We confess: we’re really in a pickle here. How does one capture all the glory of the pickle with just a witty brief intro?
With their undeniable taste, colorful history and iconic weirdness, there’s almost too much to say about everyone’s favorite fermented food.
So while we sit here and stew on it (or at least try to come up with better food puns), you can skip ahead to some of the wonderful ways pickles are prepared today—a reading list we hope you’ll relish. (Whew—that’s a little better!)
Fun fact about pickles: They’re as much a verb as a noun.
With enough vinegar and willpower, you can technically pickle anything. (How else do you explain pickled pigs feet?)
“Pickle” describes the fermentation process itself, and around the world—especially in Southeast Asia—“pickles” can refer to any number of vegetables.
So let’s be clear: What we’re talking about here is the traditional pickle. That is, cucumber and brine.
The classic combination got its start as far back as Mesopotamia – and has been credited since then with everything from Napoleon’s historic winning streak to Queen Cleopatra’s famous beauty. (Seriously. Pickles are insanely interesting.)
But still, even working with that narrow definition yields any number of pickling possibilities.
Pickles can be made using one of three methods: refrigeration, fresh packed, or processed.
All three achieve the same pickling end goal, but employ different strategies to get there, mostly involving the amount of brine—and the amount of time—the process involves.
As the cucumbers are left to ferment, different combinations of herbs, spices and other ingredients are used—and added at different points in the process—to bring about the desired taste and texture.
And the different ways pickles are cut not only makes them more suitable as a snack or a sandwich stacker, but changes the way the cukes absorb all that briny goodness, further developing unique textures and tastes.
The end result is a few tried-and-true pickle varieties born of thousands of trial and error years.
When most people think of pickles, dill pickles are what typically come to mind.
The dill description stems from the herbaceous additive these pickles are fermented with – which cuts the salty brine the pickles are left in with the bright, fresh taste of the springy herb.
Kosher dills are perhaps the most popular of the dill pickle variety, and though they share their name with the Jewish dietary laws, they’re not necessarily made in accordance with them.
Mostly, the moniker refers to the extra garlic added to the briny mix—which was a traditional touch of Jewish New York City pickle makers—but we’d say eating these pickles is a blessing either way.
Technically, these aren’t a variety of pickles as much as a pickling designation.
Every pickle starts its life as a cucumber, and sour and half-sour pickles are no exception. The fresh cukes are put in a vinegar-free brine and allowed to ferment in the fridge.
The longer a pickle is allowed to ferment, the more sour it becomes.
Half-sour pickles are only half-baked (err, half-brined?) – not yet reaching their full pickling potential, but maintaining a lot more of their cucumbery crunch and color. Conversely, a sour – or even super sour – pickle is one that’s been brined for a long time.
Typically sliced thin in medallions and sometimes crinkle cut, these pickles go with burgers like bread goes with — well, you know.
One of the more unique pickle flavors, bread and butter pickles are tangy and sweet, getting their distinctive taste from the combination of vinegar, sugar, onions and chopped red and green peppers included in the fermentation process.
Their distinctive name is another story. First developed by Omar and Cora Fanning at the onset of the Great Depression, the pickles were reportedly called after the pantry staples the couple would barter them for. Talk about making your bread and butter.
Besides being one of the most fun words to say, Gherkins are also one of the most fun pickles to eat.
Sometimes called baby pickles, this variety is rarely more than a few inches long, sporting extra bumpy skin and a particular crunch due to their smaller size.
The world of Gherkins is also very much its own, boasting a whole multiverse of Gherkin varieties, including sweet gherkins, which are brined with sugar, and Cornichons, a popular French spin on the baby pickle that gets its signature tart taste from the tarragon its fermented with.
A particularly good variety if you’re feeling really Hungary. (Sorry, we’ll see ourselves out for that one.)
Hungarian pickles put a truly unique spin on the brining process, as fresh cucumbers are put in a glass with water, salt and spices. What kicks off the fermentation process in the absence of vinegar is an unlikely special ingredient: Bread.
The glass jar is set in the sun for a few days while nature sets off to do its work, as the yeast of the breaking down bread becomes responsible for all pickling duties.
Meanwhile in Europe, a few clicks to the West, the process looks completely different.
Instead of glass jars, Polish and German pickle makers prefer wooden barrels, which is part of the reason behind their distinctive-tasting pickles.
The pickles are processed over a long period of time, which allows them to use different – and less – spices to pull off the pickling trick, including a favorite German pickle variety that translates in English to “low-salt cucumber.”
Not to be confused with that sweet citrus bite we all love on top of our tacos (or margarita glasses), the “lime” in this type of pickle comes from a powdery mixture called pickling lime—which gives these particular pickles their own distinctive crunch.
Fresh cukes are soaked in this secret ingredient, which is made from a type of processed salt. Then after a day-long pickling lime bath, the nascent pickles are rinsed off and added to a more traditional brine, that includes vinegar and sugar.
Leave it to the Southern United States to come up with the perfect summertime barbecue food.
These strange snacks are made by whisking some Kool-aid powder in pickle juice, then letting the cukes soak in all the same sweetness—and shocking red color—as their namesake additive.
It sounds really weird, until you realize how many friends pickles and Kool-aid probably have in common, from all the cookouts they’re both invited to. (And the fact that many other people will swear by eating pickles with ice cream!)
So eating a Kool-aid pickle is a bit like taking a crunchy bite of pickled goodness while washing it all down with a sweet drink? Oh yeah!