Published July 1, 2004. From Cook's Illustrated.
Our winner was drab—but only in color.
The main ingredients of sweet pickle relish are revealed upon tasting it: cucumbers, sugar, vinegar, and salt. Yet when we took a close look at the labels of commercially prepared relishes, we were surprised to find cauliflower, cabbage, "spice," and dehydrated peppers on some of the lists. Given the differences in manufacturers' recipes, we had to wonder whether the right (or wrong) brand of pickle relish could make or break our potato salad recipe.
To find out, we shopped local supermarkets and returned to the test kitchen with six samples. We then prepared six potato salads, using a different relish in each. The results were far from conclusive, with tasters finding only minor differences between the samples. Clearly, the other ingredients in the potato salad made it difficult to detect any nuance contributed by a few tablespoons of relish.
Contrarily, tasting relish straight from the jar produced decisive results. The only organic brand in the group, won first prize. This relish has a drab gray-green hue, surely because it lacks yellow dye #5, an ingredient in every other relish in the tasting. But what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in flavor, which tasters described as "piquant," "sweet," "fresh," and "natural". Our runner-up radiates a shocking glow-in-the-dark color and won tasters over with its "crunchy" texture and "mustardy" flavor.
The losing relishes had a number of problems, including mushy, soft cucumber bits, strange spices (tasters detected cinnamon and clove flavors in one relish), and an abundance of high fructose corn syrup.
Here's the lesson: If you are adding relish to a dish with many competing flavors, use whatever is already in your fridge. But if the relish is to be the star condiment for a perfectly grilled hot dog-—don't get yourself in a pickle by choosing a lousy relish-—choose carefully.