If you've ever ordered a charcuterie platter, you may have noticed that your plate of cured meats was accompanied by a scattering of tiny green pickles. What are these things, and what were they doing there, other than serving as a garnish and as the platter's sole representative of the vegetable kingdom?
Those pickles are called cornichons (pronounced "KOR-nee-shons"), and they are exactly what they seem to be: small pickled gherkins—in other words, tiny pickles. Their tart, mildly sweet flavor makes them the perfect condiment or garnish to serve with classical chartcuterie items like pâtés, terrines, and cured sausages and the like.
Referring to them as a garnish or condiment, however, does not effectively convey how absolutely essential they are to a standard charcuterie plate.
What are Cornichons?
Cornichons are made by starting with a particular variety of gherkins that are smaller than the kinds we usually buy at the supermarket, and then 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 then immersed in vinegar overnight again. Then the vinegar is brought to a simmer, then cooled, and the gherkins and the vinegar are then 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.
How to Use Cornichons
Typical charcuterie items like liver pâté, pork rillettes, garlic sausage, cured ham and country-style pork terrine are extremely rich and salty, and without a decent-sized piece of cornichon in each bite, your palate would swiftly be overwhelmed. Indeed, a reasonable person might want half a cornichon in each bite, so when assembling a charcuterie board, the more generous with cornichons, the better.
Cornichons complement pork dishes, such as grilled pork chops, and they're often included in sauces for pork.
The charcutière sauce is a classic sauce for pork made by sautéeing minced onion in butter or lard, then adding vinegar and demi-glace, reducing and then finishing with julienned cornichons.
The 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 with lobster and crayfish.
You can also simply add them to sandwiches, or spear them on a toothpick and serve them as part of a classic relish plate—sort of a cross between a crudité platter and an antipasti plate. They also go nicely with deviled eggs.
What Do They Taste Like?
Cornichons are tart and sweet, with a briny flavor fortified by the various herbs and spices that were used in the pickling process. They're less sour than dill pickles, and pack a refreshing, zesty flavor, making them the perfect counterpoint to the rich, dense flavors of a charcuterie plate, or the heavy richness of steak tartare. Their crunchy texture also provides a pleasant counterpoint to those sorts of meaty dishes.
Where to Buy Cornichons
Cornichons are available in many conventional grocery stores and most specialty food stores. You'll either find them along with the pickles, or else huddled with the mustards and pickled condiments like olives or artichokes. You may also find them at the olive bar or salad bar if your grocery or supermarket offers one of those.
Pickling is an extremely effective method of food preservation, since the acid in the vinegar as well as the salt and sugar in the brine all combine to produce an environment that is highly inhospitable to the growth of the bacteria that cause food spoilage. Therefore, an unopened jar of cornichons has an extremely long shelf life. And once opened, a jar of cornichons stored in the refrigerator will last for many months.