Pucker up: 6 reasons the pickle craze is here to stay

Pickled vegetables; Shutterstock ID 136234664; PO: TODAY.com
Harald Lueder / Shutterstock

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By Anne Hurley
Harald Lueder / Today

In the food world, what’s retro is suddenly all the rage again. Take pickling, the ancient art of using vinegar to preserve vegetables, fruit, fish and even meat. Your grandma probably “put up” dozens of jars of dilly beans or bread-and-butter cucumber pickles for future family picnics. But these are not exactly grandma’s pickles. Pickling is the latest craze to hit food meccas like Brooklyn, Portland and Seattle — and nothing, it seems, is safe from the brine. But unlike fondue, say, or handlebar mustaches, the pickling fad may have real staying power. Here are six reasons why you’ll likely be seeing pickled … something … on menus near you for a good long while:

1. Pickling nicely dovetails with the “eat local” sustainable food supply movement. Andrew Gregory, executive chef of the popular Woodsman Tavern restaurant in Portland, says, “We have a great produce season here in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not that long. With pickling, I can serve Swiss chard, collards, beets, tomatoes — pretty much anything we can grow here — and have that local produce available all year long.” Almost anything is fair game for Gregory, though he says it has to have heft. "You don’t want to try pickling, say, butter lettuce. You’ll have a gooey mess on your hands.” 

2. Pickling doesn't have to be intimidating — you can make pickles easily in your refrigerator. Seattle chef and cooking-show host Caprial Pence speaks fondly of her grandfather’s homemade hot garlic “gasoline pickles” (“You might say they had something of a kick. OK, a big kick,” she says). But at the Bookstore Bar and Cafe at Seattle’s Alexis Hotel, where she is executive chef and general manager, Pence features easy to make refrigerator pickles: “It’s so easy, and you can do them just a couple of hours before you serve them.” Her current favorite? Pickled Curried Cauliflower (recipe below), a delicious side dish that goes with just about anything.

3. Pickles are good for you! Eating pickles can be a great way to add more veggies to your diet, and although some pickles are high in sodium, they don't have to be (especially when you make them yourself). Not only that, but pickles that are lacto-fermented contain probiotics (the good-for-you bacteria most commonly associated with yogurt). “Fermented foods are common in virtually every culture, because they are great for digestion,” says Ann Gentry, proprietor of the popular Real Food Daily vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. “Kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut… there’s a reason you see these variations all over the world.” On her menu, Gentry features kimchi from a Northern California supplier in her creative and popular vegan sushi roll. 

4. You can’t escape pickles by ducking into the bar. More trendy bars are experimenting with pickling — as in, actual cocktails that feature pickles. Or even just the pickling liquid. At Portland’s Woodsman Tavern, one of the most popular cocktails is the $7 Pickleback, a two-fisted experience that includes one shot of Powers Irish whisky, and a second, chaser shot of pickling liquid. The young waitstaff waxed poetic about the Pickleback, but Mark Schorr, a Portland therapist and writer, was a bit more reserved in his reaction. After downing both shots, he would only admit, “I do feel very warm under my sternum.” 

5. You get to try your favorite foods — especially fruit — in whole new ways. Pickled blueberries, for example, are a hit on AllRecipes.com. A reviewer raves, "Wow. What a treat! The tangy berries pair perfectly with goat cheese. Bet they would be wonderful with roasted duck too!” And Susan Herrmann Loomis, an American chef and cookbook writer who lives in Normandy, France, says that while the French adore their precious cornichons, they look beyond tiny cukes when it comes to brining. One popular pick is salted lemons.  “Preserved lemons are something that show up on French menus a lot, thanks to the North African culture,” says Loomis. “The French love these, and I find I use them in all sorts of recipes — a ragout, a fish stew — if I have them on hand.” (See below for a recipe.) 

6. Pickles can still pack a shock value. Steve Duda, the Seattle-based editor of the Flyfish Journal magazine, pickles vast quantities of pink salmon, an abundant, but lesser quality salmon than, say, sockeye or Coho. The son of a first generation Polish immigrant, Duda grew up feasting on pickled herring and other fish, and is devoted to his ad hoc recipe using apple cider vinegar and “really thinly sliced onions” to pickle big batches of fish. But he admits it can be an acquired taste. “It’s almost an ‘I Dare You’ food,” he says with a laugh. “Kind of like those creepy green jars you sometimes see on bar counters — pickled pigs' feet and pickled eggs. Pickled salmon ranks right up there.”

Caprial Pence's curry cauliflower pickle from Bookstore Bar and Cafe at Seattle's Alexis HotelToday

Caprial Pence's curry cauliflower pickle

Makes: 3 cups

  • 2 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large shallot, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Heavy pinch red chili flakes
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 cups chopped cauliflower florets

1. Combine vinegar, water, shallot, garlic, ginger, curry powder, sugar, chili flakes and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes. 

2. Add the cauliflower and cook about 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the cauliflower to cool in the liquid.

3. Eat or store in the refrigerator about 1 month.

Susan Herrmann Loomis' quick salted lemons
Makes: 4 salted lemons.

These are specifically for my friend Emilie’s Simple Tagine. They’re nice to have on hand, and will keep in the refrigerator for one month.

  • 2 cups (500 ml) water
  • 1/4 cup (60 g) tablespoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt
  • 4 medium lemons, washed and quartered, seeds removed

Combine the water and the salt in a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When the salt is dissolved, add the lemons, return to the boil, reduce the heat so the liquid is simmering and cook until the lemons are tender and the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup (125 ml), for about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let cool. 

The lemons will keep in their liquid, refrigerated, for about one month.

Love pickles? Try some other Portlandia-approved recipes