Home pickling is back in practice and your grandma's not the only one with the skills. What was once necessary to preserve produce became less prevalent with the rise of refrigeration and, to be quite honest, rampant food waste. Thanks to home chefs experimenting in the kitchen, the DIY craze (Mason jars actually have a purpose other than holding cocktails, y'all), and the push to eat seasonally and locally, pickling and fermentation have found new life, and not just to preserve, but to add flavor and nutrition.
The words 'pickling' and 'fermentation' tend to overlap in modern nomenclature, but they're decidedly different. Chef Kurt D'Aurizio of Flour & Fig Bakehouse in Springfield says, "Pickling refers to preserving and flavoring foods with an acidic solution, often vinegar, as well as salt and sometimes herbs and spices. Fermentation (in regard to food items) is a pickling method where the acid is produced by the lactobacilli bacteria, converting sugars and starches into lactic acid. The lactic acid gives the foods their unique sour aroma and amazing flavor." Pickling and fermentation each create totally different flavors, particularly with items like eggs and fish.
While fermentation is used primarily on produce, pickling is not so limited. Everything from grapes (such as on the menu at Gilbert's Hot Chicken, Fish + Shrimp in Jax Beach), watermelon rinds, cocktail onions, mustard seeds (find them at Catch 27 in St. Augustine) and more can go in a salty, vinegar solution called brine. The list of things you can pickle is practically endless.
Pickle juice-brined meats have started to pop up on menus around America, too, including Downtown spot Bellwether, sister to Black Sheep and Orsay, which features a Dill Pickle Brined Fried Chicken Thigh Sandwich ($9). Chef Steven Crawford, who does most of the pickled, brined, smoked and cured items (including the fried chicken) at BLK SHP @ Intuition, says, "Using the pickle brine for the chicken ... gave it a twist." For Crawford's pickle-brined chicken, the traditional, classic flavor of bread-and-butter dills is a selling point. Bellwether also steps up the usual plain fried chicken breast sandwich by brining the meat in pickle juice.
The quick pickle deserves some attention, too. A favorite for pickle aficionados and newbies alike, there is no canning process or heat added in the preservation process, so the finished product is crisper and has a fresher taste. Ted's Montana Grill in St. Johns Town Center does a fabulous job with its crunchy quick pickles that are complimentary at every table. You can also thank the quick pickling process for that tangy red onion that adorns your favorite taco.
Fermentation, on the other hand, imbues a more complex taste. "Properly fermented foods have a deep, developed umami flavor and bring exciting elements to the table," says Chef Kurt. He spoke enthusiastically of many upcoming additions to the Flour & Fig menu that fall under the fermented category. "We will have our sourdough bread (lactobacilli gives it the sour flavor), vegan cashew cheese, in-house-made ferments like kimchi and kraut, and we will sell other locally fermented products, like Olive My Pickle's pickled veggies and locally brewed kombucha."
Local producer Olive My Pickle has been spreading the joy of lacto-fermented pickles (surprise: not all pickles are pickled!) throughout the region since 2010. Their tart, less acidic versions, like half-sours, garlic and spicy, have become beloved staples. The Mandarin company uses juice with lots of really amazing probiotics, in addition to electrolytes. Check out the scrumptious fermented items from Flour & Fig and Olive My Pickle at their weekly spots at Riverside Arts Market.
If you're looking for more sour delights, stay tuned-there are lots of pickled and fermented things coming across the plate in Northeast Florida. Just keep a sharp eye and an open palate. Pickle on!
P.S. While we're on the subject of pickles, I just gotta say that a pickleback is a real slap in the face of quality whiskey.