Crisp Pickles - Oak Leaves Experiment

Pickling Spices

The traditional crispy-pickle method, used for centuries, calls for the addition of cherry, horseradish, grape or white oak leaves by the “handful”. Discovering a 200-year-old Polish-pickle recipe in my grandmother’s recipe box, it recommended, “..add a handful of deep-forest white oak leaves, but never the pointed-oak leaves because you will find they have far too much tannin.”

So Many Questions…

Tannins? And whose “handful”? And why should I never use “pointed-oak” (Red Oak) leaves?

Tannins, a naturally-occurring chemical stored in the bark, leaves and acorn of oak trees, primarily protect the tree, serving as a natural defense which keeps critters from devouring leaves and bark. But, they also work to keep pickles crisp.

We have several acres of white oak (rounded leaves) and “pointed” oak (red oak – think of a pointed red flame) growing on our once-virgin land. We don’t use lawn chemicals, herbicides or pesticides, preferring to keep our home and property “green” and toxin-free, so the idea that we could harvest something from our land (that the woodchucks hadn’t yet found) was intriguing!

For our first try, we took a wild guess that eight well-scrubbed, 5 to 6-inch diameter white oak leaves would be a “conservative” handful. Layering them on the bottom of a 3-liter Pickl-It, adding organic dill heads, peeled whole-clove garlic, and whole organic pickling spices, we waited two weeks to judge the results.

Tannins – Too Much of a Good Thing

The verdict? Astringent! Dry mouth! Not good! The pickles were not at all enjoyable, their normal, come-to-expect flavors of garlic, pickling spices and dill completely overwhelmed by the tannin taste. Our mouths reacted to the pickles in the same way they might if we’d taken a sip of day-old too-strong bitter tea.

Removing the leaves from the brine, my hope was the tannin might “mellow”. After 6-months of taste-testing, (hoping the tannins would mellow) there was no reduction in the now nose-curling reactions: 8 leaves were too many.

Back to The Drawing Board

I ran another simultaneous test, sending the children back into the woods for smaller and fewer white oak leaves – 3 leaves, 3-inches in diameter. After a couple of weeks, we sampled the pickles, finding an enjoyable decrease in the astringent mouth-feel which wasn’t nearly as pungent as the first try. Still, for one of our children who has Autism sensory issues, the taste was still too noticeable. White oak leaves were also not for us.

Not All Oak Are Created Equal

It may well be that our New England region – soil composition of minerals, as well as acidity – may produce higher tannin levels than other regions of the country.

If you decide to experiment with oak leaves, look for varieties from which acorns are used as a food source (typically, for the making of acorn flour), as the best sources for pickling-leaves.

Oak is a large genera with species worldwide. In the United States, I prefer the acorns as food from the oaks that have rounded instead of pointed leaf lobes. White oak (Quercus alba), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii) and chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) are good examples from the Eastern United States. The Chinkapin oak or yellow chestnut oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) also has sweet acorns.

Out West look for Gambel’s oak (Quercus gambelii); blue oak (Quercus douglasii); Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana).

Oak with leaves that are pointed [Red Oak] have more tannins and are too bitter to consume even after special preparation. The best way to get acquainted with oaks and learn how to identify them is to visit an arboretum. – Wild Foods Found Around Water

Crispy Pickles – Grape Leaves Experiment