Put the jar down. Step away from the beets.
Pickling is so over. Sauerkraut and kimchi can stick around, corned beef and herring are forever, but trendy pickle plates on every menu and dare-you-to-try-it pickleback cocktails need to go. A mason jar and a vinegar cure are not always the answer. Today’s overzealous briners remind us of the We Can Pickle That! duo spoofed by the sketch comedians of TV’s Portlandia: “Too many eggs? We can pickle that! Dropped your ice cream cone? We can pickle that! Broke a heel on your shoe? We can pickle that!” Before the opening credits had rolled on the segment they had pickled an old CD jewel box case, Band-Aids, a parking ticket, and a dead bird.
Barrel-aging is the latest down-home technique to get a hip, upscale boost.
Barrel-aging is usually associated with wine and whiskey, and sometimes beer and vinegar. The contents mellow and mature during the aging period and they take on some of the compounds found in the wood. In the case of whiskey, it actually goes into barrels as a colorless liquid with just a hint of flavor and fragrance from its grain and alcohol, but emerges with its aroma, color, and flavor transformed.
Mixologists have latched on to the technique to create barrel-aged cocktails.
Essentially these are pre-mixed drinks that spend some time in a small cask. Fruits and juices, sodas, bitters, and other mixers are all in there, which puts a lot of neighborhood bars on shaky legal ground with both the local liquor authority and the health department, but craft cocktail fans are swooning.
Barrel-aged condiments were the buzzed-about category at this summer’s gathering for the specialty food industry.
Salt, pepper, paprika, teriyaki sauce, salad dressings, soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire sauce, and especially hot sauce are all getting the barrel treatment, picking up complexity, a hint of smokiness, and even boozy notes if they spent their time in recycled wine or whiskey barrels. If you balk at the premium prices charged by the boutique condiment producers, you should know that good ol’ Tabasco is, and always has been, aged in oak for up to three years.
There are hints of a We Can Pickle That!-style frenzy that threaten to turn barrel-aging into the next culinary cliché.
The process turns sweets like cane sugar, sorghum, vanilla extract, and maple syrup into a bitter, charred, sticky mess. Barrel-aged milk and ricotta cheese are sour, smoky, funky-smelling abominations.
And most troubling, mostly because of its self-referential gratuitousness, is the appearance of whiskey barrel-aged pickles.