WTF is Pickled Chicken?!

Written by Aidan McFate

For my final project, I decided to research pickled chicken. This is a recipe I have never had, but the idea of pickled chicken intrigued me, and I was pretty shocked at what I found. First, let me speak on the historical reason for making pickled chicken. Back then when older chickens couldn’t lay any more eggs, the meat could be very tough and not very appealing. The main reasons for making pickled chicken was that putting a chicken in vinegar for 2 days makes a tougher chicken more tender, and also acts as a preservative to make it last longer. This was huge back then when refrigerators were not invented yet, and there were very few ways of preserving food. 

I was very curious about what else went into making a great pickled chicken since I have never had it, so I read up on several historical pickled chicken recipes. The first one was a modern interpretation recipe on page 50 of “Grandma Grace’s Southern Favorites- Very, Very Old Recipes Adapted for a New Generation.”

Something to note here: This recipe has you sort of deep fry your chicken first, by browning “both sides quickly in hot oil in a heavy skillet.” Then you’re supposed to boil the chicken, and then simmer the chicken for two to three hours. Lastly, you’re supposed to add the vinegar and cook for 15 more minutes. The problematic thing about this recipe is that it feels like it’s not the classic way of making pickled chicken. The chicken really is cooked three different ways and then some vinegar is added at the end for a very short time. This probably flavors it in a nice way, but historically, pickled chicken was meant to spend time (a few days) in the vinegar to truly become pickled. However, this recipe still sounds tasty. Another thing to note here is that the recipe is a “modern method” of making pickled chicken. 

Then, the next series recipes I read were nearly identical. These are the “stone jar pickling” recipes! This first is from the White House CookBook By Fanny Lemira Gillette, Hugo Ziemann (1890).

This next recipe is from The Orange Judd Cook Book By Adeline O. Goessling (1916).

And finally, here is The Methodist Cook Book (1899).

Here are just three recipes (there were much more not shown) that are using the idea of pickling the chicken in a stone jar. The idea is that you’d put the chicken in the stone jar with vinegar on a Friday, so the chicken is pickled and ready for dinner on Sunday! It’s a process that takes time, and it’s also important to understand how pickling works.

It is easy to make vinegar pickles (also known as fast pickles). The five percent acidity of vinegar, which affects flavor and texture, is its most significant characteristic. The most popular vinegars are white wine and distilled white vinegar because they don’t alter the color of most vegetables. The key component of vinegar is that it alters flavor and texture while serving as a preservative. Which vinegar to use will depend on how you want your pickles to taste and look. The most popular vinegars are white wine vinegar and distilled white vinegar because they don’t change the color of most veggies (red onions, however, will turn bright pink when exposed to white vinegar). The alternative popular choice is cider vinegar, which has a milder flavor but darkens the produce.

The issue of salt comes next. Pickling (or canning) salt or kosher salt are said to be the best salts to use for pickling. Unlike anti-caking additives, which can make the pickling liquid hazy, pickling salt is pure granulated salt. Large crystals in kosher salt, on the other hand, prevent it from dissolving as quickly as pickling salt. Both types of salt are acceptable, although kosher salt requires more work to use. A significant variation can also be made by the pickling water. Both highly chlorinated water and hard water, which is rich in minerals, might obstruct the pickling process. However, the water is definitely okay for your pickling endeavor if you feel safe drinking it.

Another characteristic of vinegar pickling is that there is no fermentation involved. Additionally, with time, the nutritious content of foods pickled in vinegar loses a significant amount. They do, however, continue to taste great for a while. Fermentation pickling takes much longer than vinegar-based pickling. The simplest method is to boil a vinegar solution, pour it over the item you want to pickle, let it cool, and then store it in the refrigerator. However, in order to maximize preservation power, you should: The vegetables should be brined (to add taste and crispness), drained, and then boiled in a vinegar solution. Vegetables and liquid should be put into jars, covered with the remaining hot vinegar solution, and canned (this is why the idea of picking chicken in jars is so common!). In any case, the acetic acid in the vinegar will raise the acidity of the veggies and eliminate any microbes that may already be present, helping to prevent short-term spoiling. According to Dr. Bruno Xavier, a food processing authority at Cornell University, pickling is a sort of controlled decay. “When living organisms die, they activate several responses in the tissue that trigger the release of enzymes,” says Xavier. The food’s own naturally occurring acids as well as the vinegar’s acid slow down the decomposing process!

This last recipe I read seemed like the real deal, the best pickled chicken recipe. 

The dinner bell, a gastronomic manual, ed. [really written] by Fin Bec By William Blanchard Jerrold (1878).

Now, this recipe is fundamentally different from the stone jar. What is going on in the stone jar is that the chicken is being pickled for a few days to turn it into luncheon meat. What is going on here, the chicken (tough old bird) is being hot-brined or pickled for a few hours before frying to make more tender fried chicken, which is not luncheon meat. The weird part of the original “old” recipe is that it seems like a confused mashup of the two.

I love the fact that this recipe has you cut up the chicken so that the pickling is more even and flavorful. Similarly, when I think of a large Thanksgiving turkey, they can manytimes be cooked dry. Since it’s such a big bird, it’s hard for the heat to equally hit each part. This is also why smaller cuts of meat are much easier to cook perfectly and evenly. By cutting up the chicken in this recipe, there will be more flavor because the vinegar, salt, pepper, parsley, spring onions, and more ingredients can settle in the chicken. Another great thing about cutting up the chicken means a quicker cook time! Notice how this recipe says, “put the chicken in the above, and let it remain for two or three hours, keeping the saucepan on hot ashes.” The other recipes I read (The Orange Judd Cook Book and the White House CookBook) said to pickle the chicken for two days. This recipe says two or three hours. This is a huge difference and will definitely lead to two very different pickled chickens!

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