Pickle relish, or “pickled cucumbers” as they so often called in the South, can be traced back to ancient India and China. The word ‘cucumber’ itself comes from the Latin name for these plants—Cucumis sativus. These days there are hundreds of different varieties of this plant with over 200 million acres planted worldwide.
But what about those vine-ripened, waxy gourds that we slice into spears? Are they fruits too? It depends on how you define it…
What is a Fruit?
The botanical definition of a fruit is any fleshy structure formed by an ovary during flowering after fertilization (i.e., seed formation) that develops into a new organism. In other words, it must have its own stem, leaves, roots and blossom attached. A flower whose stamen don’t produce seeds isn’t considered part of the process. Fruits include vegetables like eggplants, peppers, squash, beans, peas, papaya, pineapple, mangoes, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, melons, watermelons, etc. But not all berries are fruits because they lack true stems and blossoms. Berries, according to some definitions, only become fruits once their color changes and ripen. Others say the little green drupe becomes a berry when the inside wall separates from the skin. So strawberries aren’t technically fruits either! They’re just small fruits.
So why do people call them fruits anyway? “I think most people use ‘fruit’ loosely,” says Alissa Adams, associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture. “It seems more common to refer to something like grapes as a fruit than a strawberry.”
In general, though, we tend to call anything with a pit or a stone a fruit. That includes peaches, plums, pears, apricots, cherries, oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines, figs, guava, passion fruit, lychees, mangosteens, persimmons, rambutans, pumpkins, soursops, starfishes, ugali (a thick paste made from cassavas), yams, zapote, ackee, breadfruit, coconuts, custard apples, cotton candy, dates, durian, dragon fruits, fig bars, kola nuts, lychee, longan, mamoncillo, mulberries, nectars, olives, okra, papayas, pawpaw, pineapples, pomegranates, raisins, redcurrants, rose hips, sapodilla, seedy melon, sweet potatoes, tamarinds, tulip flowers, vanilla sugar, walnuts, wattles, wax myrtles, white peaches, yellow peaches, ripe avocado pits, blackberry hulls, cranberries, currants, elderberries, gooseberries, hibiscus, juneberries, medlars, musk melons, poison ivy, quince, sea island peanuts, sumac, and many others. And yes, even onions.
How are Pickles Made?
For centuries, farmers grew cukes indoors under glass domes where the soil was specially prepared to keep moisture levels low. This method produced a short crop but also resulted in extremely uniform, uniformly sized fruits. Then someone figured out slicing off sections of the growing stalk would give each individual section time to develop without competing with other parts of the plant. Soon growers started planting cukes outside with rows between which they cut away unwanted growth. As soon as harvesting began, workers would come along every day to take out the best sections, leaving behind the less desirable ones. Eventually, gardeners were able to grow large quantities of cukes using this technique and they came up with ways to store them until ready to eat. One way was to boil the tops down to make vinegar. Another was to pack them tightly into jars, cover them with brine, then seal the containers airtight. Afterward, they could simply open the jar and enjoy fresh picked crunchiness without having to peel, chop, or prepare anything first. Today, commercial pickling companies still follow similar procedures to make American style dills and salad dressings.
Pickles differ from both jams and preserves in that they contain high concentrations of acid. When making your own pickles, you need enough acidity to prevent spoiling while preserving quality and flavor. You want enough acidity to keep bacteria from breaking down the cells of the vegetable being preserved. If the pH level drops below 4.6, bacterial cell walls will weaken and eventually break apart, releasing harmful toxins. High acid content keeps bad things out but doesn’t let good things in. For example, garlic has a strong odor but its natural oils protect against spoilage. Onions also have protective layers around their bulbs but when cooked, acids soften the membranes and allow microbes access to the onion flesh. To get rid of these problems, picklers add salt, various spices, and/or alcohol. Vinegar alone won’t work to preserve certain foods like cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, celery, corn kernels, spinach, turnips, kale, chard, collards, mustard greens, parsnips, radishes, soybeans, winter squash, asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms, hot pepper flakes, horseradish, ginger root, mint, scallions, sauerkraut, kelp, arugula, escarole, fennel, and Swiss chard. Nor does it help much with leafy lettuces like romaine, iceberg, leaf, and butter lettuce. Most picklers agree adding vinegar helps firm up soft heads and prevents sprouting. Some folks swear by lemon juice or lime juice, especially when dealing with delicate brassicas such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cabbage. Other traditionalists prefer adding wine, brandy, gin, whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila, bourbon, vermouth, mezcal, or another type of liquor to achieve desired flavors. But no matter what kind of liquid you choose, always dilute it before pouring it over the food. Too much undiluted booze means nasty fumes.
If you’d rather skip the cooking step altogether, you can preserve your veggies by drying them instead. Simply lay out the pieces on trays lined with parchment paper or foil, sprinkle lightly with kosher salt, place a clean cloth over top to catch drips, and leave uncovered in a warm area (around 80°F). Once dry, package individually in plastic bags and refrigerate indefinitely. Or try dehydrating them whole. Just spread evenly onto wire racks set atop cookie sheets, check daily, remove when completely dried, and put in labeled Ziploc bags or tupperware containers. Dehydrated veggies last forever and taste better than canned. Also consider freezing them for later consumption. Many recipes recommend boiling the chunks first, however I’ve had great success processing raw veggies through a powerful blender. Blending breaks down tough fibers which otherwise interfere with pureed textures. Plus, you’ll save money since buying prewashed veggie scraps at the grocery works well enough for home cooks who already know how to blend.
Are Pickles a Fruit?
yes pickles made from cucumbers are still classed as fruits after the cucumbers are picked and then pickled.