Tag Archives: vinegar

Pickling at Home

 

Pickling is a form of food preservation that uses either vinegar or brine to keep food from spoiling. Good cooks in all households, rich or poor, throughout history had to know what they were doing if they were to get maximum yield and minimum waste from their home-grown produce, whether a tiny veg patch or a large kitchen garden. Therefore, if we’re to cook historical recipes, we too need to know what we’re doing.

Pickling in brine is essentially curing with salt and I’ll tackle that subject in a different post (this is not be confused with the brining some veg goes through before being pickled in vinegar (see below).

I thought that I’d go through how to make your own pickles at home as I got some good feedback on my previous preserving post: fruit jelly preserves. Pickling is easy and doesn’t require any expensive specialist equipment, so if you have never tried your hand at home-preserving, give it a go. A similar method is used to make flavoured vinegars, so I’ll write a little post on those too.

The ingredients

Vinegars: any vinegar can be used, however for long-term preservation a vinegar that is 5% acetic (ethanoic) acid is required. When it comes to choosing the correct, go for your personal preference. Malt vinegar packs the strongest punch and goes best with onions and shallots in my humble opinion. The cider and wine vinegars have a fresher, subtler flavour and are pretty much universal. Distilled or spirit vinegar is vinegar in its purest form, essentially just acid and water and can be used to pickle anything. It can be a little harsh so requires flavouring with aromatic herbs and spices.

Balsamic, Champagne and sherry vinegars can do the job of pickling perfectly well but are far too expensive for your glut of allotment red cabbage, though a touch of balsamic vinegar added to another does work well.

Pickled quails’ eggs

Herbs & Spices: Though not strictly essential, herbs and spices do give your pickles an extra aromatic dimension and take the edge off that often harsh vinegar astringency. Most herbs can be used with great effect: thyme, rosemary, bay, savory, oregano, dill and fennel all work very well.

Pretty much any whole spice can be used successfully here: fresh ginger, peppercorns, mustard seeds, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, dried or fresh chillies and dill seeds are the usual suspects. Use whatever you like, but a general rule for spice mixes is to add up to 25g of spice to each litre of vinegar. A good general spice mix:

1 tbs allspice berries

1 tbs mustard seeds

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp black or white peppercorns

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 or 2 dried chillies

I’m going a little mediaeval and including sugar as a spice: the deliciousness of a pickle can be heightened immensely with a seasoning of sugar. This is especially important when pickling fruit such as pears or strawberries.

Salt: Many vegetables need to be salted in some way before pickling. The salting process draws water from the veg both firming it up and taking away water that would otherwise leach out and dilute the vinegar. Use either rock or sea salt for this, never table salt; it is far too harsh and inevitably some salt ends up in the final pickle, so a nice complex salt is best.

There are two types of salting: dry salting is where salt is sprinkled over vegetables and left overnight to drain. The other way is by brining, where the veg is immersed in a strong salt solution for 12 to 24 hours. A typical brine contains 85g of salt per litre of water.

The produce: these are the fruit, vegetables or eggs you want to pickle! They need to be a good size, unbruised and not overripe. Some vegetables need to be salted or cooked, some neither! When preparing your produce, make sure the pieces are a good size for when you come to eat them, and that they of a good size and shape to be packed well into jar. It’s important to remember that the produce needs to be completely covered and that there needs to be a decent space, around one centimetre, between the vinegar and the jar rim.

The Equipment

Aside from your regular kitchen pots, pans and jugs, there is little specialist equipment required.

Muslin & string: used to tie herbs and spices to infuse into the vinegar. Not essential though, as you always pass the vinegar through a sieve.

Jars & lids: obviously this is a must-have. I tend to use stocky hardwearing Kilner jars where I can, but I also hang on to any decent-sized jars that come my way. Make sure the metal lids of jars have a layer of white plastic under them; this makes them vinegar-proof.

Just part of my jar collection!

How to Pickle

This is a four-stage process:

Preparing the produce: Sometimes there is no prep, sometimes there’s cooking or salting. Check the recipe before you embark on your preserving as some veg needs a full 24 hours salting!

Preparing the pickle: The vinegar is simmered with its herbs and spices for 5-10 minutes, depending on the pungency required. This can be strained if a muslin bag wasn’t used. The pickling liquor is used hot or cold depending upon the recipe.

Potting: sterilised jars need to be packed quite tightly with your produce before the vinegar is poured in. Make sure everything is covered and pop the lid on tightly. Give the jar a jiggle to remove air bubbles. See this post if you don’t know how to sterilise jars.

Maturing: Leave your pickles for a month before eating them so that the vinegar can penetrate the veg. Waiting also matures the flavour making it more rounded and less harsh. Patience, dear readers, is a virtue.

Alright, that’s the basics…I’ll post recipes soon. If you can’t wait for me to post, see this previous pickled egg and this pickled beetroot recipe.

Pickled white beetroot

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Vinegar in the Home

Vinegar is, of course, delicious on your fish and chips and a great preserver, but it has been put on a bit of a pedestal by many because of its seemingly myriad uses in the kitchen and home.

Here’s a culinary tip I spotted in a book called Domestic Cookery from 1840 which is useful to anyone who has just caught themselves a hare; when hanging it in your larder, place a bowl beneath the beast to collect the blood. Add a teaspoon of vinegar to the bowl to stop the blood from coagulating. The blood can then be used to thicken the sauce when making the classic dish, jugged hare. Vinegar is used in the same way when making black puddings from fresh blood.

A brown hare (photo: Damien Waters)

Vinegar diluted in water can clean and polish so many things: floors, windows, stainless steel, chrome, carpets and cruets (no one wants a dirty sauce cruet!). Mixed with pinhead oatmeal or sand it works as an abrasive, cleaning oily hands efficiently, and mixed with bicarbonate of soda it can unblock your sink. Vinegar is a deodoriser, so add a few drops of an essential oil to a weak vinegar solution to make your own air freshener. Used neat it will remove ink stains from clothes and sanitise wooden chopping boards.

It has medical uses too. Hippocrates apparently used vinegar to treat sores and other infections, and the Victorians used to make a vinegar, sage and honey tea to treat sore throats. Modern medical research is looking into the application of vinegar to treat several diseases, including cancer.

Hannibal

By far my most favourite use of vinegar in history comes courtesy of Hannibal, that great Carthaginian general, who famously crossed the Alps on elephant. It is said that he used vinegar to dissolve any boulders blocking his mountainous path! He must have been either a very patient man, or had somehow produced acid as strong as hydrochloric.

For more – somewhat more modern – tips on using vinegar in the home take a look at the Sarson’s website.

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A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory

SARSONS-LOGO

A couple weeks ago I was invited by the iconic British condiment company, Sarson’s, to have a look around their factory and see the process of vinegar-making. They contacted me as they had noticed my little blog and thought I might be interested in seeing what they do because they make vinegar in the traditional way; and we’re all about tradition here at British Food: A History.

The word vinegar comes from the French words vin meaning wine of course, and aigre meaning sour or sharp, so when we talk about British malt vinegar, it’s actually a bit of a misnomer. What is in your bottle of Sarson’s used to be called alegar: sour ale! I think the word should be brought back (I’ll pop a note through to Mr and Mr Sarson).

Vinegar – aka ethanoic or acetic acid – is produced when specialist bacteria called acetobacteria metabolise normally deadly alcohol (ethanol) and harness energy from it. It takes a real specialist to use this killer chemical as a food source. Vinegar is, of course, an excellent preservative itself.

It is thought that vinegar and alcohol fermentation were discovered and refined in tandem, and the earliest example of vinegar-making goes right back to the ancient Babylonians who were brewing it from their beer and wine in 4000 BC! The ancient Romans refined methods somewhat, using wooden barrels to age and develop flavour.

The rear of the original London factory (Southwark Local Studies Library)

There are there are many types of vinegar, but malt vinegar, which is made from barley, is uniquely British, although these days it does travel a bit. Barley was a very important crop in Britain as it was grown to eat, but also to make ale. The average person in mediaeval England would drink around a litre of ale a day and it was the main source of calories for many (and much safer to drink than the water). Our love of ale meant there was plenty spare knocking about to transform into alegar. Sarson’s are the only company still making it in the traditional way and they have been producing it since 1794.

Before I had even arrived, I was greeted a delicious sweet and sour malt smell, and when the taxi pulled up outside the Manchester factory I was greeted again by the lovely folk who run the place. I donned my lab coat, safety glasses, hard hat and beard snood, and looking altogether pretty damn sexy I headed over the see the initial steps in the process.

I had always assumed that when malt vinegar was made, ale would be bought in and then fermented, but this is not the case! Sarson’s do the whole process from start to finish, including making the ale itself. It is truly made from scratch.

Barley grains

The first step is to lightly mill the barley so that the grains can crack open. It is then soaked in spring water and heated up in mash tuns: huge metal vats that constantly stir the barley and the water is collected. This process of mashing extracts the sugars.

Swishing away the sweetwort

I was allowed a little taste of the sugary liquid – or sweetwort – and couldn’t believe how sweet and delicious it was (when I got home, I looked in a few old books and found that home-made barley water was produced in essentially the same way).

The cooled sweetwort now enters the first round of fermentation: yeast is added so it can get to work anaerobically turning sugar into alcohol. This six-day process produces a barley ale that is a whopping 9.5% alcohol.

Now the alcohol can be converted into vinegar in the second round of fermentation. It was this part of the process that I found to be truly amazing: I assumed that to make a product and attain perfect consistency between batches, Sarson’s would have to seed the ale with a mother (or mother-of-vinegar to give her full title, a of plug acetobacteria) that had been carefully selected over years or even decades, to produce a unique strain (wine and beer makers do this with their yeasts). What Sarson’s actually do is simply add the shavings of the bark from the larch tree, which naturally harbours a community of acetobacteria species. This all happens in wooden tubs called acetifiers and it takes seven days for the larch bacteria to do their magic.

The huge physics-defying oak barrels!

For the last stage, the vinegar is stored in huge 40 000 litre barrels – some 100 years old – to be standardised to the correct strength (5% ethanoic acid).

Standardising the final product

The vinegar is heated up to kill the bacteria and it is piped through to the very noisy and exciting bottling room. I loved watching the bottles rattling around on the conveyor belts. It was as though I had literally stepped through the arch window on Playschool!

Then, to top it all off, they handed me my very own personalised bottle of malt vinegar!

Many thanks to Sarson’s for asking me to come to their place and let me be a nosey parker for an afternoon – I will certainly be paying the malt vinegar I put on my fish and chips in even higher regard from now on!

Next post, I’ll write a little bit about how we use – and used vinegar in the home.

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