Crunchy, tangy, and garlicky, whole dill pickles are a satisfying side and a great snack. Which ones should you buy
Published Jan. 13, 2020. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 23: Light Summer Meal
What do fried chicken, deli sandwiches, and backyard barbecue fare all have in common? They’re good foods that are better when there’s a crunchy, tangy pickle served on the side. Last year alone, Americans spent more than $1 billion on pickles, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. We set out to find the best whole dill pickles, which are hardier and more substantial than spears or chips and ideal for either serving alongside a meal or enjoying as a snack. We purchased pickles from eight top-selling, nationally available brands. If a brand had more than one option, we included only its best seller. One product was marketed as “garlic and dill,” one was labeled “kosher,” and six were labeled “kosher dill”— a style that originated in the kosher Jewish delis in New York City and now refers to any garlic-and-dill-flavored pickle. Our lineup also included both refrigerated and shelf-stable options. A panel of 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled them plain—served chilled at a blind tasting—rating their flavor, texture, and general appeal.
Most jarred pickles are pickled in a mixture of vinegar and seasonings. After they’re jarred, they can be pasteurized—heated to kill bacteria and make them shelf-stable. Pickles that are not pasteurized must be kept refrigerated throughout curing, shipping, and storage. It’s also possible to make pickles without any vinegar at all. This style of pickle, called lacto-fermented, is made by immersing cucumbers in a salt brine and allowing them to ferment for days or weeks. During that time, natural bacteria (Lactobacillus plantarum) and yeast consume the cucumbers’ sugar and create tart lactic acid, which pickles and preserves them. The bacteria gives the pickle brine a distinctly cloudy, almost milky appearance. Like refrigerated pickles made with vinegar, these lacto-fermented pickles are never heated and must be kept refrigerated after packaging.
Our lineup included a mix of styles. Seven products were vinegar pickles. Of those, four were shelf-stable and three were refrigerated. We also included one lacto-fermented pickle.
When we reviewed dill pickle spears, all the shelf-stable products were soft and soggy, while the refrigerated pickles were crisp and crunchy. That’s because the heat applied to shelf-stable pickles during pasteurization essentially cooks them and can soften their texture. But with whole dill pickles, the differences between the refrigerated and shelf-stable products were more subtle. The refrige...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.