August/September 2013

Getting to Know: Vinegar Pickles

Pickling in vinegar-based brine originated eons ago as a practical means of preserving foods. These days, everyone from star chefs to home cooks is doing it mainly for the distinctive flavor.

Sweet Pickles

Their porous flesh makes cucumbers perfect for pickling. Add a lot of sugar to the brine—plus mustard seeds, celery seeds, cider vinegar, and turmeric—and you have sweet pickles. The category intcludes sweet gherkins, made from immature cucumbers, and waffle-cut bread-and-butter chips.

Dill Pickles

Dill pickles come in several varieties, all flavored with dill, salt, and vinegar. Add garlic for kosher dills or slice them thin for hamburger dills. In the test kitchen, we use the brine, too, as in our All-American Potato Salad (see related content). Garlicky, crisp Boar’s Head Kosher Dill Pickles are our taste-test winner.

Pickled Peppers

Pickled peppers, both hot and sweet, come in all shapes and colors. Some of the types we like to use in the test kitchen are pickled jalapeños (pictured), pepperoncini, and sweet cherry peppers. Introduce pickled peppers to pizza or sandwiches, or mix them into sauces or relish; the brine makes a spicy addition to vinaigrettes. You can cook with them, too.


In this country giardiniera refers to a combination of pickled cauliflower, carrots, celery, and sweet and hot peppers; in Italy, the term is more generic. Its “sharp, vinegary tang” cuts the richness of fatty meats and cheeses on an antipasto platter. Our favorite supermarket brand of giardiniera is Pastene.


Capers—the sun-dried pickled flower buds of the caper bush—are used in Mediterranean recipes to provide briny punch. Their flavor develops as they are cured, most commonly in a salt and vinegar brine or more unusually (and expensively) in salt. Rinse and drain capers before using them. Capers are essential for tartar sauce and chicken piccata. Reese Non Pareil Capers are our favorite.

Pickled Beet Eggs

To produce this snack and salad staple, the Pennsylvania Dutch combine sliced pickled beets and shelled hard-cooked eggs. The two go in brine with spices like caraway, mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and star anise. The acidic vinegar balances the earthy, sweet beets. As for the eggs, the longer they stay in the brine the deeper the beet color penetrates, until even the yolks are tinged with purple.

Dilly Beans

Aromatic and super-crunchy, dilly beans are green or yellow wax beans in a pungent dill, garlic, mustard seed, and peppercorn brine. Some versions include dried or fresh red chile for a spicy kick. Snack on dilly beans, add them to salad, or dunk them in a Bloody Mary. They’re so easy and inexpensive to make that we hope you’ll pickle your own.

Cocktail Onions

Pearl onions add the final touch to classic boeuf bourguignon, the famous French beef stew, or they simmer in cream for a classic steakhouse side dish. When immersed in pickling brine and jarred, these mild, naturally sweet alliums become the signature garnish of the Gibson, the gin and vermouth cocktail. When you put down your drink, try pickled cocktail onions on an antipasto platter or in a green salad.

Pickled Ginger

Unlike wasabi, its partner on a plate of sushi, pickled ginger isn’t there as a condiment. Traditionally, pickled ginger is eaten after sushi, since ginger is a natural palate cleanser. To make pickled ginger, slice the root very thin and marinate it in a vinegar and sugar solution; the resulting pickle ranges in color from pink to light yellow, although most commercial ginger is tinted pink with vegetable-based dye.

Pickled Okra

Southerners fry, smother, and bake okra, but the rest of the country knows it best for its role as a thickener in gumbo, thanks to the viscous liquid (some call it slime) inside the pods. When you pickle okra, the salt pulls out moisture, giving the pods a nice crunch without any gooey texture. Add pickled okra to shrimp or potato salads, or roll it in cream cheese–slathered ham slices for okra pinwheels, a beloved Southern appetizer.

Pickled Watermelon Rind

Most people throw out the rind of the watermelon. But did you know that it makes a terrific pickle? (And no wonder: The melons are cousins of the cucumber.) The rinds are peeled, cooked, and pickled—a process that produces sticky-sweet pickles in a sugary, syrupy brine. This classic Southern pickle is a treat straight from the jar, added to a cocktail, or wrapped in bacon for an appetizer.

Pickled Pigs’ Feet

To the uninitiated, they’re alarming. But pickled pigs’ feet are beloved in the American South (also in Korea, the Caribbean, and parts of Europe). They are made by salting and smoking, then pickling in a vinegar solution. Alternatively, they are brined in a saltwater solution, boiled, and pickled. Commercial versions often add dye. Find the trotters in giant jars on the counters of bars and mom-and-pop grocery stores. Snack on them straight from the jar, with a cold beer.