Call it Kimchi, Kraut, or Cornichon. For
those rare individuals who are fickle about their pickle,
there is more to this flavorful technique than garlic
or dill. Pickles are universal- the mind and palate need
wander just slightly further east or west to surely find
something delish. So have a Gibson Martini, munch on some
olives, sit back and read while getting pickled.
Universally, every culture pickles something as a means
of preserving. Pickles are food preserved in seasoned
brine or vinegar. Simple enough, but all pickled foods
take time to prepare. Some take weeks or longer to pickle
while others are done in days, and some pickles require
a fermentation process that can take months. Often when
it comes to pickling, old techniques are constantly rediscovered,
revived, and reinvented. However, the definition can vary
and often slip towards the process of preserving. While
the two are related, not all things preserved are considered
pickled, but pickles are positively preserved.
In North America, fewer edibles are more cherished alongside
a sandwich or burger than the classic "pickle"- most commonly
referred to as Kirby cucumbers brined or marinated with
herbs, vinegars, and/or salt. However, just about anything
can be pickled-meat, fruit, vegetables, even cheeses.
In the Deep South, pickled pigs parts, peaches, or watermelon
are common but up where the Yanks hover, who could imagine
having anything but pickled corned beef and cabbage downed
with green beer in honor of St. Patrick-maybe with a shot
of pickle juice? And if your deli-sandwich maker doesn't
give you a choice of spear, half, or slices of pickle...be
very afraid. However sweet or savory these may appear,
there are endless varieties between the old and the new.
Hop over to Europe and enter a traditional English public
house. Anyone in search of quintessential pub fare must
indulge in a "Ploughman's Lunch." No self-respecting establishment
would be caught without an offering of a crusty hunk of
bread with a generous slab of cheese (preferably Cheddar)
accompanied by something pickled (preferably the famed
Branson pickle) and of course, the necessary pint. Each
pub prides itself on the variety of cheese offered, but
most importantly, it is the pickle that ties the whole
Just across the channel only the French could refine something
as humble as a gherkin by using a daintier cucumber
and calling it a cornichon. There are countless
others - most commonly, brined olives found all over Europe,
the delightful vegetable based giardiniera found
in Italy and who doesn't love German sauerkraut?
Could the Spanish fish-based escabeche be pushing
it? Definitely not. While in Scandinavia, pickled herring
(a.k.a. rollmops) reign. These more popularly known
varieties prevail just about everywhere, but generally
it's the condiment that we are addicted to.
In China, there are hundreds of preserved vegetables -
all pickles. Salted duck eggs, lettuce hearts, even bamboo
shoots-if it's edible in China, it's probably pickled
too. And Korean meals are incomplete without at least
one type of kimchi. The addictive spicy cabbage
is buried in a clay vessel underground to ferment over
the winter and later consumed throughout the year. Anything
from pickled oysters to dried fish can be found on the
Korean table. Not surprisingly, it is the official national
food of Korea and comes in as varied a selection as the
In Japan it can be the gari or pickled ginger that
accompanies your sushi or all things tsukemono
that whet the appetite. These brightly colored packages
of vegetables wrapped up neatly with leeks or scallions
are palatable gifts-typical in Japan. Thailand and its
Southeast Asian neighbors have everything from mango to
papaya in all colors and shapes (but not necessarily all-natural).
And any authentic Indian meal must have an offering of
chili-doused lime pickles or spicy-hot vegetable achar
while we burn our throats and beg for more.
In North Africa, there are endless varieties of preserved
foods available primarily thanks to the nomadic nature
of the people and the local climate. At least once in
a lifetime, a tagine of couscous with Moroccan
salted lemons must be experienced. Then there is the pickled
green mango-a huge export in South Africa.
Down under in Australia they even pickle walnuts (although
this allegedly originates in England).
Amazingly they are all considered pickles yet literally
worlds apart. Am I Blue?
While some pickles are colored unnaturally, blue garlic
is a strange phenomenon. This is not a new variety of
exotic allium, but rather a reaction of enzymes in the
garlic to sulfur usually from a copper utensil and in
some cases natural minerals in the water. In the case
of green garlic, this is a reaction of young or not fully
dried garlic. Both are generally considered safe to eat,
but if there is any doubt, practice prudence and discard.
Fresh garlic contains allicin which gives a characteristic
pungency in flavor. Pickling neutralizes the allicin and
changes the flavor. This is why pickled garlic is not
as strong and overpowering as fresh - fine fare for a
Salt to taste:
Corned beef, olives, and just about anything cured in
liquid is considered a pickle. Salting helps to draw out
water from the item to be pickled, allowing it to later
soak up pickling solution and flavor. The recommended
salts are pickling salt, kosher salt, or canning salt.
Free-flow and low sodium salts should be avoided as they
may cloud or discolor the solution whereas flake salts
vary in density. Proper salting also keeps the crunch
Previously saltpeter and sal prunella were used to maintain
the pink-red hues of charcuterie and other meats, and
were effective against most aggressive bacteria (including
botulism). Since these were nitrates, overuse could be
toxic. In fact, the U.S. military used to keep a strong
stock of saltpeter to spike the mess hall chow, thus taming
the beasts in the barracks thanks to its definite libido-reducing
powers. Today, most countries have banned or limited the
use of either and often the common replacement used today
is called sel rose.
In some older pickle recipes, grape leaves may be required.
The tannins naturally occurring in the leaf produce enzymes
that inhibit bacteria. This measure is often replaced
with the addition of alums or pickling lime. Neither is
necessary, and the use of alums should be carefully measured
or toxic results can occur. Traditionally speaking, vegetables
should be pickled within 24 hours of harvest to ensure
crispness. No one likes a soggy pickle!
Brined pickles are fermented and generally have enough
salt to be considered safe. Quick pickles are just as
they sound, quickly made and ready in days with the use
of vinegar or other acid. However, flavors will intensify
Drizzle of oil:
Pickling in oil is something less common in the West (often
called pantry pickles) but more prominent in Asia. Since
most of the Indian pickles are comprised of watery ingredients
(limes and mangoes) the possibility of spoilage increases.
Often these types of vegetables are cured in salt to reduce
water content. A paste of chili and other ingredients
is often used to coat. The heat-causing capsaicin in the
pepper is usually strong enough to ward off any unsuspecting
bacteria. However, just because they are highly spiced
and laden with chili is not enough to avoid spoilage,
therefore a slick of oil on the top of a bottle or jar
provides an airtight seal (as with wine), and preserves.
Pickle connoisseurs know that all good things take time.
Fermented pickles such as kimchi or sauerkraut
take weeks or months at a time to finish. Lactic acid
is often a by-product of the gases emitted from the process
which actually preserve the vegetable. For newcomers,
strong kimchi or Chinese stinky tofu are not always
appreciated, but they do offer complex and wonderful dimensions
to the palate throughout the meal.
Juice of one lemon:
The traditional sour pickle is just as popular today as
ever. Often, these are sold as "fresh-packed" or "quick-process"
pickles requiring refrigeration. These pickles often incorporate
the use of vinegar (usually distilled white or cider)
and even lemon juice. Homemade vinegar should be avoided
unless the percentage of acidity can be determined. Commercially
made vinegars often have 5% acidity (50 grain) whereas
older recipes were determined with vinegars at 7% (70
grain). Why the fuss? If there is insufficient acidity,
harmful pathogens could develop. If the solution is too
sour, increase the sugar rather than dilute with water
unless a recipe calls for it.
The existing risk factor of bacteria in the form of mold
growths could eventually reduce acid levels. Over time,
this low acid level could dramatically introduce the wicked
spores of botulism at worse case scenario. But often enough,
sufficient acid exists to avoid any potential hazards.
Pickle Precaution and Purity:
Water has a lasting effect, so make sure the water being
used is clean and pure. Equal consideration should be
exercised with sugar. The use of brown sugar will affect
the flavor and color of a lighter product as well. Sugar
substitutes should be avoided. Some pickles such as American
gherkins are so sweet and actually pickled with a high-sugar
solution producing a result that is almost candied.
One last thing to note is that the boiling-canning method
is often used and strongly advised. Pasteurization is
always a safer bet, eliminating unwanted would-be spoilers
in the forms of yeasts, molds, and bacteria. As an added
bonus, a vacuum seal is created allowing for long term
storage. And don't forget to sterilize the jars; a very
basic, yet important step-boil them clean.
According to the USDA, recipes with equal parts of vinegar
to water are generally considered safe. Avoid using copper,
zinc, iron, brass, or galvanized metal utensils to avoid
contamination of the solution. For a list of USDA Federal
Safety Guidelines on pickling, go to: http://eesc.orst.edu/agcomwebfile/edmat/PNW355.pdf
(Acrobat reader required).
A great website about pickling is
For pickle geeks, recommended reading:
Potted, and Canned by Sue Shepard
Written By: Lillian Chou - Lillian Chou is a Chinese-American
whose passions for food drive her occupational hazards.
After working for years in restaurants she evolved from
the kitchen towards editorial work involving food to include
food styling, writing, and photography. After living in
Asia for eight years she returned to the U.S. to present
for Chefs in the City (UK Living) and has written for
New Asia Cuisine and Wine Scene and Art Culinaire.