Charleston chefs are harnessing the power of pickles this winter, bringing bright flavor to all kinds of dishes from the humblest barbecue to the most elegant charcuterie. After I sampled a few around town it was clear why. A good pickle can be a versatile and potent deliverer of taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami) and flavor (dill, mustard, fennel, coriander, and many more), and they can come in a range of heats and textures. Some are spicy, some sweet, some tender, and some crisp, and all can be tweaked according to the chef's whim and accompanying menu.
While pickles are great for snacking on their own in any season, their acidity makes them a particularly good match with the rich dishes we often crave in winter. A bite of pulled pork or a juicy burger initiates a craving for something acidic to balance it out.
Good pickles make for a dynamic, pleasurable, and, as Chef Sean Brock points out, even nostalgic dining experience. At Husk, Brock makes an impressive variety of pickles: ramps, Jerusalem artichokes, cucumbers, peaches — the list goes on.
"I grew up in a very small town where there were no restaurants and no real grocery stores to speak of," he says, "so you grew everything and you preserved it. My family still does that."
He recounts how he recently came across a jar of his late grandmother's pickled beans in a pantry at home and incorporated them into a dish he and his mom were cooking together. "I've found that the most amazing aspect of putting something in a mason jar and preserving it is that it's you. My grandmother grew those beans, she processed those beans, the lid has her handwriting on it ... To be able to still cook with something she made, that's pretty incredible." Brock's skill matches his enthusiasm.
"We looked to an old recipe that uses lime for those," he says as I reach for a cucumber pickle that's been quartered lengthwise. Its texture is both forgiving and resistant, giving way and holding firm throughout the bite.
Glass Onion chef and co-owner Chris Stewart affectionately calls his housemade cucumber pickles "Holy Crap Those Are Good Pickles," and holy crap, are they ever. I love the pickled okra, green beans, onions, cucumbers, red bell peppers, and carrots alongside the GO's boudin.
The pickles' acidity both contrasts and enhances the sausage's meatiness. "We serve them with all of our charcuterie plates, and all of our sandwiches, the po' boys, for example," says the GO's Sarah O'Kelley. "They're sweet, but not sweet enough to call them what I think of as bread-and-butter pickles."
They have a little spice going on too — mustard seed, celery seed, black peppercorn, and a little red pepper flake along with cider vinegar.
"In restaurants we think a lot about acidity to brighten things up," she says. The GO's pickles, which they also sell from the fridge at the front of the restaurant, definitely add some zip.
Just down the street from the Glass Onion at the Hello My Name is BBQ truck, pickles are also essential to the menu. Owners Cody and Ryner Burg make full use of a variety of pickles for their tacos and sandwiches. Ryner, who does most of the cooking, says they always have a big batch going with onions, cucumbers, peppercorns, and garlic all swimming in white vinegar and apple cider vinegar, plus some sugar (she just adds it all in until it tastes right to her) — and no salt.
"It's an extremely simple pickle, and it really depends on my mood," she says. "You can put just about any seed — celery seed, coriander, peppercorn, whatever — in it."
Ryner says onions are an especially flavorful addition to their pickles, which come with all of their tacos and are also offered as a side dish. The cucumbers are thick cut, flavorful, and resilient. They use the pickle juice itself for added oomph in their sauces and cole slaw. "When there's flavor lacking in something we look to the pickle for the answer. Whether it's the juice or the pickle itself, we utilize the pickle a lot. It's kind of our secret ingredient."
Cypress Chef Craig Deihl is another local pickle artisan. He makes batches of pickles at Cypress that they keep on hand for months at a time. "They're quick pickles, but we like to let them hang out," he says. "Even when we do cucumbers, we do them whole and let them go for two to three months."
Cypress recently offered an array of pickled vegetables including cucumbers, pepper rings, and green beans alongside their charcuterie plate.
"The heavy fats and the richness are cut nicely by the pickles," Deihl says. "We also make our own mustard in house, which is like pickled mustard seed in a way."
Both are great paired with their housemade summer sausage, country bologna, pork pâté, and cured ham, and recently a grilled hot dog. Deihl also likes to put the pickle juice itself to work for added depth of flavor.
"Sometimes we'll do a grilled pork belly with fried pickles. Then we take the pickling liquid, reduce it way down, and lacquer the pork belly with it," he says. With spices like celery seed, coriander, mustard, white pepper, bay leaf, allspice, caraway, clove, and juniper, and flavor from the vegetables themselves, that pickle juice glaze teems with flavor.
At the recently opened Patat Spot Friet & Falafel on George Street, owner and self-described pickle-aholic Phillis Kalisky Mair gets her pickles from Alexis Dewil, the beloved "pickle lady" of the Charleston farmers market. "The thing she does uniquely for me is she'll pickle what I want. She had never done eggplant or turnips before, and pickled turnips are a traditional topping for falafel, so I asked her to do those." Dewil also pickles broccoli, collards, and cabbage for Patat Spot's pickle bar. Mair says she doesn't like to tell people which pickles to put on their falafel (the bar includes all of the above, along with cauliflower, beets, peppers and more), but she recommends the pickled cabbage because that's the most traditional accompaniment. Dewil's pickles are great on their own, too. In the off-season, she sells them at her retail store in West Ashley, Things Caribbean. She also sells a take-home pickle kit that includes everything you need to make your own housemade pickles.
At EVO in Park Circle, co-owner Ricky Hacker says they rely every day on the contrast of their housemade pickles, a variety including vegetables like English cucumbers, red peppers, carrots, and red onions all cured in a white wine vinegar brine, flavored with coriander and black pepper. "It's just a real simple process," Hacker says. "The pickles garnish our panini, and people have been ordering them more often as a side dish." Their panini can be rich, featuring bold ingredients like gruyere, grilled eggplant, and coppa. Hacker says the pickles balance that out. "We look for something that's crisp and semi-sweet, with a little bit of tang to cut through the richness to help you through the sandwich" he says. I've personally never had trouble getting through anything at EVO, but those pickles definitely make the experience more enjoyable.
There isn't room here to include all the recent housemade pickle sightings around town, but also check out McCrady's (a variety of pickles alongside charcuterie), High Cotton, and Slightly North of Broad (kimchee matched with raw tuna), the Tattooed Moose (pickled onions, green tomatoes, and cucumber), Jestine's Kitchen, and the Barbecue Joint in Park Circle, among others.