Cornichons (pronounced COR-nee-shons) are small pickled gherkins—in other words, tiny pickles. Their tart, mildly sweet flavor makes them the perfect condiment or garnish to serve with classical charcuterie items such as salamis, cured hams, pâtés, pickled vegetables, and other small tasty tidbits.
Referring to cornichons as a garnish or condiment, however, does not effectively convey how absolutely essential they are to a standard charcuterie plate.
Many meat items on a charcuterie plate are extremely rich, salty, or both, and without a decent-sized piece of cornichon in each bite, your palate would swiftly be overwhelmed. You don't have to mix your flavors though. Cornichons are delicious all by themselves.
How to Find Them
You can grow your own cornichons, which are smaller and a bit sweeter than a conventional pickling cucumber. Check out your high-end nursery or herb seller—ask for French cucumbers, Parisian cucumbers, or Parisian gherkins. Online, look for retailers who specialize in heirloom crops. Buy the actual cornichons if you can. English cucumbers are not a good substitute. They lack that little bit of tartness that distinguishes a cornichon.
You can also buy already brined or processed cornichons in high-end groceries like Walmart and Wegman's, among others. Look for them in the pickle aisle.
And if you still absolutely cannot find cornichons, purchase kosher dill pickles and with an extremely sharp knife, slice them width-wise. Remember, you're looking for taste rather than looks.
Pickling Your Cornichons
Cornichons are made by starting with a particular variety of gherkins that are smaller than the ones you usually buy at the supermarket, and picking them when quite young so that they're only an inch or two long.
After curing them in salt overnight, which helps draw out some of the liquid, the gherkins are immersed in vinegar overnight again. The vinegar is brought to a simmer, then cooled, and the gherkins and the vinegar are sealed into jars along with herbs and aromatics such as tarragon, cloves, bay leaves, thyme, and pearl onions.
There's a similar curing method using the same ingredients that does not involve simmering the gherkins, and the result is a firmer, crisper cornichon.
Many recipes incorporate chopped cornichons, including beef stroganoff and steak tartare, as well as various cold salads such as egg salad or potato salad. Cornichons complement pork dishes, such as grilled pork chops, and are often included in sauces for pork, veal, or other light meats.
Gribiche sauce is a cold sauce made with a base of mashed boiled egg yolk mixed with oil and vinegar, similar to the way mayonnaise is made, only using boiled egg yolk rather than raw. The egg whites are julienned and then mixed into the final sauce, which is served with lobster and crawfish.