What’s The Difference Between a Gherkin and a Pickle?

The words “gherkin” and “pickle” are often used interchangeably. But are they different? Or is this just a cultural difference and they are the same thing known by different terms? Can we call them "gherkin pickles"?

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Depending on who you ask the answer is both and neither. But that isn’t a very useful answer. So let’s dig a bit deeper into this very important debate.

What is a gherkin?

A gherkin is, very basically, a close relative of the cucumber. But it is not the kind of super long and hard cucumber that you would find in the grocery store and would put in a salad. Gherkins are a specific kind of cucumber. They are the kind that is most often used for pickling. 

The word “gherkin” originally comes from the Dutch gurken, meaning “small pickled cucumber”.

What is a pickle?

Where you are in the world is the most important factor in answering this question. Knowing that there is an important difference between “a pickle” and “pickle” is also relevant to this question.

If you ask someone in the UK for “pickle” then you will most likely be handed a jar of preserved food. Pickling is a process where foods are cooked in and preserved with vinegar. This is also true for many other countries where English is commonly spoken, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland.

But, in the US, “a pickle” is what people in many other English-speaking countries would simply call a “gherkin”. A pickle is a gherkin that has been pickled.

Types

Sour Gherkins

So, now you know the difference between a pickle and a gherkin in the most general sense. There are a few complications. For example, “gherkin” is used as the name for a pickled gherkin cucumber. 

But a Mexican sour gherkin is not technically a cucumber. It is within the same family of vegetables. But it is not itself classified as a cucumber. 

(To make things even more complicated, these are also known as “Mexican sour cucumbers”). So, if you have found yourself in this article out of confusion and frustration, you are definitely not alone. 

Dill Pickle

You will likely have also heard of a “dill pickle”. This is the same as a pickle or a gherkin.

They are referred to as “dill pickles” purely because they are pickled with dill. Dill is one of the most popular herbs used to flavor pickles.  Many times they are referred to as kosher pickles or kosher dill. The taste is very different from a sweet pickle.

Cornichons

Cornichons are another form of gherkin/pickle. They are essentially the same as gherkins. Large cucumbers can be chopped or sliced to then be pickled. Gherkins and cornichons, however, are small cucumbers that are pickled whole.

Cornichons are a traditionally French food. They are most commonly pickled with tarragon, rather than dill. Pickling food to preserve it is a very old and very traditional process.

So there is no one culture or country from where pickling definitely originates. Many different cultures have found and developed this process for themselves.

Bread and Butter Pickle

This is a type of pickle that is pretty simple but isn’t as popular or commonly found as other gherkins/pickles. You are much less likely to find a jar of bread and butter pickle in the grocery store than a normal dill pickle. 

Bread and butter pickle doesn’t actually involve any bread or butter. It gets its name from its origins. The story goes that bread and butter pickles were invented by Omar and Cora Fanning in the 1920s.

They would make the pickles themselves as a way of using up their undergrown cucumbers. Then, they would barter and trade with the pickles with their grocer. They would trade the pickles for essentials, such as bread and butter.

The difference between the more commonly found pickles and bread and butter pickles comes down to a few ingredients. Most gherkins are pickled in brine with herbs and/or spices.

Bread and butter pickles also use brine but only spices are used and sugar is also added. This gives them a specifically sweet and salty taste that is very popular.

The recipe and type of pickle are likely much older. Combining sweet and salty foods is nothing new. But the Fannings’ pickles became so popular that their recipe was trademarked in 1923. 

Types of Pickled Foods

Pickling is a common method of preserving food that is used across the world. Gherkins are just one kind of food that is pickled.

So, what other foods can be pickled? Here is a quick rundown of just a few other foods that can be pickled and then classed as “pickle”. 

  • Cabbage
  • Beetroot
  • Onions
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Zucchini
  • Mushrooms
  • Eggplant
  • Peppers
  • Boiled eggs
  • And more!

There are not very many fruits and vegetables that cannot be pickled.

If you are wondering if the veg you have in the refrigerator and that is about to go off can be pickled, the answer is probably “yes”.

So, take a look at the pickling process below, and have a go!

The Pickling Process

Now that you know the difference (or lack of difference) between a gherkin and a pickle and pickle, it’s important to know how exactly you pickle a food.

The pickling process can involve a range of fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs and spices. So, here are some very simple steps for pickling food. (It is a very simple process).

  1. Choose your food. Pickling is all about preserving food, so it’s a good idea to choose fresh fruits and vegetables. But this isn’t a total necessity. So if you want to pickle a cabbage that has been sat waiting to be used for a week, don’t throw it away. It will still be good for pickling.
  1. Prepare your food. Although gherkins are generally pickled whole, most foods are actually chopped up to be pickled. Gherkins can also be chopped up. 

Chopping generally depends on the size of the food. Small onions are also pickled whole, as are boiled eggs, and gherkins.

  1. Salting. Salt is a very important ingredient in pickling. (As you will have realized if you have ever eaten something pickled). Cover the vegetables with a layer of salt. Ensuring that every edge is covered in a sprinkling. Then leave for at least an hour. You can leave them for longer if you prefer.
  1. Seasoning. For gherkins, the most common seasoning is the herb, dill. But you can essentially use any kind of herbs or spices that you like. There are, of course, certain herbs and spices that go best with certain foods. But you are free to choose whichever you like best. This will not interfere with the pickling process. 

Some of the best herbs and spices for pickling are garlic, pepper, chili, and paprika. But, these are just some ideas.

  1. Choose your vinegar. If you don’t know much about seasoning, you can find plenty of kinds of vinegar that will come with seasonings already in them. This will be useful if you’re not quite sure which seasonings will go with which foods. Or which herbs and spices will go well with each other.

But, if you have a good idea of which herbs and spices you want to use, then there are a few different kinds of vinegar you can choose from. 

The best kinds of vinegar for pickling are generally considered to be:

  1. Mix everything together. Once you have all of the ingredients prepared, place the food and seasonings in a large pot. A stockpot will be best. But a large saucepan will also work just fine. 
  1. Boil. With all your food and seasoning mixed together in the pot, turn the temperature up high and bring it to a boil. Then, once it has started to boil, immediately turn the heat off and remove the pot. 

Boiling the food and seasoning will start off the pickling process but they don’t need to (and shouldn’t be) boiled for more than a few seconds. This is because boiling the ingredients will cause them to break down. Which you don’t want. 

If the food and seasoning are broken down, the result will be similar to a jam or a chutney. Boiling the ingredients kicks everything off but you want everything to still be whole and crunchy at the end.

  1. Store. Now to get on to the actual pickling. The pickling process takes place without any interference from you. A food becomes pickled once it has been sitting in vinegar, herbs, and species for a long period of time. 

This means that storage is very important. You will need a jar that has an airtight lid. The most traditional option is a Kilner jar.

Make sure to sterilize your jars. This can be done by putting them through the dishwasher. Or, if you don’t have a dishwasher, place them on medium heat in the oven. (Make sure to use jars that are safe to be heated. Otherwise, the glass might break).

Now, you have a choice. Everything will need to be chilled before placing it in the jar. But you can heat the vinegar/brine beforehand. This isn’t 100% necessary but it can speed up the process a little.

Pour the vinegar/brine over the food in the pan. Then, leave it to cool. Don’t place it in the refrigerator as this will cool the ingredients down too quickly. The steam will also alter the temperature of your refrigerator. 

Once everything has cooled, pour the ingredients into the jar. Then, store it in a cool, dark place. And then the pickling will begin! 

Pickle can last a very long time (which is the point of this kind of preservation). But you can eat the pickle the next day or six weeks away. This all depends on how strong a flavor you want. And on the kind of food you have chosen to pickle. (Read on or scroll down for some tips on how long to leave certain foods).

Facts About Gherkins/Pickles

Okay, so you pretty much know everything there is to know about pickles.

But what about their history? These little green snacks are even more interesting than you might think.

Here are some fun facts about gherkins/pickles that might just help you fill in an awkward silence at your next party.

  • The origins of gherkins/pickles aren’t 100% known. As mentioned above, the reason why there are different names and different variations of this pretty simple food is because they have been created and developed in lots of different cultures.

Of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where a food comes from. But we can know where the cucumber comes from. Cucumbers, as far as food historians know, originate from India.

They were then, likely, imported to Europe by the Greeks or Romans. But the process of pickling cucumbers doesn’t originate from India (as far as we know) 

  • Gherkins/pickles have also been around for thousands of years. They are (most likely) an Ancient creation. But there is some debate as to when they were first pickled. Some historians argue that they were first eaten in Mesopotamia in 2400BCE. But some argue that they were eaten even earlier in 2030BCE. We cannot know for certain but they are definitely not a new food invention. People have been enjoying (or detesting) these salty snacks for a long time.
  • Cleopatra apparently ate gherkins as she believed that they would enhance her beauty. Cleopatra was (and still is) considered to be an immensely beautiful woman. (But this was as much to do with her power and confidence as it was her looks).

There isn’t any scientific evidence to suggest that eating gherkins can enhance your appearance. (So don’t blame us if you try out this gherkin diet and don’t see any results).

But they do contain a good number of vitamins. Despite their high salt content, gherkins/pickles do still retain their nutrients. So they are (in moderation) pretty good for you.

  • Some people swear by pickling gherkins in Kool-Aid. If you’re from the South, you might be wondering why knowing about this delicacy is a big deal. If you’re not from some particular Southern states, then you might be wondering what on earth this is.

But, they are pretty much what they seem. Some people absolutely love pickling gherkins in Kool-Aid. These are nicknamed “koolickles”. The gherkins are pickled normally with seasoning and brine.

But Kool-Aid is also added to the process. This causes the gherkins/pickles to take on a sweeter taste. It can also turn them a range of bright colors, depending on the color and flavor of the Kool-Aid.

This might seem like a strange idea. But the combination of sweetness and saltiness isn’t that uncommon. The idea is not dissimilar to bread and butter pickles. Sweet and salted foods often go well together. Sweet and salted popcorn and salted caramel are two very popular flavors and foods.

So, now you know pretty much everything there is to know about gherkins/pickles. You even know how to make them yourself.

This will allow you to enjoy as many different types of pickled foods as you like. While finally understanding exactly what it is you’re eating. 

FAQ: Facts About Gherkins and Pickles

Gherkins and pickles are some of the most confused and misunderstood foods in the world. Their similarities are clear to anyone who has eaten them, but their names are different so that must mean they are different, right?

It’s not so simple, unfortunately. 

Do McDonald’s use pickles or gherkins?

McDonald’s makes some of the most famous and popular burgers in the world and their recipes have long been examined by fans and competitors to try and work out the secret of their flavors.

One of the key ingredients of their signature Big Mac is the pickle, or gherkin, as it’s known in the UK and other parts of the world. So yes, McDonald’s does use both pickles and gherkins, it just depends on what part of the world you’re in as they’re technically the same exact thing.

If you’re unsure, pickles in the US are usually cucumbers that have been pickled in vinegar, brine as well as other ingredients and left to ferment. After a period of time, the cucumber changes into a pickle thanks to the fermentation process, giving them a distinct flavor and texture that is used by McDonald’s to add flavor to their burgers.

Gherkins are made through the same process as pickles, the name difference is simply a different word to describe the same thing, used in other parts of the world, particularly Commonwealth countries.

In some places, pickles don’t even need to be cucumbers at all. People pickle all types of vegetables and whenever these vegetables go through the pickling process, they can technically be referred to as, you guessed it, pickles!

Is gherkin the same as dill?

Dill is a herb that is used to season pickles/gherkins to add extra flavor, which creates the famous dill pickle. Both the seeds and leaves can be used to turn pickles/gherkins into dill pickles.

Therefore gherkins aren’t the same as dill itself. However, gherkins are the same as dill pickles. The difference is that gherkins aren’t seasoned with the dill herb, whereas dill pickles are seasoned with it.

Can you eat gherkins without pickling?

It depends on your definition of what a gherkin is.

Some say that gherkins have to be pickled to become a gherkin, as it’s an integral part of the process. An unpickled gherkin is just a cucumber to people who believe this.

However, there are some gherkins that exist, such as the Cucamelon or Mexican sour gherkin that will allow you to technically be eating a gherkin without having to pickle it necessarily. 

It’s really a matter of semantics and language getting confused over time.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community.
She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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