By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert
Food preservation is nothing new, much like the concept of “farm-to-table.” Popularity, trends, and a shift in the food system have pushed these ideas back into the spotlight, and for good reason — flavor. Chefs embracing and making use of the freshest ingredients at the height of the season opens up possibilities. Pickling is a way to use a rather ordinary item and turn it into something extraordinarily delicious.
Make It More Authentic
The notion of a more authentic cuisine continues to grow significantly within market. It’s exciting for guests who are constantly seeking out the more obscure, the most delicious, or rare items. Millennials especially will go out of their way to get something authentic and will try to be one of the first to indulge or be in-the-know. An establishment that is boasting about crafting their own pickles, whether as a feature item or accompaniment, acts as one with a bit more “cred.” Doing so puts the establishment in a position where it can brag about the depth of their from-scratch kitchen and making use of what the market or seasons will bear.
Beginning a Pickling Program
The depth to which a restaurant chooses to take their pickling program is dependent upon several variables. Space is an issue that drives the decision for many. While some restaurants like The Patio in San Diego are surrendering dining room space for rooms like their cheese cave, others designate a shelf or two in dry storage to pickling. The Patio’s glassed-in room is humidity and temperature controlled for cheese, charcuterie, and fermentation. This could be an eventual goal, but a pickling program can start small.
Quick pickling is something that can help use up the last of a case of veggies that isn’t moving. The veggies can be immersed in hot pickling liquid, cooled, and used same day if necessary. The salt and vinegar help extend the shelf life of vegetables that would have otherwise been tossed. At that point, the pickled items can be used in any number of ways, ranging from accompanying a Bloody Mary to being sliced up on a salad or sandwich. The sour and salty bite that comes from minutes of invested time will yield measurable returns.
The brief quick pickle can be delicious enough to turn heads, but getting deeper with the pickling game can offer chefs a whole new arsenal of flavor bombs to dazzle guests. The great part about pickles is that aside from the labor involved, food cost is extremely low. Intensely flavored pickles can complement a dish, and it can be done with a quarter-ounce of a vegetable. Move beyond cucumbers and imagine a composed plate that is complemented with slices of bright yellow cauliflower, flavored with Turshi curry spices that include turmeric. Beautiful, deep-red colored root vegetables that picked up color from beets are not only flavorful, but can add unexpected beauty and acidity to any number of dishes.
Longer fermented pickled items are getting more popular as “probiotic” continues to gain marketability. Guests are looking for authenticity, so consider things like sauerkraut, a version of a kimchee, or simply longer-fermented styled pickles, like your house-special habanero dill spears. Delicious and fermented? These are talking points that can be used at the table and on social media.
Make the Program Fit
Some chefs are building robust pickling programs, working with a dizzying array of brines and obscure ingredients, and are pickling several times weekly. This can get expensive when the rest of the prep day has to happen and labor expenses continue to climb. Hence cost being one of the largest factors driving — or inhibiting — pickling programs. The trade-off is food cost.
Amazingly beautiful and tasty pickle boards are popping up all over the country. Complementary flavors and textures for the sausage board can be produced for the expense of as little as some salt and spices, a handful of vegetables, and some vinegar, and it could mean full cases of produce can be preserved for weeks beyond their normal “freshness” life. Pickling could actually make the kitchen more efficient.
Canning and Preservation
This is the most involved and time consuming of the pickling options. When fermented pickles can simply be moved to the walk-in cooler, setting up the program for canning and preserving foods requires more effort and attention to detail. Canning low-acid foods, for instance, requires working with the health department and taking important steps for food safety. This shouldn’t be a huge issue for a restaurant with the proper training and HACCP plans in place, as they are leading the pack when it comes to food safety. The detailed safety requirements are not daunting, however, and can potentially open up a depth in a pickling program that truly makes an establishment stand out.