It's hard to imagine life without pickles -- those crunchy delights straight out of the jar, the tangy, sweet surprises tucked into a burger, or the sliced spears served fresh on the side of your plate. When we hear the word "pickle" we tend to think of the classic cucumber variety (which goes by "gherkin" if you're passing through the UK or Ireland), but there are plenty of other pickled foods, like vegetables, fruits and even fish and meats for the adventurous eater to explore.
What is a Pickle?
Pickling is the process of preserving or extending the lifespan of food, making it easier to enjoy certain kinds of vegetables and fruits long after they've been harvested. Most pickles are made by either anaerobic (without oxygen) fermentation in brine (a mixture of water and salt) or immersion in vinegar. Leaving a desired item submerged in such a highly acidic environment for anywhere from a few days to a few months kills off most harmful bacteria, making pickling a popular activity among home cooks.
History of the Pickle
While the exact origin of the pickle is a little unclear, historians can date pickling all the way back to 2400 BC, when archeologists and anthropologists believe the ancient Mesopotamians first pickled. Around 2030 BC, an influx of cucumbers from India helped begin a tradition of pickling in the Tigris Valley, the results of which were enjoyed as a delicacy.
Pickles were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus, who is known to have grown cucumbers for the purpose of pickling on the island of Haiti. Columbus wasn't the only famous fellow in history to be a fan of the pickle, though. Napoleon was said to have valued pickles as a health asset for his armies, so much so that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve the food safely. The man who won the prize in 1809 was a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn't spoil. His discovery is regarded as one of the most influential culinary contributions in history.
Why a Pickle?
While the pickle was invented to preserve foods, pickles are not only eaten because of the enjoyable flavors, but also because the nutritional value provided when B vitamins are produced by bacteria during the pickling process. A popular palate cleanser, not only does that vinegary taste lift flavors and prep your taste buds to appreciate the next bite, but fermented and pickled vegetables also act as a natural digestif.
Need more reasons to enjoy pickled foods?
Make a date with B&B Mini Burgers at Bird & The Bottle in SF where savory burger flavors -- including American cheese, grilled onions and a secret sauce --are made even tastier with a tangy kick of pickle.
A hearty pulled pork sandwich like the one at Sweet Cheeks Q, delivered on hot griddled Texas toast (extra thick sandwich bread) or a bulkie (a New England-style sandwich roll) is perfectly balanced alongside a healthy serving of pickles and onions.
Pickled shallots bump up the flavor of Maple Block Meat Co.'s signature sliced brisket sandwich with red cabbage slaw and green sauce, also served with pickles and a side of mac and cheese.
Made with roasted pork, ham, chicharron (fried pork belly), Dijon mayo and house-made pickles, the Cuban Media Noche at Sunny Spot in Los Angeles is blanketed in mouthwatering Gruyere cheese and served with a side of plantain chips.
Comfort food go-to Birds & Bubbles wouldn't be complete without some pickle action infused in favorite dishes like the Baby Kale salad with beluga lentils, deviled egg sauce, pickled onion, frisee and candied sunflower seeds.
Get dressed up for some Fancy Radishes at Vedge in Philadelphia, prepared with smoked tamari, avocado, pickled tofu and shishito pepper.
Made with Hungarian paprika, beets, pickles and fried capers, the Beet Pickled Devil Eggs are a bright and delicious addition to the table at Early Society in Chicago.
L&W Oyster Co. in NYC proves they can pickle almost anything and the results are delicious. Try the Lobster BLT with bacon, arugula, tomato, Sriracha aioli and pickled garlic or the Avocado Grilled Cheese with Baby Swiss, Chilmole (black mole sauce), arugula pesto, semolina and pickled onion.
Get your pickle fix at Abe Fisher in Philadelphia with the chopped liver and toasted rye, served with pastrami-onion jam and pickled onions. Want more? Try the Pickled Mackerel, the Sweet Potato Boursin with pickled long hots (peppers) and smoked walnuts, or even The Abe Fisher Cocktail, made with Beefeater gin, Dolin Dry and Dolin Blanc vermouths and dill pickle juice.
A classic New England plate in the summertime, the lobster roll at B&G Oysters on a beautifully buttered roll with fresh lobster and optional bacon, sweet and tangy butter pickles (made with sugar, vinegar, onions and spices) and French fries on the side.
The Banh Mi at Little Sister in LA brings together the basic French baguette with Vietnamese-inspired meats -- cold cuts, lemongrass chicken or spiced brisket -- and tops it off with plenty of light, fresh vegetables including sliced cucumber, cilantro jalapeño and delicious tart-sweet pickled daikon radish.
Southeast Asian-inspired Tiger Mama delivers a Khao Soi Chicken Drum dish made with crispy chicken, khao soi (soup) broth, shallots and lime served atop pickled greens.
At Kyirisan in Washington D.C., go for the Deep Fried Tofu with black pepper sauce, scallion and pickled carrot for an extra kick of flavor.
The Fat Ham in Philly dishes out a delicious fried chicken for those who like to spice things up. Swing by this Southern-inspired favorite for some Hot Chicken -- a favorite of Chef Kevin Sbraga's -- on brioche with ranch dressing and dill pickles.