Ever wonder how a cucumber becomes pickles?
Well, it’s a very jarring experience.
Done laughing? Ok. Let’s talk about pickles, the sharp, sour condiment and side dish essential to relish any burger, sandwich and hot dog. But what is a pickle, anyway?
In the west, especially, a pickle is a stand-in for pickled cucumber, sometimes called a “gherkin” in the UK and Europe (named after a specific variety of cucumber).
But the process of “pickling” simply means allowing a fruit, vegetable or other ingredients to ferment in vinegar or brine (salt solution), and around the world pickled carrots, squash, onions, plums and other ingredients are served to accent oily and savoury dishes.
Korean kimchi, for example, falls into this category, and Japanese mixed pickles, or tsukemono, are served alongside all manner of traditional dishes. In Europe, German sauerkraut is, too, a sort of pickle, as are the pickled turnips, lemons and olives of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Perhaps you have even served dinner guests a pickle or two without realising it. Here is a quick guide to some types of pickled ingredients and recipes you can use for some exciting side dishes that add punch and flair to your cooking.
No one is exactly sure of the origin of the pickled cucumber or how it became most recognisable of the pickle family. However, the Lactobacillus bacteria that occurs naturally on the skin of cucumbers makes it an excellent candidate for fermentation (although if you’re pickling factory-produced cucumbers, the surface may have been purged of Lactobacillus, so make sure to buy “pickling” cucumbers or check the recipe for another fermentation agent, like yeast.)
Dill pickles and kosher dill pickles are especially popular in the United States. Dill pickles have been flavoured with dill (usually with other herbs and spices). Kosher dill pickles do not necessarily fit with Jewish dietary traditions, but rather the term “kosher” usually refers to the historic Jewish pickle makers of New York, which flavoured dill pickles with quite a bit of garlic. These may be “half-sour” or “full-sour” depending on the time they were allowed to ferment.
Gherkins, popular in the UK and Europe, are made from gherkin cucumbers (Cucumis anguria), which tend to be smaller than American-style garden cucumbers. These are usually flavoured in the same ways with dill and/or garlic, but are also commonly fermented with sugar to make “sweet gherkins.”
Here are a few of our favourite cucumber pickle recipes:
- Refrigerator Garden Pickles (Taste of Home)
- Refrigerator Kosher Dill Pickles (Genius Kitchen)
- Bread-and-Butter Pickles (Serious Eats)
- Homemade sweet pickles (The Old Farmer’s Almanac)
- Sweet Pickle Relish (Genius Kitchen)
Tsukemono (Japanese mixed pickles)
Tsukemono, or mixed pickled vegetables, is one of the most ubiquitous yet unnoticed Japanese dishes, served as a component of almost any Japanese meal set.
Daikon, ume plum, Chinese cabbage, ginger and cucumber are among the favourite vegetables preserved in brine and made into Tsukemono. The combinations of ingredients can be very simple or very complex, with certain tsukemono meant to accompany certain dishes.
Making tsukemono yourself is relatively straightforward, although it requires a Japanese pickle press.
The following are a few common tsukemono varieties and their recipes, but here is a more in-depth introduction to the delicate art of Japanese pickle-eating.:
- Umeboshi (Pickled sour plums)
- Takuan (daikon radish base)
- Fukujinzuke (“Japanese relish” made from daikon and eggplant)
- Matsumaezuke (Dried squid, carrot and ginger)
What pickle could be more ubiquitous, and more German, than old-fashioned sauerkraut, i.e. pickled shredded cabbage?
Despite its European associations, food historians believe that sauerkraut actually originated in China. In Europe, it is served alongside almost any savoury dish and as an ingredient in various soups, salads and sandwiches. There are countless regional varieties, and carrots, apples, nuts, bell peppers, beets and other ingredients are often mixed in.
Nothing says “Korean cuisine” like Korea’s favourite pickled dish, kimchi.
The most basic kimchi is made from preserved cabbage and Korean radish (spiced with chilli, scallions, garlic and ginger), but parsley, chives, lotus root, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, ginger and scores of other ingredients are made into kimchi, which is served as a side with basically every Korean dish.