If you've ever ordered a charcuterie platter, you may have noticed a scattering of little green pickles accompanied your plate of cured meats. What are these things, and why are they there, other than as a garnish and the sole representative of the vegetable kingdom?
Those pickles are called cornichons (pronounced "KOR-nee-shons"), and they are exactly what they seem to be: tiny pickles, or, as the English call them, gherkins. Their tart, mildly sweet flavor makes them the ideal garnish to serve with classic charcuterie items such as pâtés, terrines, cured sausages, and the like.
Main component: cucumber
Most common use: charcuterie platters
How to store it: refrigerator
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. Although they resemble cucumbers, the gherkins that become cornichons are not true cucumbers. They are picked when quite young so that they're only an inch or two in length, and their texture is bumpy.
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.
Referring to them as a garnish or condiment, however, does not effectively convey how absolutely essential they are to a standard charcuterie plate.
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. They're not often left behind.
Cornichons complement pork dishes, such as grilled pork chops, and they're a key ingredient in the charcuterie sauce. It's 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.
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 antipasto plate. They also go nicely with deviled eggs.
What Do They Taste Like?
Cornichons are tart and sweet, with a briny flavor fortified by whatever herbs and spices are used in the pickling process. They're crisp and crunchy, but less sour than dill pickles, and pack a refreshing, zesty flavor, making them a great counterpoint to the rich, dense flavors of a charcuterie plate, or the heavy richness of steak tartare.
It's easy to incorporate cornichons into the mix of dishes you might already be assembling. Try them the next time you have a meat and cheese board.
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, produce an environment that is highly inhospitable to the bacteria that causes food spoilage. An unopened jar of cornichons has an extremely long shelf life. Once opened, a jar of cornichons stored in the refrigerator will last for many months.