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Tasting Whole Dill Pickles

By Kate Shannon Published

Crunchy, tangy, and garlicky, whole dill pickles are a satisfying side and a great snack. Which ones should you buy?

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.” The other
seven were described as “kosher dill,” a style that was introduced to this country by immigrants from Eastern Europe 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) in a blind tasting and rated their flavor, texture, and general appeal.

How Pickles Are Made: Refrigeration, Pasteurization, and Fermentation

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 in a cool, dry environment. During that time, natural bacteria (Lactobacillus plantarum) 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.

Pasteurization Affects Texture . . . to an Extent

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 refrigerated pickles once again had great crunch, but the shelf-stable options were only “a little less crisp.” We quickly came to understand why the lessons we learned about pickle spears didn’t hold true for whole pickles. First, the skin surrounding a whole pickle holds it together and keeps it crisp. Second, whole pickles tend to have more mass than spears and are therefore less affected by the heat of pasteurization and more likely to retain their crunch and snap. We had a slight preference for the texture of the refrigerated pickles, but all the pickles in our lineup were firm and crunchy enough for our tasters.

The heat applied during pasteurization, a necessary step for all shelf-stable jars, essentially cooks the pickles. Pickle spears (left) are especially vulnerable and often turn out soft and soggy. Shelf-stable whole pickles (right) are much more likely to stay firm and crunchy.

For Whole Dill Pickles, Flavor Matters Most

Flavor was a different story. The pickles tasted surprisingly different, and we liked some much more than others. In fact, we can fully recommend only four of the products in our lineup. 

Although all the products contained garlic and dill in one form or another (we confirmed this with manufacturers), the flavors of garlic and dill didn’t always come through. How the manufacturers added these ingredients differed: Some contained visible pieces of garlic and/or dill, while others used highly concentrated flavorings similar to those used in beef broth or other packaged foods. To our surprise, we didn’t have a preference for a particular source of the garlic and dill—but we did prefer to taste those key ingredients. Some products were described by tasters as “garlicky,” with “big emphasis on the dill,” while others were milder and mainly just tangy. One was very heavily seasoned with warm spices that reminded tasters of “nutmeg,” “five-spice powder,” “cinnamon,” and “anise.” Another tasted like “licorice.” Those flavors felt out of place and overshadowed the garlic and dill flavors. 

No two jars of kosher pickles are exactly the same. Some of the jars we sampled had visible garlic, herbs, or spices, while others didn't have visible seasonings at all. We didn't care if we could see the garlic and dill but we did want to be able to taste it.

Another thing that mattered? Tanginess. The concentration of the vinegars that manufacturers use for pickling can differ, and whether the vinegars are highly acidic or more diluted can impact a pickle’s flavor. Two of the vinegar pickles in our lineup tasted too sharp and too sour. The other products, including the lacto-fermented pickle, were pleasantly tangy and vibrant. 

The Best Whole Dill Pickles: Boar’s Head Kosher Dill Pickles

After crunching our way through dozens and dozens of whole dill pickles, Boar’s Head Kosher Dill Pickles—the sibling of our favorite dill pickle spears—emerged as the clear favorite. These refrigerated pickles were “firm” and had “great crunch.” Tasters also loved that they tasted lots of garlic and dill, “almost like a homemade pickle,” with balanced tanginess and no bold competing spices. For a refreshingly tangy, garlicky whole dill pickle, Boar’s Head is our top pick. 

Taste Test Whole Dill Pickles

Crunchy, tangy, and garlicky, whole dill pickles are a satisfying side and a great snack. Which ones should you buy?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.