Across the East Bay, pickles are taking center stage — they're being celebrated, fetishized, and increasingly showcased on their own plate. But as popular as it may be these days, pickling is an ancient form of preservation. Nearly every culture has some sort of traditional pickle, be it Korean kimchi, German sauerkraut, or Japanese tsukemono.
Pickles can be thought of as anything preserved by acidity. Google "cucumber pickles" and you'll find a staggering array of recipes that fall under that broad definition. Traditionally, pickles were preserved by fermentation. "By keeping vegetables submerged under liquid," wrote Sandor Ellix Katz in his book The Art of Fermentation, "you create a selective environment where molds and other oxygen-dependent organisms cannot grow, thereby encouraging acidifying bacteria." Today, many pickles aren't fermented at all: They're made with highly acidic vinegars, which create the sour flavor of fermentation. These are quick pickles.
Alex Hozven, owner of Cultured Pickle Shop (800 Bancroft Way, #105, Berkeley, 510-540-5185), has been making pickles via fermentation for twenty years. Yes, pickles are hip and trendy, she said. But beyond their cultural cachet, pickles — and the fermented foods movement in general — are also gaining traction for their health benefits.
Earlier this year, Michael Pollan wrote a lengthy article for The New York Times Magazine exploring the cutting-edge research being done on our microbiome, the "several hundred microbial species" with which we share our bodies. "To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial," he wrote in the article titled "Some of My Best Friends Are Germs." "And it appears increasingly likely that this 'second genome' ... exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome."
He concluded by asking researchers he interviewed how they had changed their diets and lifestyles in light of their research. Several said they are eating more fermented foods. "It is a striking idea," he wrote, "that one of the keys to good health may turn out to involve managing our internal fermentation."
Whether it's because of their potential health benefits or not, pickles are getting more respect from East Bay chefs, among them Sunhui Chang of Fusebox (2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, 510-444-3100) (whose servers' shirts are emblazoned with "I Bleed Kimchi") and Siew-Chinn Chin of Ramen Shop (5812 College Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6370) — both of whom make fermented pickles. Sarah Kirnon, chef-owner of Miss Ollie's (901 Washington St., Oakland, 510-285-6188), said she's pickling every other day to keep up with demand. Beauty's Bagel Shop (3838 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6098), Brotzeit Lokal (1000 Embarcadero, Oakland, 510-645-1905), and The Trappist (460 8th St., Oakland, 510-238-8900) also offer pickle plates.
As for the pickles themselves, there are very few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to making them, because they're inherently experimental. And taste preferences vary widely: Some might prefer a pickle that's less briney, while others might like a pickle that's been soaking longer. Kirnon had been using distilled vinegar to make her "pikliz" — a blend of cabbage, carrots, and sweet onions she serves to counterbalance her fried chicken — but recently switched to rice vinegar, which she thinks is less harsh.
Almost any vegetable or fruit can be pickled. "I think I've pickled just about everything I can think of here," said Chang, who recently debuted pickled blueberries on one of his salads and said he finally mastered how to pickle kale to a texture he likes (the key, he said, is to blanch it, cool it quickly in water, and then squeeze the life out of it). "Pickling gives me an avenue to be creative and play with different flavors."
Chang explained that it's important to consider the vegetable or fruit you plan to pickle when thinking about technique: Certain fruits and vegetables respond better to certain methods. Should the vegetable be left whole? Should it be shredded or halved? Kirnon exclusively cold-pickles, meaning she doesn't use hot water for her brine. But occasionally at Ramen Shop, Chin will pour hot liquid over vegetables in order to develop a different texture.
Regardless of the method used to make them, pickles can be just as important to a meal as the main course. "Over the course of my life, I've grown to think everything tastes better with pickles," Chang said.
It looks like everyone else is catching on.
Kimchi: Most think of kimchi as fermented, spicy Napa cabbage. However, there are many different varieties of kimchi used in Korean cuisine, many of which aren't spicy and aren't made with cabbage, but they are all fermented.
Miso pickles: Pickled vegetables that are flavored with miso paste (made from fermented grains or soybeans) in place of salt.
Quick pickles: A quick pickle is an unfermented pickle. In Momofuku, Korean-American chef David Chang's cookbook, a recipe for a super-quick salt pickle calls for sprinkling very thinly sliced vegetables (such as cucumbers, radishes, or daikon) with a three-to-one-ratio mix of sugar to salt, and then tossing. They're ready in as little as twenty minutes. However, quick pickles that are made with the addition of vinegar can also last for weeks.
Rice bran pickles: Traditionally Japanese, these pickles are fermented whole in rice bran for up to a year. "That's what was around," Hozven explained. "The many nutrients left [in rice bran] impart a really unique flavor. Western pickles have a fairly straightforward acidic taste — there can be more going on, but they're general sour. With Japanese pickles, there's a tang, but it's much less assertive."
Sake lees pickles: Also traditionally Japanese, these pickles are fermented whole in sake lees (the sediment from fermentation) for up to a year. Hozven gets her sake lees from Takara Sake, a sake brewery located just down the street. She describes the pickles as "very aromatically sake."
Sauerkraut: A fermented pickle made from cabbage. There are highly varied regional specialties, but kraut is generally made — as are most fermented pickles — by shredding the vegetable, salting it, squeezing out the moisture, and packing it into a jar so that the vegetable is forced below the liquid. Water may be added.
At Cultured, Hozven makes some pickles without the addition of water. "Seasonal vegetables are cut and shredded to release their own internal moisture, which creates the brine in which they sour," she explained. "That's a very different process than pouring water over a vegetable." Those are some of her favorite pickles because "they give you a really essential sense of that pickle."
Soy pickles: Soy pickles are made using soy sauce instead of salt, imparting a distinctly soy flavor.
Vinegar pickles: One of the most popular kinds of quick pickle. A brine of water, vinegar, salt, and often sugar is created, and then poured over a vegetable. The mixture is packed tightly in a jar. Vinegar pickles can be enjoyed just days after they are made.