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Exploring Dill Pickles: History, Trivia, and Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

exploring-pickles

What Do These People Have in Common?

  • Cleopatra
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Napoleon Bonaparte

OK, other than the fact that all of these people are deceased, what one thing do they have in common? The answer is pickles!

According to History.com Cleopatra believed that including pickles in her daily diet attributed to her health, vigor, and stunning good looks. Columbus carried them on his several voyages across the Atlantic to ward off scurvy—a disease that stems from a lack of Vitamin C in one's diet. And, according to History.com:

"Napoleon Bonaparte had offered to pay 12,000 francs (the equivalent of today’s $250,000) to the person who could come up with the best way to pickle and preserve food for his troops. In 1809, French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert, won the competition with a key insight: If he placed food in a bottle and removed all the air before sealing it, he could boil the bottle and preserve its contents. Using glass containers sealed with cork and wax, Appert was able to preserve not only vegetables and fruits, but also jellies, syrups, soups and dairy products."

How Long Have We Been in a Pickle?

The process of preserving in a briny bath began long before your Grandma's stoneware pickle crock was made. In fact, the Ancient Egyptians were preserving fish, melons (and Pharaohs) thousands of years ago.

In India, the definition of pickle was a bit more narrow—the green mango of Andhra Pradesh was combined with mustard paste, hot oil, chilies, and spices to create Avakai, chutney-like preserve that assails the senses with bitter, sour, fiery, soft, and crunchy. One or two entire days are devoted to the ritual-like preparation of this condiment, one batch meant to last for an entire year.

The Chinese famously preserved kumquats and duck eggs (and much, much more). As early as 1,100 B.C. "tsu" (the meaning is "salt and incubate") was prepared both to preserve and to provide balance in the tastes of sweet-salt-sour-bitter-umami.

What About Dill Pickles?

When I speak of pickles, I'm envisioning a cucumber in a jar of dill- (and sometimes garlic) infused brine. It's crisp, sour, and bitingly tangy. The etymology of the word itself gives some clue to the origin of what we know today as a dill pickle:

Pickle (n.)

c. 1400, probably from Middle Dutch pekel "pickle, brine," or related words in Low German and East Frisian (Dutch pekel, East Frisian päkel, German pökel), of uncertain origin or original meaning. Klein suggests the name of a medieval Dutch fisherman who developed the process. Originally a sauce served with meat or fowl; meaning "cucumber preserved in a pickle" first recorded 1707, via the use of the word for the salty liquid in which meat, etc. was preserved (c. 1500).

In her book The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden tells us that Jews living in Eastern Europe had a very dismal diet—tasteless bread and mealy potatoes were their subsistence. But, the addition of tangy pickled vegetables offered some relief. Pickled produce was inexpensive cool-weather crops and it became common practice for each family to fill a barrel (or more) with beets, shredded cabbage, and cucumbers. After several weeks of fermentation, the barrels would be relegated to the cellar for cool storage. The supply would last a year until the next crop was ready for harvest.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, those same Jewish peasants brought their love of pickles with them when they immigrated to the United States. The family tradition soon became a delicatessen treat.

In the last analysis, a pickle is a cucumber with experience.

— Irena Chalmers, American author and food essayist

Mason jars

Mason jars

Then Everyone Could Make Them

Two mid-19th century inventions made it easier for more home cooks to preserve their own pickles. A chemist from Scotland, James Young, invented paraffin wax, the product used to create a tight seal and prevent contamination. The second was by a gentleman named James Mason, and I'll bet you already know what he did. Mr. Mason invented a glass jar that could withstand the heat of boiling water. Hot-water bath processing makes all jarred goods shelf-stable; in other words, the pickles could be stored in a cool pantry, without refrigeration.

Pickle Trivia

  • November 14 is National Pickle Day.
  • The phrase “in a pickle” was first introduced by Shakespeare in his play, The Tempest. The quotes read, “How can’st thou in this pickle?” and “I have been in such a pickle”
  • Approximately 100,000 acres are devoted to growing pickling cucumbers in the United States.
  • According to the U.S. Supreme Court, pickles are technically a “fruit” of the vine (like tomatoes), but they are commonly thought of as a vegetable.
  • During World War II 40 percent of all pickles produced were placed in ration kits for the military.
  • Every year Americans consume more than 9 pounds of pickles per person.

Start With a Cucumber

The cucumber has such a fascinating (to me) and romantic history. Its beginnings were in the foothills of the Himalayas, perhaps 4,000 years ago. It was there that this tender gourd was lovingly tended and cultivated by the peoples of present-day India, to be assimilated into their spicy cuisine. From there it spread to Ancient Greece, Rome, and China. The Romans imbued it with almost magical medicinal powers, using it to treat scorpion stings, improve eyesight, and even increase fertility. They were introduced to the New World on Columbus' second voyage to Hispaniola.

Growing Them Is Easy

First, you need to know that there are two forms of plants, bush and vining. The bush plants are compact so work well for small-plot gardening. Vining plants climb up fences and trellises and are less prone to disease or infestation because they are up off of the ground.

They can be started indoors for transplant into the garden when all danger of frost is passed, but the roots can be finicky. They would prefer to not be disturbed (much like you don’t want to leave your cozy bed when the alarm clock sounds).

Growing Requirements

  • Light: Full Sun (at least 8 hours)
  • Depth and Spacing: Sow seeds 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart in mounded hills that are 3 feet apart. Plan on 4 to 5 seeds in each hill. When plants emerge thin to the 3 strongest plants
  • Soil: Well-drained, rich in organic matter
  • Water Requirements: at least 1 inch of water or rain every week. It is better to soak the soil rather than light frequent watering.
  • Soil pH: Neutral
  • USDA Hardiness Zones: 2 to 11, best results in zones 4 to 11.

If you aren't sure where your climate zone is, here's a really cool (as a cucumber) interactive link from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just type in your zip code and it will tell your climate zone number.

Varieties

There are thousands of varieties of cucumbers, but all of these can be divided into four distinct groups.

  1. Middle Eastern and Asian: Small and thin
  2. American slicing: Short and thick and have been bred to endure lengthy transport. They have large seeds and a strong flavor.
  3. European: Mostly grown in controlled environments in greenhouses, these are long and slender, with thin flesh and small indistinct seeds, mild flavor, and no bitterness.
  4. American pickling: Small and have a thin skin (so that the brine will penetrate more easily). The absolute best cucumber for making pickles is the Kirby.

How to Make Pickles the Old Fashioned Way

How to Make Shelf-Stable (Canned) Pickles

The thought of "canning" might seem a little intimidating; after all, you're boiling something to kill microorganisms, and you've probably heard those scary stories about botulism.

Purchasing a canning kettle, jars, and a lifter is a small investment, but one that will last you for years and years to come. And if you follow these very clear, easy instructions by Natasha, you'll be able to make quality dill pickles. Who knows, you might even get brave enough to expand to other veggies. Pickled okra, asparagus, or carrots? You can do this.

What If You're In a Hurry?

Do you have a pickle craving? Need an instant pickle-fix? There is an answer. Watch this video to learn how to quickly pickle cucumbers (and other veggies) too.

Dill pickle roll-ups

Dill pickle roll-ups

Dill Pickle Roll-Ups

These make-ahead dill pickle roll-up appetizers would be perfect for a summer barbecue (or my next church basement Oktoberfest potluck). Unlike other roll-up recipes on the internet these do not contain dried beef; they're vegetarian, take only 20 minutes to assemble, and make 24 servings.

Ham cream cheese pickle roll-ups

Ham cream cheese pickle roll-ups

Ham Cream Cheese Pickle Roll-Ups

While we're on the topic of appetizers, my meat-loving, low-carb, Keto, and/or gluten-free friends will enjoy this easy recipe of ham cream cheese pickle roll-ups from Maya Krampf. Take a slice of deli ham, shmeer on a respectable quantity of cream cheese (yum!), and roll around a crisp dill pickle.

Garlic-lover's dill pickle pizza

Garlic-lover's dill pickle pizza

Garlic-Lover's Dill Pickle Pizza

Stephanie shares a sweet story of her love of pizza, her daughter's love for the combination of cheese and pickles, and the fusion of those two passions into unique and amazingly tasty garlic and dill pickle pizza. It's vegetarian, quick to fix, and since she uses a store-bought prebaked pizza crust, you can also make it gluten-free.

Pickle-brined baked chicken tenders

Pickle-brined baked chicken tenders

Pickle-Brined Baked Chicken Tenders

We know that brining makes chicken supremely flavorful and tender, and (if you've been reading my articles for a while) you know that I have a use-it-don't-waste-it philosophy. Have you also heard the rumor that Chik-Fil-A brines their chicken in pickle juice?

It all makes perfect sense and Gina and her food stylist show us how. Place chicken tenders in a pickle bath when you get up in the morning. After a leisurely soak (in the refrigerator, of course) they'll be ready to bread and bake in the oven. In just 25 minutes you will have some of the best oven-fried chicken you've ever tasted.

Pickle-stuffed chicken breasts

Pickle-stuffed chicken breasts

Dill Pickle-Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Ohmygoodness! If you thought the pickle-brined chicken tenders were good enough, this recipe for dill pickle-stuffed chicken breasts by Claire takes us "to infinity and beyond" (in the words of Buzz Lightyear).

First, she brines whole chicken breasts. Easy, right? Then she teaches us how to butterfly that boneless skinless chicken breast. (It's really quite easy and you'll be so proud of yourself once you accomplish this little step.) Next, there's a dollop of pickle relish, a slice of Provolone, and a dash of Parmesan. Close, season, fry, and you're done.

Honestly, I love chicken, but I'd be so happy to just scoop out the pickle and cheese sauce. Just sayin'.

Dill pickle bread

Dill pickle bread

Dill Pickle Bread

If you like cheesy, herby cheddar bay biscuits you will love this quick bread loaf. The most difficult part of making this dill pickle bread is waiting for it to cool before you slice and eat it.

Bruno's hangover soup

Bruno's hangover soup

Hangover Soup

When other kids were outside playing, Bruno Tomaszewski was in his grandma’s kitchen, learning and watching and cooking. Eventually, that little boy in Poland grew up, moved to New Jersey, married and had a family of his own, but he never lost his passion for cooking. He and his wife owned and operated a highly successful restaurant in Jersey. That might have been the end of the story, but a trip to visit their adult son introduced the couple to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. As a result, they closed their business and found a 4-table hole-in-the-wall café near Fort Lewis. Before even opening their doors, an article in the local newspaper spread the word that authentic German/Polish food would be coming to the area. On their first day of business, they ran out of food. It happened again the next day. Obviously, they had something special. They located a larger eatery and relocated to Tacoma.

Business was good, steady, reliable. And then in 2013 Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives paid them a visit. Life for Bruno would never be the same.

The dance floor was removed to expand seating from 46 to 66 but that still wasn’t enough. They relocated again, returning to Lakewood, but this time to a much more expansive restaurant. Instead of 4 tables they now have seating for 100. The parking lot is always full. With all of these changes one thing has remained constant—quality. Bruno insists on fresh ingredients, prepared traditionally and without cutting corners. The care put into every dish is just like Grandma’s kitchen in Poland.

Bruno prepared his “almost world famous” hangover soup for Guy Fieri, a comforting bowl with a triple-dose of pork from ham hocks, sausage, and bacon. The tomato-y broth is rich and tangy with Hungarian paprika and the special ingredient—dill pickles.

Will You Try Any of These Recipes?

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 06, 2020:

Woo-hoo! That makes me happy.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 06, 2020:

Linda, I made the Dill Pickle Roll-Ups for a get-together my neighbor and I had for Memorial Day weekend. They were a huge hit!

I'll definitely be making this appetizer again. Thanks for posting the recipe!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 06, 2020:

Denise I recently made chickpea "tuna" salad for my daughter, and like it better than the real thing.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on June 06, 2020:

I've done these before. They are surprisingly easy and keep a pretty long time in the fridge. I like making pickle relish too. It's great in potato salad and macaroni salad and my chickpea "tuna" salad. Thanks for the recipes.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 19, 2020:

Eric, you're absolutely right. That is one thing my mom always hammered in--that everything has to be sterile or you are providing a breeding ground for all sorts of nasties.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 19, 2020:

The importance of really boiling and killing any contaminants struck me. That is where the murky comes from I think. Well we will try again today.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 18, 2020:

Bill, I would never tamper with your pizza. I'll bet your an "eat them straight out of the jar" kinda guy. And you're right about Nalley's. My husband did a study years ago on how dumping of the brine had affected the quality of the ground water in the Nalley Valley.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 18, 2020:

Shauna, the Guy Fieri one is lots of fun. I hope you enjoy. Have a marvelous week.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 18, 2020:

John, it's the "necessity is the mother of invention" thing, right? Thanks for stopping by.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 18, 2020:

You say dill pickle and I say Nalley Valley! Automatic response!

If someone ever puts a pickle on my pizza, I'm throwing the pizza at them.

Enough said!

Happy Monday dear friend!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 18, 2020:

Linda, I'm a dill pickle fan. I've already printed off the dill roll-ups recipe. I may have to try both chicken recipes and the hangover soup, as well.

I'll come back at lunchtime to watch the videos.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 17, 2020:

Wow i never imagined such great recipes led be created using dill pickles. When we were living off-grid without reliable electricity supply we were growing and pickling a lot of our own vegetables. Thanks for sharing Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 17, 2020:

Flourish, dill pickle juice is the "secret" ingredient in Mom's potato salad. It's good stuff. BTW can we just agree here and now that sweet pickles should not even be allowed to be called pickles?

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 17, 2020:

I don’t eat pickles except if someone tricks me my putting it in a recipe and I sure know it’s there. It’s the secret ingredient in my husband’s wonderful Swedish meatball recipe handed down from his mom. I also use dill pickle juice instead of salt in egg salad and chicken salad. It’s my secret ingredient there too. I spoiled my husband when I worked for the cigarette company because they also owned Kraft at that time and pickles were really cheap in the company store. Now he won’t eat anything else except my mom’s canned pickles.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 17, 2020:

Eric I had a huge jar of minced garlic from Costco. When I opened it today there sadly was a bit of "stuff" jelled and floating on the top. I reluctantly discarded the whole thing. Bacteria that harbor food poisons are nothing to mess with.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 17, 2020:

I will be back, I read for fun but next will read for marching orders ;-)

My carrots got musky. Nothing bad but I worried so tossed them. Life is an experiment and cooking is the finest lab in the world. Whahoo.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 17, 2020:

Pamela, I don't can either, but my daughter wants to learn (I guess it skips a generation). No, honestly I was always relegated to help (whether I wanted to or not) when mom was putting up peaches, pickles, plums, beans, cherries--you name it, we canned it. If you had a little help I'll bet you could do the quick pickles.

If you do buy them I agree that Claussen are the best!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 17, 2020:

I had no idea that pickled foods began hundreds of years ago. I think the dill pickle stuffed chicken breasts sound good and so do the appetizers. I love dill pickles but I can't can food anymore. I am very fond of Claussen Dill pickles and that is all we buy. This is a very interesting article, Linda.