The History of Pickles

History of pickles

For over 4,000 years, people have pickled food in order to preserve it. The earliest known examples of cucumbers that are known to have been pickled date back to sometime around 2030 BC in Mesopotamia, when inhabitants from northern India brought cucumber seeds to the Tigris valley. Romans then brought them into countries throughout Europe.


Today there are many varieties of pickles, with dill being the most popular.

Our ancestors pickled many different kinds of foods, including meat, fish and fruits.  Today cucumbers are the most commonly pickled food in America. In fact, more than half the cucumbers grown in the U.S. are made into pickles.  They come in 50 varieties and are enjoyed on burgers, with sandwiches, and as a low fat snack.  They can even be deep fried (for a not so low fat snack)!

The word “pikel” first appeared in English as early as 1400 and originally meant a spicy sauce served with meat. The Dutch word “pekel” meant brine used to preserve food. Over time the English word came to mean both a spicy sauce and brine. The Dutch phrase “in de pekel zitten,” which translates to “sit in the pickle,” may have led to our modern phrase “in a pickle.”

Pickles were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus, who is known to have grown cucumbers for the purpose of pickling on the island of Haiti. During his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, Columbus gave his crew pickles to combat scurvy, a disease that commonly afflicted sailors on long voyages.

Beginning in the 1650’s, Dutch farmers in New York grew cucumbers all over the area that is now known as Brooklyn. These cucumbers were then sold to dealers who cured them in barrels filled with varying flavored brines.   The pickles were normally sold in market stalls on Washington, Canal and Fulton Streets.

A major innovation in pickling occurred in 1858 when John Mason designed and patented the first Mason jar. It was made out of heavier weight glass than normal jars, and therefore could withstand the high temperatures necessary for processing pickles. Although his patent expired in 1879, other manufacturers of such jars continued to use the term “Mason” on their product. Lucius Styles Ball, who started the Ball Brothers Company in the early 1890s, was one of those manufacturers. A few years later, in 1881, Alfred Bernardin invented the first metal tops to be used in commercial canning. These two companies, along with Kerr, joined forces in the early 1990’s, to form the Alltrista Corporation, the largest producer of Mason jars today.  Click here to find Mason jars at the best prices!
Pickles have a very long and storied history and have been revered by some well respected individuals:

The pickle has been mentioned in the Bible by Jesus and in the Old Testament books Numbers and Isaiah.

Both Aristotle and Napoleon praised the healing benefits of the pickle with the latter valuing its health benefits for his army. In fact, Napoleon valued pickles so much so that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve food safely.

Roman emperors, among them Julius Caesar, fed pickles to their troops with the belief that they gave the men both physical and spiritual strength.

Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles.

Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is named, was a pickle merchant before becoming an explorer.

George Washington reportedly had a collection of 476 different kinds of pickles.

About the pickle, Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout, like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”

pickle juice

Many individuals attest to the benefits of drinking pickle juice.

Today the virtues of pickles and pickle juice continue to be exalted. Many athletes attribute drinking pickle juice to increased energy and performance.  There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence supporting the use of pickle juice as a method of preventing dehydration and muscle cramps.  In fact pickle juice is now being bottled and sold as a sports drink rivaling Gatorade and Powerade.

Additionally, it is believed by many that the pickle and pickle juice has other health benefits:

They contain good bacteria that inhibit the growth of harmful microbes in the intestines.
They have a high concentration of vitamin C.
They help you absorb iron better.
Research shows that vinegar can possibly help with weight loss.

Americans, on average, eat a whopping 8.5 pounds of pickles each year.

Common Types of pickles

Although there are thousands of types and varieties of pickles, there are 2 main categories of pickles, sweet and sour. The varying tastes are created by the solution and spices they are pickled in.  In America today sour pickles outsell sweet pickles two to one.

Brined pickles are prepared using the traditional process of natural fermentation in a brine which makes them grow sour. The brine (salt) concentration can vary. There is no vinegar used in the brine of naturally fermented pickled cucumbers. The fermentation process is entirely dependent on the naturally occurring Lactobacillus bacteria that normally cover the skin of a growing cucumber. Since these are routinely removed during commercial harvesting/packing processes, traditionally prepared pickles can only be made from freshly harvested cucumbers, unless the bacteria are artificially replaced.

Typically, small cucumbers are placed in a glass or ceramic vessel or a wooden barrel, together with a variety of spices.   The container is then filled with cooled, boiled water and kept under a non-airtight cover (often cloth tied on with string or a rubber band) for several weeks, depending on taste and external temperature. Traditionally stones, also sterilized by boiling, are placed on top of the cucumbers to keep them under the water. The more salt is added the more sour the cucumbers become.

Since they are produced without vinegar, a film of bacteria forms on the top, but this does not indicate they have spoiled, and the film is simply removed. Brined pickles do not keep as long as cucumbers pickled with vinegar, and usually must be refrigerated. Most commercial manufacturers add vinegar as a preservative.


By far the most popular type of pickle is the dill pickle. Dill pickles are made with dill oil, herbs, and spices such as mustard, pepper, and garlic. And there are many different types of dill pickles, including genuine dill, kosher dill, and overnight dill. Genuine dill pickles are unfermented and have a less sour taste.  Kosher dill pickles, on the other hand, are made with garlic, which gives them a much stronger taste. Overnight dill pickles are a bright green and less acidic than other pickles because they are made over a short period of one or two days without as much vinegar.


Lime pickles are soaked in lime rather than in a salt brine. This is done to enhance texture and make them crisper rather than as a preservative. The lime is then rinsed off the pickles. Vinegar and sugar are often added after the 24-hour soak in lime, along with the desired pickling spices.

Bread and Butter

Bread and butter are another type of pickle that has a distinct sweet, tangy taste. They are made with a combination of vinegar, spices and sugar.  These types of pickles are usually cut into thin slices and added to sandwiches and burgers.


Gherkins are another different type of pickle that are made from specific cucumbers. Also considered a sweet pickle, gherkins are usually much smaller than other pickles. Gherkins are most often used as garnishes or to enhance the flavor of sausages, pates, and other appetizers.

Half Sour

Half sour pickles are a type of pickle that does not use vinegar. They are refrigerated throughout the entire pickling process and are pickled for a shorter period of time. They are known for being firm and crunchy and are commonly eaten on sandwiches.


Unlike half sour pickles, sour pickles remain in the pickling process much longer than other pickles. The longer cucumbers remain in the brine (salt), the more sour they become. Sour pickles are less crispy than half sour pickles, but they have a much stronger taste.

Kool-Aid pickles

The latest trend in pickles is known as Kool-Aid pickles or “koolickles”.  They are created by soaking dill pickles in a mixture of Kool-Aid and pickle brine for approximately seven days.  This gives the pickles a sweet-tart flavor.


Anything can be pickled!