At a friend’s house this afternoon, I discovered a Pickling book. It is called The Joy of Pickling, and it is stately and plump and a dog has chewed off one corner. I fell for it.

joy of pickling

Pickles are a source of great mystery. One can make quasi-pickles simply by adding vinegar; there are pickles off the shelf in the store, pickles made by enterprising gardeners who have pickled their own vegetables (but how!? in what!?), pickles appearing in Farmer Boy and other historical literature; and increasingly, there are fancy fermented vegetables for $14 a pop at natural foods stores, which are all the rage among gut enthusiasts.

I get the feeling there is an art of pickling, which we knew of old, and which may or may not be represented in the condiment aisle.

After all, what exactly is a pickle!??

This is the question I set out to answer. First I learned that,

The practice of making pickles by fermentation – souring through the action of microorganisms – evolved [in the] east. Laborers constructing the Great Wall of China in the third century B.C. were given mixed fermented pickles as part of their food rations.


Ok, fermentation is in there. Are all pickles fermented? (I doubt this.) Where does the vinegar come in?

Considering the etymology of the word pickle launches you backward through time. … English words related to pickle are beak, the bird’s tool; peck, the bird’s action; prick, a similar action that pierces; peak, the shape of a beak, upside-down; and piquant, sharp or stinging. … Pickles, then, are foods that prick the taste buds.


But I still don’t know what a pickle is.

I proceeded to the recipe for No-Dill Crock Pickles:

  • cucumbers (“blossom ends removed”)
  • assorted spices, herbs, etc
  • vinegar
  • water
  • surprising amount of salt
  • grape or sour cherry leaves

(“Where am I supposed to get grape or sour cherry leaves!?” I exclaim. “Trader Joe’s,” she says. “They have a lot of unusual things now!” Oh. )

Lay the leaves in the crock. Layer the cucumbers in the crock… [mix stuff together] Pour enough brine over the cucumbers to cover them. … Cover with a towel or cloth and store at room temperature.
Within 3 days you should see tiny bubbles in the brine, indicating that fermentation has begun.

What!?? Something is clearly fermenting, but what? There’s no culture, no starter, no yeast… I guess there’s some bacteria in the air (and possibly on the cucumbers), but who says we want to encourage it and eat it??

Bread & Butter Pickles 030

Finally, we come to the meat of the matter.

There are two basic kinds of pickle: those preserved with vinegar and those preserved with salt. Vinegar pickles, also called fresh pickles because they aren’t fermented, usually contain salt as well. Likewise, fermented pickles, which are always made with salt, sometimes include vinegar.


In general terms, fermentation is a controlled decomposition of food, involving yeasts, molds, or bacteria in an aerobic or anaerobic process. … Brine pickling involves fermentation by bacteria. The bacteria break apart sugars to create acid – mainly lactic acid – which for some weeks or months preserves the food in its partially decomposed form. …

Vegetables pressed together in a crock will ferment with or without salt. Without the proper salt concentration, however, enzymes may soften the vegetables, and the wrong microorganisms may predominate. … The right amount of salt fosters the right progression of bacterial activity that produces firm, delicious pickles.

… Fermented pickle brines often include some vinegar, partially for its flavor and partially to discourage the growth of the wrong microorganisms before fermentation gets under way.

So now you know.

Apparently, millennia before the word “microorganism” carried any meaning, people knew that if you put vegetables in a crock with a lot of salt, you could produce spicy, tangy, delicious edibles that kept well and didn’t make you sick. Remarkable.

Happy (piquant?) New Year!!


Post script:

Home canning reached a peak during World War II, when the U.S. government commandeered 40 percent of commercial pickle output for the armed forces. … “Novice canners using shoddy wartime equipment produced a record number of disasters. Innumerable stoves were ruined, kitchens were spattered, and victims were hospitalized with severe burns, cuts, and botulism.” If U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines today seem to be based on the assumption that the typical home canner won’t follow half of them, this history should explain the governments’ conservatism.

Post post script: I intended to write a celebration of pickles. With phrases like “partially decomposed” and “severe burns, cuts and botulism,” I fear I risk producing the opposite affect. But never-mind. Hooray for pickles!!

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1 Response to Pickles!

  1. VickyLynn Haynes says:

    Delightful! A wonderful wandering of the mind’s thoughts, productive, yet relaxing from other tasks asked of it. I think Katherine cans things and may pickle somewhat…vague memory. Though not quite pickling in this sense, the church I belonged to in NC for a time – all home schooling, exceedingly traditional moms, did such things. A kind woman from our Care Group made zucchini relish each year. I attended once, not much help but got me some jars of relish! I didn’t know I was particularly fond of zucchini, but this relish was about the most delicious thing I’d tasted. I’d eat it from the jar as a snack. I think I shared it with Katherine and she tried to replicate it one year. Oh, to have that again! I’ve always been fascinated by the sweet midgets. The tiny perfection of it all. Not supposed to have pickles much anymore, the vinegar, but can’t give them up completely. I used to keep a variety of jars in the fridge for snacks during fasts. Hope today opens for you an equal amount of wonder in unexpected joy ~ Dorothy

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