Columbus carried pickles across the Atlantic to prevent scurvy, while Captain Cook went with sauerkraut (1). Cleopatra credits her great beauty to pickles, and Aristotle says they’re good for your health (2). Clearly, pickling things has been with us for a while, which makes sense—whether on purpose or as a natural progression of things left sitting in a pot, fermentation happens.
And anything can be fermented! The Chinese bury eggs, the Scots buried butter, the Inuit bury slabs of whale and seagull (3), not to mention bread, cheese, yogurt, plus a whole slew of exceedingly tasty semi-adult beverages!
What’s more? Anyone can do it, and it’s surprisingly hard to make someone sick (and this is coming from a borderline hypochondriac during the tail-end of flu season). Why, you ask? The bugs that typically make us sick, from Strep to Staph and Enterobacteriaceae, have evolved to make it in the real world. A pickle jar is not the real world.
First, after the initial fermentation phase, pickling is an anaerobic process. Farewell to most of your Staph and Strep. Second, the fermentation process produces lactic acid, and the pH of most pickling liquid is <4.6, giving Lactobacillus and other benign lactic acid forming bacteria a huge survival advantage to outcompete the anaerobic pathogens left floating (analogous to me–the E. coli–trying to live in upstate Vermont for a winter, sans jacket and housing).
After all, a low pH is the primary defensive mechanism between the big bad world and your GI tract, and pretty much your stomach’s only irreplaceable function (there’s enough redundancy in the remaining 25 feet of bowel that digestion will be just fine, and if you’re hungry enough you’ll learn to eat smaller meals). This is why you stop taking your proton pump inhibitors when traveling to Egypt to swim in the Nile; the infectious dose for cholera is usually over 100 million organisms (aka a lot of river water), but just 10 thousand will suffice for those without stomach acid (maybe just the water that rushed up your nose when you fell in) (4). What’s good when you have an ulcer isn’t good when there’s cholera floating around.
But I digress.
What I mean to say is that pickling is simple, hard to bungle, with yummy results. The simplest of pickling brines is 3 T. salt per gallon of water. Adding dill or mustard seed just makes you fancy.
We should all give it a go.
Please note: according to the experts, there is a highly subjective line between fermented and rotten. In Sudan, dodery is made by fermenting a pounded mixture of the cartilaginous material found in ball and socket joints, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it (5). Sticking with veggies usually preempts misadventures like this.