Once the weather returned to some kind of normal summer-esk conditions, I took the opportunity to process the harvest I was able to salvage. While not everything did well this summer – namely my tomatoes, some things have done exceptionally well and the beetroot can be counted as a success. The good thing about beetroot is I can pretty much grow it all year round and so there is always some available, if I remember to sow new seeds at least once a month.
Beetroot is so versatile and is great roasted, made into muffins or chutney or but where they are exceptional is pickled in slices to go in burgers, on sandwiches and in salads and wherever the creativity takes me. We have had a good supply of pickled sliced beetroot up until recently, so it is time to make some more.
It has been a while since I made them as my mum kindly made the last batch on one of her visits. So I started looking into possible recipes to use and loved the suggestion of using star anise in one of the recipes and ginger in another… I was spoilt for choice. But then I noticed something in the ingredient list I wasn’t expecting to be there… water.
Pickled beetroot is a staple and I’ve watched my grandmother and my mum make it and they never added water. So, it threw me – this traditional experience vs the increasing number of recipes requiring it. The thing with pickling and preserving is you need to use a trusted recipe and shouldn’t mess with the ratios lest you invoke food poisoning and no one wants botulism. It has to be noted that many of the recipes online are from bloggers such as myself and we know what works for us, but at the same time, it is all very well to experiment with a baking recipe, but preserving is something else.
Coming from a science background and in particular a food science and microbiology, I understand the principles of preserving. So I went on a journey of exploration trying to find out why water was being added and was I missing something?
I understand that Vinegar is the key preserving agent in my beetroot and at 5% acetic acid it is enough on its own to make my beetroot safe for months to come. But it can be a touch harsh in flavour. So, sugar and salt are added. Although not in their official capacity as a trusted preservative in their own right but to help balance out the harshness of the vinegar on our taste buds. And then for excitement herbs and spices are added in such minute quantities that they don’t impact the safety. The salt, sugar, herbs and spices can be adjusted and manipulated to give a flavour that complements whatever is being preserved and in a way that can be appreciated by the eater. But that still doesn’t explain the addition of water, as it isn’t a preservative and it has no flavour.
The only hint of an explanation I could find that remotely made sense as I poked about on the internet while my beetroot bubbled away in a giant pot, was it helps soften the harsh hit vinegar can deliver, with the caveat that so long as there was never more water than vinegar – so you could match them and it would be ok.
I was nervous about such a significant addition of water, but found an actual trusted preserving site who pH’ed the vinegar / water mix with increasing additions of water, and when you are operating at the low pH that vinegar is (between 2 – 3) it is important to note that the pH scale is logarithmic and therefore the addition of water, while seeming a great quantity didn’t appear to have a dramatic effect on pH and the preserving liquor is deemed safe from that respect.
Then I noticed something. The water adders were American and the non-water adders were from places like here in NZ, Britain and Scandinavia. I didn’t look any further as to who else did or didn’t do it as my beetroot was beginning to splash pink water all over my cook top. But the biggest difference is the straight vinegar users just sterilised the jars, packed in the beetroot and then poured the vinegar over – sometimes it wasn’t even hot! And then the lids went on and the beetroot was stored on shelves for months with no other treatment. Whereas the water adders took things one step further and either did water bath or pressure treatments before storing on the shelf for good measure.
With my beetroot now cooked and cooling I need to make a decision – what method am I going to use… I took some of the beetroot and whipped up a batch of beetroot muffins while I deliberated…. But eventually I decided to go with what I knew and trusted, and used one of my mum’s favourite recipes, with all vinegar and no water, tweaking the spices to include star anise because it sounds like it would be a good match to the sweet earthiness of the beetroot. Time will tell, but our burgers will once again have the traditional slice of beetroot tucked in between the lettuce and the beef patty.
Come again soon – I need to do a post storm weeding across the whole garden.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
NB: if you want the beetroot muffin recipe to try for yourself: