In the 1970s, archaeologists in China stumbled across the 2,000-year-old tomb of a noblewoman from the Han dynasty. Known as Lady Dai, she was surrounded by lavish clothes, jewelry, and the remnants of her last banquet. Among the haul she was taking into the afterlife was a collection of pickle jars and a thick manuscript of corresponding pickle recipes.
Sometimes mistaken for an urn, the Chinese pickle crock is a curved vessel with a wide middle, a flared, narrow mouth, and a rounded lid that looks like an upside down bowl. The design allows the jar to double as an artwork, and some examples are decorated accordingly. But the shape also serves practical purposes. “It makes it easy for larger pieces of vegetables to fit inside, because it has a belly. And the way that it tapers on the top, it helps to make sure that the contents are submerged,” explains Jessica Wang of Picklé, a fermentation workshop based in Los Angeles. Many of the lids actually are just inverted bowls, which can be conveniently used for holding the pickles as you ladle them out.
In terms of material, pickling crocks are usually made out of glass, glazed clay, or porcelain. With glass you can see the progression of the pickles, but many people prefer clay because it has a unique microporosity that absorbs and releases flavor every time it’s used, similar to how a cast-iron pan works.
But the low-tech wonder’s greatest asset is around the rim. As opposed to straight-sided mason jars in the West closed with canning lids, the curvy glazed stoneware jar has a moat running around the rim that creates a natural seal when you pour in a handful of saltwater. It provides an easy way to keep pickles fresh and uncontaminated for years, with a fraction of the stress of canning.
WHY YOU NEED ONE
Since the seal is just a thin layer of water that can be broken or topped off when needed, it’s easy to add to the pickle jar and taste as you go. Unlike American pickle jars, often washed and sanitized between uses, the Chinese crock builds up layers of flavor over the years. With enough time and care, the brine can become just as valuable as the jar itself, a prize to be shared between generations. The Chinese pickling crock is part utilitarian and part sentimental, part everyday tool and part family heirloom.
While the jar is efficient for making any kind of pickle, it’s especially useful for lacto-fermented vegetables in salt brine, which gives the pickles a more complex tang and infuses them with beneficial probiotics. The fermentation process gives each batch a unique flavor, but it also produces carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct, which can build up in a sealed space and even cause jars to explode. Using a mason jar for lacto-fermentation, you have to regularly “burp” the ferment by opening the lid every now and then to release the gas. But in a Chinese crock, “the gases can come out, but nothing can enter through the water,” says Wang. The built-in water lock releases air bubbles while keeping harmful microorganisms from entering, creating a clever, passive system to ensure that the pressure doesn’t break the vessel but the contents remain protected.
Wang recommends dedicating each jar to just one type of pickle. She uses hers for rice wine-infused pickles, like her current project, a month-old batch of mustard greens which can be used to accent stir-frys or add acidity to earthy stews. She says pickles made in her clay crock have a subtle yet distinct crispness to them, and the process of nurturing a brine over the years creates a unique pickle that can’t be found anywhere else. Xiong Ying, a pickling enthusiast in Sichuan, has managed to keep a brine going for 20 years (her current one is a three-year-old brine in pristine condition). She explains that time gives her brine, and any pickles that go in it, a deep complexity that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
HOW IT’S USED
It’s not an understatement to say that pickles are a big deal in China. This type of crock is a common motif in the countryside, where many families maintain decently sized collections of crocks in rotation, passing them down the generations along with the brines inside. Pickle culture also extends into restaurants, where you’ll often find giant jars of house pickles fermenting in the back, given out as complimentary appetizers to help break up heavy meals.
Throughout the country, every region has its own basic pickle recipe. Southwest China is a hub for lacto-fermented vegetables, where fresh bamboo shoots, crisp cucumbers, radishes, and carrots are quickly blanched, cut into pieces, put into a salt brine with Sichuan peppercorns, then topped with a bit of baijiu. Southern pickles are sweeter and usually consist of turnips or cucumbers that sit in a solution of white vinegar, sugar, and a little bit of salt. Northern Chinese pickles veer saltier, with cucumbers immersed in a solution of sorghum or millet-based black vinegar, salt, and chiles.
It’s important to stress that this type of pickling crock is not unique to China, though it is an especially pervasive tool in the cuisine and likely originated from the region. The earliest pickle jar in China dates back to at least the third century, and they have been found in ancient tombs throughout the country. Today, the design is rather universal. In Germany, it’s used for sauerkraut, though the sides are straight instead of curved. Koreans use it for kimchi and the Japanese for tsukemono. There are also massive versions of the crock used to bulk-ferment alcohol, soy sauces, spicy bean pastes, and vinegars.
But while the Chinese pickle jar removes some of the up-front hassle of canning, it does require a bit more long-term care. Unlike a hot water bath-sealed mason jar, which is shelf stable and can be stored for many years, the Chinese pickle jar needs a bit of monitoring. You have to top off the water seal occasionally or it will eventually evaporate. Eventually a bit of grime might develop around the mouth of the jar, but you can simply wipe it off with a clean, wet towel. That may sound like more work, but it’s worth it.
HOW TO GET ONE
Serious pickle makers in China like procuring their crocks from the city of Jingdezhen, the national pottery capital. You can get them custom-made, but they’re also quite easy to get a hold of online in East Asia. Though harder to come by in the West, they can sometimes be found in antique shops and Asian grocery stores. Online, there are a couple of glass ones available on Amazon, porcelain jars on eBay, and vintage clay vessels on Etsy.
Clarissa Wei is an American freelance journalist based in Taiwan.