 2013 6 Comments

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!

January 16th, 2013 6 Comments

Six comments

Jacob DeZoet

I just had tacos yesterday with pinkish cabbage on them. Someone told me those are pickled, but they don't taste like pickles. Know anything about that? 

Noah Goodman- TV411 Moderator

Hey Jacob, 

You're right, Mexicans do put pickled cabbage on some of their tacos. In fact lots of different cultures pickle cabbage including the most obvious for us, Sauerkraut. It wouldn't taste the same as what you're used to with American pickled cucumbers because the spices are different. Check out this recipe for guacamole with pickled cabbage. What is similar and what is different between the pickled cabbage and the way you make pickled cucumbers in the story above? What do you think makes the cabbage pickled?


demetrius covin

eating healthy are good for your body and keep you in good shape 

Noah Goodman- TV411 Moderator


I totally agree. It is one of the nice things about pickling food too. You get all these great enzymes and bacteria that help your body stay healthy. Is there any type of food that you like pickled? 


Syed Rahman

It is tasty to eat pickle with the beef or chicken curry.

Noah Goodman- TV411 Moderator

Hey Syed, 

What types of pickles do you eat with beef or chicken curry?