There are three types of pickles as Vivian Howard learned while preparing for her lecture at the Chow Chow Festival in Asheville last year. Howard received assistance for her lecture from KC Hysmith, a food studies doctoral student in the American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hysmith wrote: “Food historians trace the process of pickling (preserving foods in salt/brine or vinegar) back to Ancient Egypt. Egyptians were known to have pickled fish and melons. If you mean the pickling of cucumbers (what we Americans usually call pickles today) that practice perhaps dates back to India, about 3,000 years ago, where the cucumber also traces its origins. Some food historians say William Beuklez, a Dutch fisherman invented pickled foods in the 15th century. Dill pickles were introduced by German immigrants. Sweet pickles come from Central and northern Europe. Bread and butter pickles are an early 20th century development (supposedly invented during the Great Depression).”
With that overview, here’s a breakdown on the types of pickles:
vegetables that have been preserved and transformed with the help of good bacteria. Typically, you salt shredded vegetables, which produces its own brine and encourage the development of lactic acid bacteria. That’s how we get kimchi and sauerkraut. Fermented pickles also can be made with a salt brine; think Kosher dill pickles or half sour pickles or those pickled carrots you find on the condiment bar at your favorite taqueria.
vegetables that have been preserved in a vinegar brine. The acid in the vinegar (and in the lactic acid bacteria in fermented pickles) preserves the vegetables and prevents bad bacteria from developing. Some of our favorite vinegar pickles include bread-and-butter pickles, dilly beans and pickled okra.
an Indian preservation method using oil; in North India, they typically use mustard oil and in South India, they use sesame oil.
If you want to learn how to make pickles, check out these books:
- “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World,” by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). This is a great in-depth resource on the science behind fermentation.
- Any of the Ball Books of Canning and Preserving are good for first-time canners who want to make pickles or jams.
- The “Pickles & Preserves” cookbook by our co-producer, Andrea Weigl (UNC Press, 2012).
- We love this self-published book, “Usha’s Pickle Digest: The Perfect Pickle Recipe Book,” by India’s Pickle Queen, Usha Prabakaran, who was recently profiled in the New York Times.