Pickling Pros: Chefs elevate the versatile pickle

Lately, local chefs are doing a lot more with pickles than putting a slice on a burger or a spear alongside a sandwich. The pros know what home cooks have known for centuries: Pickling keeps the good stuff around longer. Plus, it’s a creative way to add more flavor to restaurant plates while maintaining a connection to tradition.

“It’s a way to take a vegetable or fruit and take what’s good about it and enhance it with various levels of sweet and sour and bring out different aspects of it,” said Andy White, general manager and executive chef at The Schlafly Tap Room downtown.

At Erato on Main in Edwardsville, executive chef Kevin Willmann uses pickling to elevate ingredients to another level and keep things exciting. “The allure of it is how creative you can get,” he said.

Myriad flavors can be coaxed out during the process because pickling’s not just about the sour. Some recipes can have as much sugar as vinegar and are designed to enhance the sweet side of things. “You can take sour cherries, pickle them, and actually draw out some sweetness with the right use of salt, sugar and vinegar,” White said.

That variety of sweet and sour makes pickles an excellent addition to any plate, as a relish or to accentuate a specific flavor or ingredient. For example, Joshua Galliano, chef de cuisine at An American Place on Washington Avenue, uses sweet pickled peaches to highlight pork loin, and also as a way to highlight the versatility of particular fruits or vegetables.

“For some dishes, I might sauté a mushroom, I might grill a mushroom and then I might pickle it,” Galliano said. “Then you have three different flavors from the same mushroom. It’s a way for me to really show off an ingredient on a plate as well as have fun in the kitchen and play around with the same ingredient three different ways.”

Chef Ben Poremba at Winslow’s Home in University City said he likes to pickle small fish, like anchovies, and use them almost as a salt substitute to accentuate dominant flavors and pull out more subtle ones. Pickles are also a great kitchen go-to item. Willmann said the flavor that is paid the least attention is acid, so pickles are an easy fix.

Almost anything is a pickling possibility, from okra to melon rinds, and there are as many pickling processes to take advantage of as there are potential pickles. Galliano said he’s been experimenting with fermented or natural pickles, where the active component is salt, not a vinegar-based pickling solution. He’s also had success making refrigerator pickles.

Even the traditional route of pickling in a vinegar solution offers a wide variety of flavors, depending on the type of vinegar used. “When I’m making pickled peaches, I use a mixture of sherry vinegar and apple cider vinegar,” Galliano said. At Winslow’s Home, Poremba has infused vinegar with different flavors for unique combinations like spring onions pickled in lavender-infused vinegar.

Pickling began as a way to preserve food, and this is still an important function. With the proliferation of farmers’ markets in the area, there are more fresh ingredients available to chefs and cooks than ever before, White said. Sometimes maybe too many. Pickling is a good way to take advantage of the bounty at certain times of the year and save it for later use when the farmers aren’t growing as much, or use up an ingredient that might otherwise go to waste.

“Some weeks I might not sell that much white asparagus, so instead of hanging onto it and trying to sell it the next week, I pickle it,” Galliano said. “Every other way of preserving the white asparagus turns it to mush.”

“It’s a fun way to stretch out the local produce,” Willmann said. “Maybe you don’t have enough of something to feature it on a dish, but it can go into a jar and become something special for later.”

Pickling certainly didn’t start in the states, but it’s definitely part of traditional American cooking.

Galliano said there has been a resurgence of interest of late in some more traditional forms of cooking, like curing meats and pickling. He said these types of things aren’t normally taught in culinary programs, so it’s a lot of fun for chefs and cooks to discover these nuggets hidden in our past and make a modern connection with them, sometimes a personal one. Galliano learned canning, a close cousin of pickling, from his grandmother and said, “I think of my grandmother a lot when I’m doing it.”

And there’s just something about cracking open a jar from the shelf and tasting the result. “We love the bite of the vinegar,” Willmann said. “It’s a very American taste.”