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Image: dill pickle
National Cancer Institute
TODAY contributor
updated 6/5/2008 3:10:58 PM ET 2008-06-05T19:10:58

Aristotle praised their health aspects; Cleopatra believed them a source of her beauty; Emperor Tiberius ate them every day and Charlemagne, Napoleon and Julius Caesar thought them healthful and invigorating.

For more than 4,000 years, cucumbers (Cucummis sativus) have been preserved in brine (salt solution) and eaten as pickles, first in India, particularly in the Tigris Valley, and now all over the world.

Christopher Columbus introduced the cuke to America in 1494, but it took 17th-century Dutch farmers in New York to elevate the popular sandwich mate to an American staple and give it its name. The word "pickle" is derived from the Dutch pekel and German pokel.

Most pickles are made from salt brine and vinegar, the combination of which gives them their biting, zippy taste. Brined pickles are often called dill pickles because a good quantity of the herb dill is added to the mixture. A type of fermentation occurs when the brine or acid is used, not only converting the small cucumber into a pickle, but also keeping it crunchy, fresh and sharp on the tongue — a perfect accompaniment to a corned beef or turkey sandwich.

Cucumbers made into pickles are typically smaller than conventional cucumbers. They tend to be about four inches long and about one and a half inches thick, as compared to the six- to eight-inch size of a regular cucumber.Various shapes are possible: whole pickles, spears, chips, slices, chucks and stackers. Kosher pickles are garlic-flavored dill pickles, and dill pickles are also known as sour pickles. Sweet pickles, sometimes called bread-and-butter pickles, are preserved with sugar rather than salt or vinegar, so be sure to read those nutrition labels.

There are still some places where one can fish out a dill pickle from a barrel of brine, but most pickles are packed in jars of capered and dilled brine. When shopping, look for jars with more pickle than juice.

Pickles are a great low-calorie and low-fat addition to any barbecue, but for those trying to reduce their sodium intake, a plain cuke is best!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil@supermarketguru.com. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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