Pickles are popping up all over the city as many area chefs and food purveyors turn out their own delicious versions. For Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, pickling is a way of life. He pickles and preserves summer's produce to provide local ingredients year-round at his restaurant. He even pickles broccoli stems, which many other restaurants toss in the trash, he says. When Clementine's Winston Blick pickles at his restaurant, he thinks of his grandmother's home cooking. Jason Gallant, owner of In a Pickle, aims for old-fashioned charm, selling his pickles from large, brine-filled barrels at the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar and at D.C.'s Eastern Market. And these cooks aren't just making traditional dill or sweet pickles— they're pickling a variety of items, including eggs, beets, pumpkins, and rhubarb. The basic ingredients of pickling brine are water, salt, sugar, and vinegar (see recipe). The brine is then poured over raw foods and sealed in a container, which can then be heated, stored in the refrigerator, or vacuum-sealed.
Whatever method is used, pickling fits right into the "craft-food" movement of focusing on locally sourced and prepared foods. We talked to several local preservers about their mission.
At the Hamilton restaurant, chef/co-owner Winston Blick makes a lot of food in house—from pâtés to marmalades. Pickles are a specialty, particularly bread-and-butter pickles (based on his grandmother's recipe) and a beet-and-onion-infused pickled egg. He uses his pickled products as part of the restaurant's charcuterie plate and even as a garnish for martinis.
"Pickling works well for our vision and overall theme— traditional foods using modern techniques."
To make his pickles, Blick pours hot brine over thinly sliced cucumbers and seals the contents in a container. He doesn't preserve these pickles long term because of the high volume he uses during the week. "I'll also take something seasonal, such as ramps, and pickle it to make it last longer," he says.
Blick feels strongly about the nostalgia of pickles. "Pickling is a craft," he says. "And when customers see someone using their hands to make their food, it's cool. But for me, pickling reminds me of something I enjoyed as a kid."
Of Love & Regret
Chef Keith Curley has been pickling since the Brewers Hill restaurant opened a little over a year ago. "Pickling works well for our vision and overall theme—traditional foods using modern techniques," he says.
He uses a quick pickling method, soaking vegetables in brine overnight so the flavors can infuse. Afterward, he vacuum-packs each batch of pickles.
In the early summer, Curley pickles asparagus, cauliflower, peppers, baby carrots, celery, and radishes. He likes to present them on his charcuterie plate. He also makes bourbon-infused pickles and pairs them with Binkert's sausages and pâté toasts. "Pickles cut through the richness of many of my dishes," he says. "They add contrast and brightness to the plate. And they're also just fun to snack on."
Curley also has pickling plans for the restaurant's rooftop garden, where he grows peppers and other vegetables. "The more we source our own vegetables here, the more important it is to not waste anything," he says. "For me, pickling is a beautiful way to extend their life."
The jars of pickled vegetables and other preserved foods lining the walls at Woodberry Kitchen are not meant for decoration. Canning and preserving are the backbone of chef/owner Spike Gjerde's Clipper Mill restaurant.
Each year, Woodberry Kitchen organizes a "Preservation Workshop," where employees watch canning demonstrations and receive detailed information about Maryland crop harvests, the history of canning and preserving, and more.
Pickling helps the restaurant stay local year-round, whether it's preserving Maryland-grown summer cherries or garlic scapes (the curling tops of garlic plants), Gjerde says.
"Pickles contribute flavor and texture for sure," he adds. "But for us, they play a greater purpose, which is to allow us to offer our guests these vegetables in the off-season and to help us ensure our commitment to offering locally sourced products."
The Fork & Wrench
Executive chef Cyrus Keefer currently features pickled vegetables on his charcuterie tray. "If we have something rich on the plate, you need something pickled to cut the fat," he says. "We want a little tanginess from the vinegar in the brine." Keefer uses vegetables the restaurant grows in nearby plots and from local farms for pickling. He's also planning to can various produce for year-round use.
He is especially interested in introducing Asian flavors to pickling, such as fennel pickled in the style of kimchee (fermented Korean vegetables), paired with an Italian dish. "No one has been doing this really," says Keefer. "It's kind of a different take on the farm-to-table movement."
In a Pickle
Jason Gallant's stand In a Pickle is a fan favorite at farmers' markets in Baltimore and D.C. For him, pickles represent the best of the past. "In the old days, New York's lower East Side was full of pickle-mongers," he says. "One place, Gus's Pickles, had big barrels of pickles in their store. Customers would reach in with their bare hands to grab pickles. That's why we sell our pickles from wooden barrels—we want to reflect those times."
While kosher dills are Gallant's most in-demand pickle, he also sells sweet wasabi pickle chips, Old Bay pickles, half sours, hot-and-spicy pickle chips, and more. "I've also made small, test batches of wackier varieties like pickled pineapple and pickled beets," he says. His "pickle pops," or pickles on a stick, are also a hit with children and adults of all ages.
Gallant wants to keep his business small, rather than expanding to a storefront. "Farmers' markets require fewer resources," he says. "Some joke and call us gypsies. We're there one minute, and gone the next."
"I love seeing what other people and restaurants are doing with pickles. I'm the guy who wants to try them all!"
Evan Tanner wears many hats: He's a bartender at Johnny Rad's, a drummer in the local band War on Women, and founder of Tanner's Comestibles. He's also a self-confessed "pickle nerd." "I've always loved pickles, every kind," he says.
In 2011, he developed his own brine recipe after much experimentation. He was already pickling by fermenting vegetables when he took the process a step farther. "I started with a home-canning kit," he says. "Things evolved from there."
His varieties include habañero bread-and-butter pickles (his most popular) and lemongrass garlic-dill pickles. The jars can be found at stores like The Wine Source in Hampden, Fleet Street Market in Fells Point, and Grand Cru in Belvedere Square. He's also awaiting FDA registration for his Caribbean jerk-spiced pickled okra and pickled ginger lemongrass edamame.
Tanner is excited about the explosion of the pickling scene in Baltimore. "I love seeing what other people and restaurants are doing with pickles," he says. "I'm the guy who wants to try them all!"