May being pickle month, an update on a new technology in the pickle industry seemed to be in order. It's similar to reading the bus zone hearing notice that's pasted on the glass behind the driver's head -- you might not be personally enthralled, but it's nice to know someone is taking care of it.
"People sniff at pickles," says W.R. Moore, executive vice president of Pickle Packers International Inc., "but America is named for Amerigo Vespucci, who as ship's chandler thought to store pickles on the ships across the sea and prevented scurvy."
Up to now, pickles were coaxed to tartness in open-air tanks of very salty brine. This method allowed the cucumbers to ferment while at the same time prevented mold, yeast and bacteria growths in the tank and stopped the tank from freezing.
However, the process called for a heart-stopping amount of salt to prevent spoilage and required an extensive salt-reduction step before marketing. Research is now under way to produce pickles with less salt and more economy. Ten companies are testing tanks sealed from air and sunlight so that the microorganism that causes spoilage cannot grow.
Only 40 percent of pickles are fermented (40 percent are pasteurized and 20 percent are artificially acidified and are kept in the refrigerator sections of the market) but a lot of research has been conducted to manhandle this fermentation.
"It has taken us 50 years to figure out what happens during fermentation," says Moore. "We now know what organisms are needed for proper fermentation." The idea is similar to controlling the fermentation of wine and cultured diary products.
"We sanitize the vegetable, acidify it with a small amount of vinegar and inoculate with a lactic acid culture. The atmosphere in the closed tank is manipulated and, presto, in a relatively short time you've got pickles."
This new process requires only about half as much salt as the old, which makes it cheaper for manufacturers to reduce the salt for marketing. "Enviromentally," says Moore, "this is an advantage; no need to dispose of the salt. Also, the product is much crisper."
Henry P. Fleming, food technologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, says, "We are trying to open the future of pickle industry into the age of biotechnology as have other food industries."
The closed tank first had to emerge from a maze of technical problems. One main drawback was the carbon dioxide gas that forms during fermentation. If it was not allowed to escape through open tops, it would bloat the pickles and possibly rupture the tanks. But, in the 1970s, a solution was found in the form of nitrogen gas which would purge the brine of its carbon dioxide.
"Eventually," says Moore, "we will come up with different strains of lactic organisms which will give different flavors. We are trying to manipulate the fermentation just as the cheese and wine producers do."
Americans are the pickle eaters of the world, gobbling up 9 pounds per capita, produced from 750,000 tons of raw cucumbers per year. Retail and food-service pickle sales add up to about $1 billion a year.
Following is a potato salad using pickle brine instead of milk to dilute the mayonnaise. The brine gives it a tangy flavor and the pickles give it crunch. With the lamb burgers as an accompaniment, it will only take a quick lap through the express lane.
EXPRESS LANE: potatoes, bacon, vinegar, dill pickles, green pepper, onion, mayonnaise, ground lamb, oregano (optional) PICKLE POTATO SALAD (4 servings)
4 medium sized smooth-skinned potatoes
5 slices bacon
1 tablespoon vinegar
5 spears of dill pickles with 1/2 cup of their brine
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise or to taste
Boil potatoes with skins on until tender. Cool.
Fry bacon until crisp. Drain most of the fat and dilute the rest of the drippings with vinegar, scraping the pan to dissolve the browned bits.
Chop the pickles and place in a large bowl with the green pepper, onions, bacon and vinegary drippings.
Dilute 1 cup of mayonnaise with 1/2 cup pickle brine and pour over vegetables. Mix and serve. GRILLED LAMB BURGERS (4 servings)
1 pound ground lamb
1/4 cup minced onion
Dash oregano to taste (optional)
Mix lamb, onion and oregano together and form into patties. Grill until done on both sides.