So Are Lactic Acid Pickles A Vegetable or A Condiment?Posted: August 3, 2012
Do you watch Portlandia? Well, yeah, me either. I mean, individually the skits are great, but the whole show, meh. Glad to know that I’m not the only one.
Anyways, the other night I was musing on Facebook if one ate a lactic acid fermented pickle with dinner if that counted as a serving of a vegetable or a condiment, to which my friend Laura sent me this. Although I did not come to a resolution on if I was actually eating a vegetable or an accoutrement, it did bring to mind that these days people are going apecrap over pickles. Cucumbers, eggs, kumquats, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, tomatoes, rhubarb, mushrooms, everything, you name it.. you can pickle that.
Except a potato. Or so I’ve heard.
I know this chef who argues adamantly that you can literally pickle anything except a potato. He says that if you had tried it, due to the high starch content, the potato would just become mush. I had no reason to disbelieve him having noted the same reaction with apples when trying to make them into kimchi, until I did some research into the topic.
As it turns out, you CAN pickle potatoes. People all over the world do it all the time! In India they call it Aloo Achar. In Mexico, they have Botana de Papas de Escabeche. In northeastern China they have potatoes in vinegar sauce. Even Russia sports a pickled potato salad. But the key feature in all of these worldly pickle varieties is you can’t really pickle them in the same way that you can pickle everything else with a brine.
From what I can ascertain, the potato pickle is really not much more than a quickly marinated dish not meant for long term storage. The potatoes in these recipes tend to be lightly cooked before dressing perhaps to increase the palatability of the dish while simultaneously reducing the starch content. For example, the Sichuan dish of Potatoes in Vinegar Sauce is made from stir fried potatoes tossed in vinegar and spices before serving. I’ve had it before and it definitely says “Potato Pickle!” but in reality I know its not much more than the Chinese version of German Potato Salad.
Alternately, in Indo-Aryan languages the term achar refers to any type of pickle and includes the potato as well. Aloo Achar is made similarly to other dressed potato dishes called a pickle where the vegetable is cooked and then tossed with a spicy dressing. The dish is then served with rice or on lettuce leaves as a main dish, which makes it seem more like a meal than a condiment.
Dishes like Botana de Papas de Escabeche do seem to have a longer marinating time but also feature lightly cooked potatoes. So it may be entirely possible to short brine a potato but it would largely depend on the starch content of the potatoes to begin with. Recipes that I found for the dish suggested using waxy Yukon Gold potatoes to start with and to “brine” the vegetables for a day before serving.
I did see little snippets here or there that it is technically possible to brine potatoes like other pickles, but to do so the potatoes must be in larger pieces to start with and soaked before brining to remove some of the starch. Vinegar brines break down the starch in potatoes (or other starchy plants), so if you’re dead set on trying to make a raw potato pickle the best bet is to soak your chunks in a water bath and keep the brining time shorter than traditional pickles.
Also, anecdotally, I noted that most people who reported trying to make pickled potatoes said that they were nothing special and probably not worth repeating in regards to effort. Just saying.
So! The chef I had mentioned was technically right in terms of how a potato would be destroyed in a brine, but it isn’t to say that quick dishes resembling potato pickles can’t be made. Technically, nobody may be the winner in that argument.
Also, the jury is still out if I ate a vegetable or a garnish with dinner that night. Can anyone help me out on this? Did I get my required vegetable servings for the day?