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Pickles

Published August 2006

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:

Dill/Kosher Dill

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."

Half-Sour

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."

Sweet Gherkin

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."

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB