Whole Dill Pickles
How we tested
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Eight jarred whole dill pickles, priced from about $4 to about $11 per jar, selected from best-selling brands
Products were purchased in Boston-area supermarkets and online
Seven products were cured in vinegar (three refrigerated, four shelf-stable) and one was lacto-fermented (refrigerated)
Sample plain, chilled, in blind, randomized tasting