How we tested
Pickles are available in two basic varieties: processed and fresh. The shelf-stable pickles you find on supermarket shelves are processed. The pickles you find in the refrigerator section, which include many small regional producers as well as one national brand, are fresh.
Processed pickles are either heavily salted or packed in salt water and are then left to ferment for a period of weeks or months. The salt retards spoilage and draws out moisture, while naturally occurring bacteria convert the natural sugars in the cucumbers into lactic acid, which also acts as a preservative and lends a distinctive flavor. Processed pickles are then packed in a vinegar solution. Fresh pickles are not fermented but are quickly cured with a seasoned vinegar solution that contains salt. They are typically crispier and more vibrantly colored than processed pickles.
We tasted five styles of pickles, both processed and fresh. Our tasters preferred the crunch, brighter color, and fresher flavor of the fresh pickles. Many of the processed pickles were described as "musty tasting," and tasters complained about their "unnatural hue" and "overpowering salt and vinegar rush."
After choosing our favorite fresh pickle, we tasted different types, with tasters making the following comments:
The most basic cucumber pickle, flavored with salt, vinegar, and dill; "kosher" does not refer to Jewish dietary laws but signifies the addition of garlic (although most "regular" dills also contain garlic). Tasters found these pickles "pleasant and refreshing," with "grassy," "dilly" flavor.
Polish/Hearty Garlic Dill
This spicier version of dill pickles has a "good spicy bite," according to our tasters. Comments ranged from "lots of garlic" to "peppery but not hot."
Very fresh and crisp. Tasters called these "super-crunchy" and "close to perfect."
Bread and Butter
These sweet/tart pickles are seasoned with mustard, sugar, and sometimes onions and bell peppers and are often sold in waffle-cut disks. Tasters noted the "nice balance of sweet and tart" and "mustardy and fruity" flavors. Overall, "crisp and tart."
These small, sweet pickles are made with immature cucumbers and often flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Tasters' opinions ranged from "nice cinnamon flavor" to "tastes like Big Red gum" and "too sweet."