What Is a Pickle?
The answer to "What is a pickle?" isn't as straightforward as you'd expect. There's a whole world of pickles out there!
Pickles are one of those foods that inspire strong opinions. You’re either a pickle lover—willing to pick up a bag of pickle-flavored chips and take a pickleback after a shot of whiskey—or you avoid these crispy, tangy chips at all costs. Personally, I’m not willing to delve too much into the litany of pickle-flavored foods, but I can’t get enough of pickles themselves. There’s nothing better than a sweet-and-tangy bread and butter pickle on a burger, using watermelon rind pickles to brighten up a salad or eating pickled okra straight out of the jar as a snack.
As a former restaurant chef, I’ve made a ton of pickles, and there are so many easy pickle recipes you can make at home (especially if you’re not canning them to make them shelf-stable). But what is a pickle, and what’s the difference between the ones you make at home and the jars you’ll find at the grocery store?
What Is a Pickle?
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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pickle as “an article of food that has been preserved in brine or in vinegar.” It goes on to say, “specifically: a cucumber that has been so preserved,” but that doesn’t mean that pickles are always cucumbers.
The word pickle likely comes from pekel, the Dutch word for brine, and pickles were historically made by submerging vegetables in salt-water brine. This process creates lactic acid, creating an environment that’s too acidic for bacteria to grow. Today, we refer to these pickles as lacto-fermented vegetables, but many pickles are made with salt and vinegar brine instead. The vinegar reduces the pick’s sour, fermented flavor while increasing its acidic presence. There are several different types of pickles, like gherkin, bread and butter, and sour pickles, and they differ depending on the ingredients that make up the brine.
Popular pickled vegetables (other than cucumbers) include peppers, cauliflower, onions, carrots, beets, mushrooms, green beans and more. Don’t discount fruit when preparing pickles, either. Fruit pickles can be made with any type of fruit, but our favorites are pickled grapes, melon, cherries or berries (like these spicy pickled strawberries). The brine brings out the fruit’s natural sweetness, while also preserving them for snacking all year round. For a fun spin on a traditional pickle, try making pickled watermelon rinds.
Where Do Pickles Come From?
Historically, pickling was used as a method of preservation. According to PBS, pickles date as far back as the Tigris Valley in 2030 BCE. Pickling was a way to preserve fruits and vegetables for sustenance during the cold winter months, and pickles were easier to pack than fresh produce for traveling. Kosher dill pickles became popular in the United States in the early 1900s, when an influx of European Jews brought their culture and cuisine to New York City. These flavorful full sours and half sours (fermented for half the time) brought a bright contrast to bland meat-and-potato diets and were sold straight out of the barrel.
In modern times, pickling at home has never been easier. Mason jars with specially created lids seal pickles inside a jar of brine. While safety precautions must be strictly followed to prevent contamination, it’s simple to make your favorite pickles in the comfort of your own kitchen. National Pickle Day (November 14) is a perfect day to celebrate by learning how to can pickles.
Are Pickles Good for You?
Pickles are a vegetable, but are pickles good for you? Pickles are rich in vitamins while being low in calories, making them a great snack food. Lacto-fermented pickles (like traditional kosher dills, sauerkraut or kimchi) may have additional health benefits—these types of pickles contain probiotics that can help support gut health.
How Are Pickles Made?
To make traditional salt-brined pickles, you’ll need about 2 pounds of cucumbers and a 1/2 gallon mason jar, or 2 quart jars. Unsure which cucumbers to buy or grow? Read up on the best cucumbers for pickling.
Wash each cucumber and remove about 1/2 inch from the flower end. Pickles are traditionally made with whole cucumbers, but you can cut them into slices or spears if you like. Make a 3% brine by mixing 2 tablespoons salt with 5 cups cold water and stir until the salt dissolves. If you want to add more flavor, pack the bottom of the jar with sliced onion or garlic and spices, such as chili flakes, dill seed, mustard seed, fennel seed, coriander seed, mustard seed or peppercorns. Add a few bay leaves and a handful of fresh dill if you like the taste of dill pickles.
Pack the cucumbers into the jar, pressing everything down to ensure there is an inch of headspace. Pour the brine over the cucumbers and weigh them down with a weight until they’re submerged under the brine. If you don’t have a weight, fill a zip-top bag with more 3% saltwater brine and use it to keep the cucumbers down. Cover the jar loosely with a towel and place it in a cool, dry place.
After a few days, the liquid will start to bubble and become cloudy. The longer the pickles ferment, the more sour they become, and the texture fades from crisp to soft. Give your pickles a taste to check the flavor and texture before transferring them to the refrigerator. You should achieve “half-sour” status in about 3 to 7 days, and “full-sour” in 12 to 14 days.
Once you move the finished pickles to the refrigerator, they should last up to 7 months.
What Are the Different Types of Pickles?
As we mentioned earlier, there are different types of pickles depending on the ingredients in the brine. Which are the best pickles? That depends on your tastes! If you’re a pickle lover, you should definitely know about (and try!) these types of pickles.
Dill pickles are the most popular type of pickle in the United States, and the grocery store is packed with them. You’ll find them whole, cut into spears or sliced into chips. These brined cucumbers are packed with dill seed or fresh dill to give them a punch of flavor. They’re often enhanced with additional spices as well, including garlic, pickling spice or pepper flakes, like in these old-fashioned garlic dill pickles.
Bread & Butter Pickles
These pickles got their name because they’re so delicious that you can turn them into a sandwich with nothing more than pickles, bread and butter. They’re a type of sweet pickle made with a sugar and salt brine, creating a balance between sweet and sour. You’ll also find turmeric in the brine, giving the pickles their characteristic yellow tint. Most bread and butter pickles are also made with spices like mustard seed and celery seed.
Sweet pickles have added sugar in the brine, giving them a candy-like finish. Most sweet pickles also contain onion and spices, and they may call for extra vinegar to balance out the sweetness.
Cornichons or Gherkins
Cornichons are made with gherkin cucumbers, a small variety that’s bumpier than most cucumbers. These tiny cucs are picked while they’re extremely small, creating 2-inch pickles that are perfect for serving whole on a charcuterie board. They’re often vinegar-forward and bright, making them a good counterpart to bold French cheeses.
Sour pickles are made in a salt-water brine, so they don’t have any vinegar flavor. Instead, the acidic (sour) flavor comes from the fermentation process. The longer they ferment, the tangier they are, but they won’t have the same acidic bite as a vinegar-brined pickle. Sometimes, they’re sold as half-sour; that means they didn’t ferment quite as long.
Kosher pickles refer to the style of pickling brought to the United States by Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s. These pickles are made using a salt brine (just like sour pickles), and they contain generous amounts of garlic and dill.
Quick pickles (sometimes referred to as refrigerator pickles) are homemade pickles soaked in vinegar and spices. The ratio of salt to water isn’t important with these pickles, since they’re not designed to be shelf-stable. They need to be consumed within a few weeks, but this method is a great way to introduce extra flavor and a bright acidity into vegetables for salads, sandwiches and more. Get started on this easy method by learning how to make quick pickled red onions or pickled beets.
Do Pickles Expire?
Pickles are very hearty, but they do have an expiration date. Homemade fermented pickles last 3 to 7 months in the refrigerator. An unopened store-bought jar of pickles will last up to 2 years past its expiration date, and about one year past the expiration date if opened and stored in the refrigerator. You’ll know if pickles have gone bad if the lid starts to bulge, you observe any mold in the jar or on the lid or if the contents of the jar smell off or feel slimy.