Dill-icious! How to pickle your way to a healthy gut

Mar 20, 2021
Pickles are not only delicious, but also great for gut health. Source: Getty

Pickles are not only dill-lightful (sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves), but they are also great for your health and a good way to use up excess produce. Pickles have a long history and have been touted for their amazing health benefits since the days of Cleopatra. Enjoyed with cheese, curries, sandwiches and, yes, even ice-cream, and lasting in your fridge for months on end, the only question you’ll have is what to pickle next.

Why pickles?
The benefits of pickles are vast, which may be why they’ve been a popular choice since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. Fermented foods are recommended as a great treatment for anyone with stomach and digestive problems, as they are full of probiotics, which are important for gut health.

Cucumbers (the original pickle) are high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, which has been shown to help lower your chances of dying from heart disease, stroke, cancer and respiratory diseases.

Not only are the pickles themselves good for you, but the juice has also been said to provide health benefits. Pickle juice has been used by athletes to quickly replace lost electrolytes after exercise, with one study suggesting the sodium in the juice may work better than straight water to relieve muscle cramps. Pickle juice has also been credited as beneficial to those at risk of diabetes, as the vinegar may help curb sugar spikes.

Get adventurous! Pickling and fermenting allow you to spice up some of your tried-and-tested recipes with a little pickley twist. And with each different type of pickled vegetable or fruit comes different health benefits and different flavours. Don’t just stick to cucumbers, try onions for a Parisian cornichon, ginger for Japanese pickled ginger, and cabbage for Korean-style kimchi or European-style sauerkraut. It’s a great way to use up whatever your garden is producing in excess, and will last for months.

Pickles: A history
The 4,000-year-old history of pickles travels from the ancient Mesopotamians in 2400 B.C to the hotdog vendors of modern-day New York. Initially, in a world without refrigeration, pickles were born out of necessity and made by fermenting fruits and vegetables in a salty liquid for long enough that they wouldn’t spoil on long voyages at sea or along the Silk Road.

In Ancient Egypt, legendary beauty Cleopatra swore by pickles for her health, while her lover Julius Caesar fed them to his soldiers to build their strength.

During his voyage to the New World in 1492, Christopher Columbus rationed his sailors with pickles to protect them from scurvy during the long voyage. Columbus is credited for bringing pickles to America, the country which, by 2010, was consuming more than 900,000 kilograms of pickles a year.

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte offered to pay a huge sum of money to the person who could come up with the best way to pickle and preserve food for his troops. French chef Nicolas Appert discovered that by removing the air before sealing a jar, he could boil the bottle and preserve its contents. Appert discovered he could preserve jellies, syrups, soups and dairy products and easily won the competition.

Pickles have a place in almost every country around the world. In Iran, they serve a soup studded with ghooreh (which is a type of sour pickled grape); in France, charcuterie boards are regularly served with cornichons; in India, curries/stews are served with sesame oil- or mustard oil-pickled mango or lime; and – of course – in America, no hotdog or burger is complete without a lashing of pickles (cucumbers).

How to pickle? Quick pickles versus fermented pickles
There are two main ways to pickle. The quick pickle is, as it sounds, a simple, no-fuss approach of making a simple brine of one-part water to one-part vinegar, salt and sugar. Heat the mixture until the sugar and salt have dissolved, then add it to a jar with your choice of vegetables and spices. Store the pickles in the fridge for a day or so and they’ll be ready to eat.

For fermented pickles, the process is a little more in-depth and time consuming – but the health benefits are worth it. It’s important to use super-clean ingredients and utensils, and prepare the pickles in a clean environment to minimise the chance of growing any nasty bacteria within the jar.

  1. Start by making the brine by boiling a litre of water and adding 20-40g (about two tablespoons) of large-grain sea salt. Let the water cool to room temperature.
  2. In a sterilised flip-top Kilner jar (it needs to be completely air-tight), add the vegetables of your choice with whole garlic cloves, black peppercorns, coriander, mustard seeds, dill seeds, a chilli and onion. Keep in mind that this is to your taste, so omit a spice if you’re not a fan.
  3. Once full, fill the jar with the cooled brine mixture.
  4. To stop the vegetables from floating to the surface and becoming exposed to the air, use a vine leaf or cabbage leaf.
  5. Seal the jar up and leave in the warmest area of your kitchen. The colder the area, the slower the fermentation.
  6. Burp the jar. This might sound odd, but with fermentation comes gas and in an airtight jar those gases will need to be released. To burp your pickles, tug on the rubber seal of the jar allowing just enough gas to escape.
  7. You’ll notice the brine going cloudy, which is exactly what you want.
  8. The pickles will develop over the next couple of weeks, and start tasting nice after about two weeks. At the two-week mark, move them to the fridge to slow the process and start enjoying your pickles!

What can you pickle?
Honestly, it’s probably safe to say you can pickle anything edible. The options are just that endless! While cucumbers are the original pickle, you can get creative with any vegetables or fruits you have spare. For example:

  • Pickled onions are great with cheese
  • Pickled sprouts are something really different
  • Pickled beetroot is a great accompaniment to sandwiches or burgers
  • Pickled cabbage (Korean kimchi) is widely touted for its probiotic benefits
  • Pickled mushrooms make a great addition to cocktails, appetisers, salads and relish trays
  • Pickled pears (soaked in vinegar, sugar and warm spices) are a delicious addition to a dessert or by themselves with a bit of ice-cream or custard.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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