The History of Pickled Cucumbers
April 19, 2023
On a hot summer day, when the sun beams are at their peak, is there anything more refreshing than the crisp and cool taste of cucumbers?!? Cucumbers and various cucumber dishes have been consumed for several millennia, among them pickled cucumbers.
According to food historian Bruce Kraig, “The cucumber pickle we’re familiar with does come from Europe but likely originated in India maybe about 3,000 years ago.”
Most likely the cucumber, like many things, made its way to Europe while traveling along the Silk Road, a famous trade route. India is already a quarter of the way to Europe.
But what about pickling, an old preserving technique?
Kraig said, “There are lots of preservation techniques: brining in salt water or vinegar-based liquids, and many varieties including different herbs, spices or other vegetables or fruits (how about cherry pickles?).”
Kraig said the cucumber’s cultivation likely predates Roman times and continued in the Middle Ages, then onto the Americas during colonization.
“The earliest cucumber pickling might have been in New Spain but definitely in Dutch and English colonies. German immigrants in the mid-19th century reinforced pickle culture – as in the H.J. Heinz company and then east Europeans like Poles and Jews (as in kosher dill pickles) made pickles even more popular. Early American cookbooks have pickle recipes and seed companies began selling a new kind of cucumber, the smaller gherkin, around 1800.”
There are two histories here, Kraig said. One is home canning made from home-grown cucumbers/gherkins, the second is the industrial production by such companies as Heinz. Pickles were so popular, he said, that Chicago in 1859, with a population of just 100,000, had nine vinegar makers and four “Pickle Warehouses.”
If you are having a craving now for some authentic old-fashioned style American cucumber pickles, here’s a recipe from Elizabeth Lea’s Domestic cookery, useful receipts, and hints to young housekeepers from 1845.
Slice large cucumbers lengthwise – do not pare them – then cut them half an inch thick; if you have small ones, slice them across, put them in a large jar, and sprinkle them well with salt. After it stands a day or two, pour off the liquid the salt has extracted, drain them, and wash the jar, and put the cucumbers in alternately, with sliced onions, mustard seed, white pepper, whole black pepper and a few cloves. Pour over them strong vinegar, and tie close. Keep them in a cool place, but do not allow them to freeze in severe weather, as freezing spoils the flavor of pickles. When pickles do not keep well, pour off the vinegar, and put more on. But, if the vinegar is of the best quality, there is little fear of this. Putting alcohol on over paper, will prevent molding.”
What’s your earliest memory of eating cucumber pickles? How could something as basic as the friendly and omnipresent pickled cucumber condiments be so simple and yet its creation and history so complex!?! Whenever I think about cucumber pickles, I remember my grandmother’s homemade cucumber pickles, with their mason jars neatly arrayed on shelves ready for a quick snack or sandwich.
Cucumber pickles we might not be as familiar with could be the soy sauce and vinegar brined Korean (oi-jjangaji), or even Russian style cucumber pickles using vinegar, boiling water and bay leaves as a pickling brine.
The list goes on among most regions and cultures on Earth traditionally and today. The next time you eat or see a cucumber pickle, remember that it is more than a condiment you are looking at; you are gazing at the historical result of several cultures, several recipes that have all been influencing each other, leading to the crisp and sour cucumber pickle that will delightfully dance on your palate!