If you have ever doubted the power of a pickle, I dare you to do a side-by-side cheeseburger taste test: one with pickles, one without. Crisp, tart, and refreshing, a few pickle slices provide everything beef and cheese need to be more themselves. Pickles are the wind beneath their wings.
Preserved cucumber spears and slices—which is what cucumbers are—can do so much more. Whether you dice them for a salad topper, puree them into your hummus or layer them into your grilled cheese, pickles make everything they touch taste more interesting with their puckery sparkle.
Consider the classic appetizer: a Ritz cracker topped with pimento cheese. Can this humble but iconic bite really be right without a pickle on top? No. It cannot. Without it, it’s fatty, pasty, one note bite that falls flat on your tongue.
Store-bought jars of pickles are a perfectly good way to perk up your dishes. Maybe you’ve picked up some pickles at the farmers market and noticed how much livelier they were–fresher tasting with more pronounced flavors. You may be tempted to buy or grow some cukes and DIY.
And you should: It’s very easy and there are many options. When you make your own pickles you can dial in the flavors you love. You can make them a little sweet, add enough garlic to ensure the sanctity of your personal space, or make them fiery with chilies. Cucumber pickles are a blank canvas for culinary self-expression.
The first thing to know about pickles is, broadly, there are two types: fermented pickles and vinegar pickles. Most recipes are for the vinegar kind. The method involves mixing vinegar, water, salt, sugar and spices into a brine that’s poured over the cucumbers to season and help preserve them. Fermented pickles require no vinegar or sugar. Cucumbers are submerged in a saltwater brine, and seasoned with whole spices like mustard and peppercorns. They stand at room temperature while the lactobacillus bacteria present convert the natural sugars in the vegetable into tangy lactic acid–the classic pickle sourness.
Here are a few ways you can get pickling, plus some ideas for how to show them off.
Fermenting is easier than you might think. It’s just small cukes packed in a salty brine, typically with traditional pickling spices, and allowed to ferment at room temperature until those beneficial bacteria turn them wonderfully sour. These pickles are wonderful on deli-style pastrami sandwiches. If you want to take advantage of their probiotic properties, don’t heat them. Cooking kills those healthy critters.
If a full-on fermentation fest feels like too much, try an easy refrigerator pickle. This style of pickle relies on vinegar, salt, and sugar for bright flavor and light preservation. This basic brine provides a pickling template. Make it your own by experimenting with different types of vinegar, spices, and other flavorings.
Got a sweet tooth? This is your pickle. With much more sugar than typical for pickles, these slices are sweet enough to replace ketchup on your burger. Bread and butter pickle slices are also ideal for coating in a thick batter and frying crisp. Don’t forget to serve a creamy homemade buttermilk ranch dip on the side.
Give your cucumbers a dose of sunshine. Infused with lemon zest and fresh lemon juice, these pickles make any plate just a little brighter. The addition of cilantro leaves and Anaheim pepper makes them a natural partner for tacos or quesadillas.
These cucumber spears seasoned with garlic and dill are refrigerator pickles, so you’ll want to eat up within a few weeks. Try dicing the pickled cucumber, mincing a clove or two of garlic and folding both into a lentil salad or braised lentils just before serving for a bright pop of flavor.
Pickles infused with curry powder pick up a yellow hue and spice-forward flavor in addition to the usual tang. Be careful about the specific curry powder you choose. Some are very spicy while others aren’t hot at all; some brands contain plenty of salt and others are salt-free. Curried pickles (or even just a spoonful of the pickling liquid) make an interesting addition to a chicken salad or deviled eggs.
Fiery hot pickles are a study in contrast. The heat of chili becomes more incandescent set against the backdrop of inherently cool cucumbers. Try topping your pulled pork with thin slices of spicy pickles or add them to cream cheese and bread for a tea sandwich with a secret kick.
This classic Japanese dish is a pickle-salad hybrid. It’s made with mild rice vinegar, seaweed, mirin, and soy sauce. A staple at sushi joints, this is the ideal vegetable side to go with your takeout. Or, if you’re whipping up some tekkadon (tuna over rice) or poached cod.
Making your own relish allows you to customize it for your own palate. Adjust the amount of garlic or turmeric to suit your tastes. You’ll get a sweet and sour spread good for more than hotdogs. Try a spoonful in your tuna or potato salad for extra pickle magic.