I remember the time when the art of pickling was a closely-guarded family secret kept by every household. Pickles were meant to be created only in our kitchens where mothers and their mothers spent merry hours together — peeling, slicing, stirring, and bottling them in martbaans. You could spot these fat ceramic jars, dressed in nothing but a malmal ka kapda, sunbathing on the terrace any time of the year. In days to come, it would transform into a delicious condiment that was proudly served with every meal. It’s not just the science of mixing everything together in the right proportion, pickling is a craft that requires a certain kind of passion – not to forget patience and precision. We all have grown up with some sort of pickle that reminds us of many summer afternoons preserved in the memory and in the jar.
When I visited my grandmother last year, she secretly slipped a bottle of my favourite Nimbu ka Achaar in my bag fearing I’d complain of smelling like one. It sits in a large jar on my kitchen table ever since, and I’m slowly making my way through it. The flavour is loaded with nostalgia but how long can it stay before it is no longer good? I always wondered if it was the magic in my grandmother’s hands or pure science.
“Both.” says Chef and Cookbook Author Niru Gupta. “Lemon acts as a natural preservative and lime juice is often used to inhibit bacterial growth. The citric acid it contains promotes preservation. It may become darker or taste saltier, but it never really spoils. So is salt, both work together to make it last longer. The ingredients are often cured in salt before bottling. It draws out moisture and creates an environment where yeasts or moulds cannot survive. But to be able to use the right quantity, cook carefully and follow the correct process, you need skill. Homemade pickles have the essence of the person who has made it.”
Salt-based pickles survive the longest. It unlocks the juices, concentrates the flavours and gives the fruits or vegetables a firm texture. Lime or gooseberry pickled in salt and aged for a year is often used as a cure for indigestion. But be warned. Too much can affect the growth of the good bacteria. Excess salt makes your pickle less acidic and more prone to spoilage. Salt needs to be used in the right concentration for the good bacteria to grow quickly and fight the bad ones.
“Pickles are basically preserved in salt, vinegar or oil. Oil is a popular medium for preserving pickles. In North India, mustard oil is a favourite while South India prefers sesame oil. Oil seals off the exposure to air and cuts offf the supply of oxygen which encourages the spread of bacteria. A mix of spices like turmeric, methi powder and heeng also aids preservation. Do mix the pickle and stir it around once daily while its kept in the sun. This tends to increase the shelf life,” explains Food Blogger Nithya Ravi.
Chef Niru Gupta tells me that her Aam ka Achaar once lasted two years but you need to make sure that the ingredients are completely soaked in oil all the time. Any contact with the air can be damaging. Some recipes use vinegar as a base instead of oil, its acidic nature does the preserving. Apple cider vinegar is a good choice for pickles. Its mellow flavour blends well with spices and sometimes sugar is added to balance the tartness.
For Preeti Chaddha (known for her meat pickles), pickling is the way of life. She believes that the technique is as crucial as the quality of fruits and vegetanles used for longer lasting homemade achaars. Get the best produce for your pickle, clean them and make sure they’re completely dry. Water contains a million bacteria and can turn an exposed pickle into a breeding ground for the bad microbes, ruining the entire batch.
“Back in the day, achaars were placed in clay pots out in the open to soak up the sun. Sunlight helps in providing natural warmth and the right temperature required for the good bacteria to ferment the ingredients. The bacteria digest the sucrose in the fruits and veggies to produce lactic acid. Not only does this acid give pickles their characteristic sour tang, it also prevents spoilage. Pickles need a medium to high acidic environment to kill most bacteria. For my meat pickles, I use vinegar or lime juice that gives an acidic base and preserves them,” she says.
What about the clay pots? I don’t see them more anymore or perhaps they’ve been conveniently replaced with glass bottles. Preeti shares, “The ceramic or clay jars were used for a reason. When kept out in the sun, they allow the heat to be absorbed gradually and prevent sudden spikes in temperature. Again, going back to the technique, the temperature needs to be just right – not too cold or hot and without fluctuations. You may have known that in olden days these achaars and other condiments were kept safely in wooden cupboards to store them at an appropriate temperature."
The trick with making pickles last is to create an environment where bacteria cannot thrive while preserving the integrity of the fruits or vegetables. The way you store them can also impact their longevity. Preeti suggests that the pickles made in oil ideally don’t need refrigeration. However, a few vegetables like radish, tomatoes and potatoes have a shorter life span and it’s better to place them in a cooler environment.
This fiery pickle is the best way to save seasonal mangoes in a jar.
If you're too lazy to get into the kitchen, there's a lot out there to explore. Pickles with organic vegetables, pickles in olive oil, oil-free pickles made in sabudana water and those that will remind you of your grandmother.