Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi and cucumbers (a.k.a. “pickles”) are considered one of the next big things in foodie culture. They’re popping up on more and more restaurant menus, in recipe books and blogs, on supermarket shelves and in news on the latest health food trends.
But pickles have actually been a staple for cultures around the world for thousands of years. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe the first pickles were made from cucumbers about 4400 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (an area in what we now call the Middle East).
Pickling was originally developed as a way to preserve foods, particularly cucumber, cabbage, olives and beetroot. As the years went by and pickling techniques and options spread, a diverse range of historic figures praised and referenced them, including Cleopatra, Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare.
Pickling became even more common during times of famine and scarcity around the world, before gradually becoming a part of everyday meals in countries such as India, Russia, Korea, Iran and even America.
These days, pickled vegetables are popular in mainstream cuisine thanks to their unique tastes, textures and the wide range of health benefits associated with them. Sauerkraut, for example, is rich in vitamins C and K, as well as iron and probiotics. Its Korean cousin – kimchi – is also linked to improved metabolism thanks to the spices added into the mix. Other health benefits linked to pickled vegetables include:
- Improved digestion
- Stabilised blood sugar levels
- Lower cholesterol
- Weight loss
- Improved immune system
- Fewer skin breakouts (eg pimples, rashes)
- Increased mineral absorption
- Regulated appetite
- Improved overall wellbeing
Pickled vegetables also tend to be easier to digest than fresh options and contain healthy amounts of fibre that’s also beneficial as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Commercial vs. Traditional Pickles
If you want to include more pickles in your diet as part of a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to understand the difference between commercial and traditional pickle options.
Commercial pickles, such as those you see on supermarket shelves, are usually pickled using a combination of vinegar, sugar and heat that cooks the vegetables. The high heats used in this pickling method, plus the sugar, kills off the good bacteria that are linked to almost all of the health benefits associated with pickles.
Traditional pickling, on the other hand, uses natural fermentation processes to preserve the vegetables. Usually this kind of pickle is made with salt and/or a starter culture such as brine from a previous ferment, kefir grains or kombucha.
The salt-to-brine option is the most common traditional form of pickling (and fermenting) vegetables because it is so easy: once you have pickled vegetables once, you can use the pickle juice to start again and continue doing so for as long as you want.
Traditional pickled vegetables can usually be bought from health food stores or artisanal markets, but many people choose to make their own pickle. Not only can this save you money, but it also means you can enjoy the process of creating something healthy and delicious at home.
Image credit: Pickled vegetables, Siddhantsahni28 (Wikimedia Commons).