Pronunciation: 'pi-kel
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English "pekille"
Date: 15th century

1: a solution or bath for preserving or cleaning: as a: a brine or vinegar solution in which foods are preserved b: any of various baths used in industrial cleaning or processing 2: a difficult situation: PLIGHT <"could see no way out of the pickle I was in" R. L. Stevenson> 3: an article of food that has been preserved in brine or in vinegar; specifically: a cucumber that has been so preserved 4: British: a mischievous or troublesome person
Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary

Word History: The Middle English word Pikel meant "a spicy sauce or gravy served with meat or fowl" as early as 1400. The middle Dutch word pekel referred to a solution, such as spiced brine, for preserving and flavoring food. After it came to the English language, the connotations of the word expanded to include brining for preservation, and to the ingredients that had been treated or transformed in the brine. The Dutch phrase in de pekel zitten, "sit in the pickle," probably gave rise to the figurative meaning of being "in a pickle" as being in a difficult or problematic situation. Modern slang adopted "pickled" as a synonym for drunk.

Scientifically, a pickle is any perishable ingredient that has been preserved in a brine. But pickling isn't only about science it's about tradition, community, economy, responsibility, and family. Our ancestors - no matter what part of the globe they hailed from - pickled to preserve fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. They pickled to save money. They pickled, together with family and friends, to assure safety and make the most out of their foods. Harsh winters, humid tropical climates, short growing seasons, poor soil, fast-spoiling staples (such as fish), even summer abundance and gardening pride - all have spawned the arts of pickling and food preservation.
The history of New York is steeped in pickling traditions. Though the pickle pushcarts and wooden barrels on the stoops of the Lower East Side that used to sell "Pickles for a Penny" are long gone, the legacy of cucumber pickles lives on in our collective appetites. Pickles are to New Yorkers what Apple Pie is to Americans - an archetypal food that illustrates our unique history.

Of the thousand of types of pickles that converge upon the pantry, refrigerator and supermarket shelves in New York, all fall into one of these categories:
1. FERMENTED PICKLES: The oldest method of pickling, when a naturally occurring bacteria transforms the sugars present in the ingredient into an acid, preserving the food. These are called "processed" pickles, and though they take as many as five weeks to cure, they last up to 2 years. They have a very sharp flavor, and their texture is somewhat softer than other types. Fermentation is the controlled decomposition of food. In the case of fermented pickles, salt controls the pickle's texture, limits unwanted micro-organisms, and ensures ingredients don't ferment too quickly. Dry-salted pickles extract water from the vegetable itself to produce the brine; brined pickles are covered with salt dissolved in water.
2. FRESH PACK/QUICK PROCESS PICKLES: Fresh Pack includes pasteurization, and it's one of the most common methods for commercial jarred pickles. Fresh fruit or vegetables are first bottled, and then heated to at least 160º F, which kills any bacteria. Their shelf-life is about 18 months.
3. REFRIGERATED PICKLES: The most common home-pickling process, it requires a combination of refrigeration, vinegar, or alcohol to kill bacteria that could spoil the pickles. This process, also known as acidification, has the shortest shelf-life. The acid changes the texture of the pickle, and, overtime, can turn it mushy. Also called fresh pickles, they retain their bright coloration, and are particularly crisp, crunchy, and fresh tasting.

Types of Cucumber Pickles: Pickle Packers International, a trade association for the pickled vegetable industry since 1893, identifies types of commercial cucumber pickles below. In addition to these basics, they note a few trends - Americans are eating more pickles than ever, and they're gobbling up new and innovative varieties, from long, thin, flat cuts for stacking on sandwiches, to fiery Cajun-flavor ones for snacking.

Dill Pickles: This is by far the most popular variety of pickles, universally revered and enjoyed across the country. There are a few distinctions within this category:
Genuine Dills are "processed", and dill weed is added to the tanks during the last stage of fermentation. Their flavor is more concentrated and sour than other dill pickles.
Kosher Dills are made the same way, but generous doses of garlic are added to the brine at the end. Just because they're called "kosher dills" doesn't mean they are produced according to Kosher law - you have to check the label to see if Rabbinical supervision certified that particular brand Kosher. Though inextricably linked to a Kosher tradition in New York, "kosher dill" now refers to a flavor profile.
Overnight Dills are fresh cucumbers that sit in a brine in the refrigerator for a few days. Bright green and crunchy, they taste fresher and less acidic.
SOUR/HALFSOUR: These pickles are refrigerated throughout the entire process fresh pickles are placed in a non-vinegar brine; the longer they stay in that brine, the more sour they become. They are crispy and green.

Sweet Pickles: On the other side of the flavor spectrum, sweet pickles are made with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and spices in the brine. Variations include:
Bread and Butter: Circle-cut cucumbers, onions, and chopped peppers cure in a sweet, tangy brine.

Candied: Pickles cured in a syrupy sweet brine.

Gherkins: Miniature dill or sweet pickles.

For more information about the pickle industry, contact:
Pickle Packers International, Inc.
P.O. Box 606
One Pickle and Pepper Plaza
St. Charles, Illinois 60174 USA

Copyright NYFM 2003, Dana Terebelski Bowen and Nancy Ralph