The idea is to reduce the pH of the item being pickled. This is usually achieved through an acidic solution, but it can be achieved through a brine, or a sugar syrup.
It can also be done, as in the case with some olives, through lye.
The key to pickled items is their acidity, which both preserves them and gives them their desirable sour tang. Flavourings are usually added as well, such as anchovies, bay leaves, cinnamon, chiles, citrus fruits, cloves, coriander seeds, dill, garlic, mace, etc.
Most pickled produce is meant to come out crisp, except for sliced beet, pickled eggs or pickled baloney.
A pickle can be all one food item, or a mixture of items. It may be packed in brine, vinegar, oil, or a vinegary sauce. Some pickled items are packed in oil, particularly Italian items.
Pickling can be done to vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and fruit. Nuts can also be pickled, as in pickled walnuts.
More unusual food items that are pickled include watermelon rinds (in the American south) and nopalitas (in Mexico.)
Some argue that Chinese Thousand-Year-Old Eggs, which use lye, lime and salt amongst other things to preserve them, count as pickled items.
The food items may be done whole, sliced or quartered. Eggs, dill pickles, gherkins, and baloney rings are usually done whole. Beets and sweet pickles are done sliced.
The items may be chopped up into chutneys and relishes, which also fall under the broad category of “pickles.”
Meat is usually cooked and / or cured first.
Fruits are usually pickled first in vinegar, then packed in a sugar syrup or a sweet-sour sauce. The Italian “mostarda di Cremona” is a pickled food item made from fruit.
Lutefish is salt cod pickled in lye.
In North America, “pickle” automatically means “cucumbers” either whole, in slices or in spears, unless otherwise qualified. The term is usually always used in the plural, as in “pickles.” Dill Pickles are the standard pickle in North America. They have dill wee and seed added to the pickling solution for flavour.
In the UK, Pickle can mean a broader range of things, and can be used in the singular to mean “a pickled item.” For instance, a “cheese and pickle” sandwich means cheese with Branston Pickle (a brown relish), unless otherwise qualified.
“Pickle” can also be used to refer to the actual solution that does the pickling.
Pickles are usually served as accompaniments to meals or snacks. They can be also be used as a condiment, as when sliced pickle or pickled beetroot is placed on a hamburger, and be used as a relish, when part of a relish tray selection.
Half-sour pickles are usually deli-style, very firm and crunchy, with dill and garlic.
Sweet Pickles have a higher than normal amount of sugar added to the pickling solution.
Pickles have been made for millennia, and cucumbers indeed seem to be the first item pickled.
Pickles offered access to a “fresh” (seeming) vegetable at a time when fresh salads were rare.
Literature & Lore
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.” [Ed: Sally Hemings, a slave, was the half sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, and bore Jefferson several children.]
Ozark superstition held that there was a certain time of the month when a woman should not try to make pickles:
It is generally believed that a menstruating woman can perform all of her ordinary household tasks save one — she can’t pickle cucumbers. I have known women who laughed at most of the backwoods superstitions yet were convinced that there was something in this idea. One girl told me that she and her sister had tried it out repeatedly, and that the pickles prepared by a girl who was menstruating were always soft or flabby, never properly crisp.”1
In Middle English, “pikel” meant a spicy sauce; in Middle Dutch, the word “pekel” meant a spiced brine solution for preserving food.
Castronovo-Fusco, Mary Ann. Pickles, from vine to brine. New Jersey Star-Ledger. 12 May 2004.
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Superstitions. Columbia University Press, 1947. Chapter 4. ↩