12 Things You Didn't Know About Pickles

And one simple recipe for making your own at home.

May 4, 2015
pickles
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL TAYLOR/GETTY

The pickle as we know it is thought to have originated in India, where cucumbers were first grown. The crisp, fermented delight then gradually made its way to Egypt and the Mediterranean Basin. It is thought that the Romans first introduced pickles to Northern Europe, where they rapidly gained popularity. Pickles played an important role in Columbus' voyage to America. Long voyages were often jeopardized because crews suffered from scurvy—the result of a lack of vitamin C. Columbus' ships, however, were supplied with vitamin C-rich pickles, allowing sailors to make the long trip, despite the causes of scurvy being unknown. In fact, the pickles may have been supplied by Amerigo Vespucci—the map-maker for whom our continent was named. He was reportedly a fine pickle maker.

Related: Everything You Wanted To Know About Growing Crisp Cucumbers

Advertisement

Free Newsletter

More Pickle Facts

  • Pickle brine has many uses: Some cultures use it as soup stock, and others swear by it as a hangover cure. The brine also makes a savory marinade, and when combined with olive oil, a tangy salad dressing
  • About 26 billion pickles are packed yearly in the United States. More than half the cucumbers grown here are pickled.
  • Though this fact is hotly debated, the pickle is both a fruit and a vegetable.
  • Along with vitamin C, pickles contain significant amounts of vitamin A, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
  • A "good pickle" crunch should be audible from across a room.
  • Americans eat about 9 pounds of pickles per person each year.
  • During World War II, 40 percent of all pickles produced were allocated to ration kits of the armed forces.
  • Because the density of commercial salt varied from year to year, pickle makers of old couldn't accurately measure the salt needed for making pickle brines. Hence, early recipes suggested using just enough salt "to float an egg" in the brine.
  • Julius Caesar thought pickles had an invigorating effect and supplied his army with them.
  • Queen Elizabeth I also loved pickles.
  • As far back as 850 B.C., Aristotle extolled the healing effects of "cured" cucumbers.

Make Your Own

There's nothing more satisfying than hearing the seal pop on a new jar of ice-cold pickles. Especially when friends and family have gathered on a summer day, burgers are sizzling on the grill, and lemonade is chilling. A jar of supermarket gherkins might do, but don't deny yourself the pleasure—and the super fresh, homespun flavor—of making your own.

Refrigerator pickles are easier than other pickling methods. To get going, gather up a few ingredients, starting with the star of the show: cucumbers. If home grown cucumbers are not an option, buy organic ones at a local farmers' market or food co-op; many chain grocery stores also carry them. Supermarket cukes often have an edible wax coating to help them retain moisture and give them a glossy sheen. Because the wax coating prevents cucumbers from absorbing the pickling liquid well, look for cukes with dull skins—a sure sign they haven't been treated.

Because the wax coating prevents cucumbers from absorbing the pickling liquid well, look for cukes with dull skins.


If using home grown cucumbers, pick them first thing in the morning to get the best flavor. Select cukes that are free of mold, insect damage, blemishes, and soft spots. Plan to make the pickles within a couple of days of harvest. Seed catalogs often recommend varieties that are best for pickling.

Thoroughly wash the cucumbers and assemble the spices. Have fun with the process, trying new flavors with each new batch of pickles. To add a little kick, toss in a clove of fresh garlic, a pinch of crushed red pepper, or a few chopped jalapeños. For a bigger kick, add a habanero. (Just be sure to wear gloves while working with these powerful little peppers.) Ancho peppers will add a peppery boldness, while chipotle chiles (made from dried jalapeños) will give the pickles a rich and spicy smoked flavor.

Another nice thing about refrigerator pickles is that they don't require a special technique or container. Vintage jars that show off the ingredients make for the loveliest presentations, and can be found at flea markets (make sure to wash the jars and lids well before using them to store food).

Making pickles can be the start of a new family tradition with your kids, grandkids, or best friends. In only a few hours, you'll have beautiful jars of crunchy, delicious pickles ready to serve or give as gifts. To help you on your way, try this recipe from the Rodale Kitchen.

Audrey's Pickle Recipe

Makes 2 quarts (about 18 servings)

1 pound medium cucumbers
3 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole mustard seed
1 teaspoon fresh dill weed
1 whole dried bay leaf
⅔ cup organic light brown sugar
6½ tablespoons white distilled vinegar
6½ tablespoons white-wine vinegar
¾ cup water

1. Cut the cucumbers into spears or slices and place in a 2-quart container or jar with a lid. Add the garlic, peppercorns, mustard seed, dill weed, and bay leaf.

2. Stir together the brown sugar, vinegars, and water until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour the vinegar mixture over the cucumbers and shake the jar well to combine. Cover and chill. For fullest flavor, wait at least 24 hours before serving. These pickles will keep up to 3 months in the refrigerator.