Pickles – your best kept secret ingredient


Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a weakness for those attributes made famous by Samin Nosrat–salt, fat, acid, and heat. I loved vinegar so much that I would pour some on a plate and dip pieces of bread in it and eat as a snack. With that affinity came a love of sour foods–pickles in particular. To this day, I always drool when I walk into a deli and see those giant dill pickles stagnating in a jar. Who knows how long they have been sitting there? The beauty is, they probably still taste great, regardless of age.

Behold the burger. Think of how many pickles a day are stuffed into the pieholes of people around the globe while consuming a burger, like an obedient remora fish clung to the belly of a shark (although I have an image in my mind that many of those crimes are committed at the drive thru window of a McDonald’s restaurant). Let’s face it, though. Nothing rounds out a burger like a nice dill pickle chip. Say it. Dill. Pickle. Chip. Come on, say it again! Okay. You don’t have to.

If you have ever opened the bun of the smooshed value menu burger at McDonald’s (maybe taking the pickle OFF or some other nefarious reason), you will see the sullied flat pickle chip that serves as the dill flavor epicenter of the fast food industry, awash in ketchup, mustard, and diced onions. Yet, those one-hander cheeseburgers have their place in the flavor/ food chain. They probably would just not work with the thicker, crinkle cut pickles. Bigger burgers demand a bigger pickle, plain and simple. Once you get into the crinkle cut class of pickle , you’re gonna need to build a whole new class of burger to surround it, just like like the famous scene in ‘Jaws’ — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Pan over to some other irresistible tastes, like a chicken sandwich. Okay–confession time. One of my guilty pleasures is the chicken sandwich over at Chick-fil-A. It’s that more than sublime pickle taste woven in there that drives me wild. I’ve casually googled how they achieve the taste, and rumor has it they marinate their chicken in pickle juice, so I started doing the same some time ago for many recipes beyond just chicken. I started saving pickle juice into jars to the point of being OCD about it. However, I found the pickle juice jars would not have to sit long in the fridge as the juice found its way into many recipes.

I now use it all the time, and like to chuckle a little bit when my family asks, “What’s that taste in there? It’s really good.” I use it as a base for my smoker wet rubs (recipe forthcoming), as a marinade for both fried and grilled chicken, in my condiments and toppings, and the list goes on.

All pickles are not created equal.

So like some of the other sublime statements I make on this site, the variety and brands of pickles are limitless. And like I have mentioned elsewhere on this site, the fewer ingredients you have in your food, the better it tastes. I can again thank my wife for whipping me into submission about avoiding inflammatory ingredients in our foods. I am a systems engineer, so I always joke about ‘better living through science.’ While I do feel better about watching the amount of artificial ingredients I consume, I more so love the taste of pure and natural foods. They just taste way better and you don’t feel physically ill after consuming them.

This will sound hilarious, but I get pretty excited when I turn the corner to the condiment and pickle aisle in a grocery store. It’s like a guilty pleasure. THIS is how you judge the merit of a grocery store–by the variety and presentation of their condiments. Condiments are expensive, but I work hard and DESERVE to buy this hot sauce or jar of pickles that’s NOT on sale damnit!

All the same, when shopping for pickles, you can usually spot the offenders from a mile a way–there is an almost glowing, greenish yellow hue from those pickled products with an overdose of artificial flavors and preservatives. It is not my intent here to criticize or pick on particular brands, as it is harder than not to find foods these days without all that crap in them; HOWEVER, do yourself a huge favor to turn the jar and READ THOSE INGREDIENTS.

I do it now almost as a fun exercise to see how ‘natural’ those products really are. Many a time I get psyched after spotting a unique brand of pickles that turns into a major letdown after spinning the jar around and checking the ingredients. Take, for example, this jar of Mt. Olive hamburger dill chips: If you are a pickle-lover, this image will undoubtedly get you salivating and imagining a hot summertime grill searing some burgers to pair them with. Yeah…me too. Unfortunately, the ingredients are as such:

Cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, 0.1% sodium benzoate (preservative), alum, natural flavors, polysorbate 80, and yellow 5. (from Amazon.com)

WTF…come on, man! Back to the shelf it goes. They look so good…and there is the reason–YELLOW 5 with a little help from all those preservatives. It’s understandable with the evolution of our global food supply chain how these preservatives increased in popularity, but still…MAJOR BUMMER.


There is hope, however. Manufacturers are listening, and have started producing products with more natural ingredients, and I seek them out wherever I may roam. This is by no means a plug and I am in no way sponsored by them, but I really like Aldi’s as a place to shop for a variety of reasons. One of them is that they offer man products with all natural ingredients. You still need to be vigilant in there or any store, however. Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum where you can make your own pickles, which I have done in the past, but often can not find the time in the day.

Even Mt. Olive, whom I picked on above, has started to offer more natural alternatives, though I can’t seem to find them in my local shops. I get a chuckle out of how these products are named–usually with the word ‘simply’ or some synonym in the title. Sometimes they are simply just that, and sometimes not. Looks like these producers are on the right path, though. Even Vlasic, the behemoth of pickle manufacturers, has started down that natural path. They are about the closest thing I can find to ‘natural’ around me. . As you can see, though, we’ve got beta carotene, calcium chloride, and acacia gum, which are undoubtedly synthesized. Acacia gum is derived from the acacia tree, calcium chloride is an inorganic cousin to salt, and beta carotene can be derived from carrots(though doubtful in mass-produced foods)…These are by no means purely pickles.

There is a great local farm called Twin Pines Farm in Thomaston, CT that sells the real dealsour dill blazers, pickled with jalapenos. I am a huge fan, but they are not always in stock at the local stores I shop at. (One fringe benefit about writing blog posts is that you are forced to do some side research, if but a little. I noticed that they have daily hours and they are not too far away, so I know where I am planning my next trip). Of course they are a little more than the mass-produced varieties, but well worth it. I fall somewhere in between the hardcore organic follower and the nonchalant, so I will give in and by these ‘simply/naturally/purely’ products when nothing else is available. Still, I find them tastier and more palatable than the ones laden with hard core preservatives and colorings.

Save that juice.

Back to that bit about juice. So not only is the pickle a wonderful condiment and snack on its own. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. That savory, dill-infused juice is your ultimate ingredient for just about any kind of dish. As I mentioned above, I am pretty sure Chick fil-A uses pickle juice to marinate their chicken, judging by the taste. I have adopted this approach, and I rarely grill chicken without it. Simply slice up some chicken breast, pour some pickle juice on top along with some olive oil, paprika, dill, salt, and pepper. Let marinate for 30 minutes up to several hours and throw on the grill–makes for an incredibly delicious and juicy dish.

I also like to mix it simply with some plain yellow mustard and combine into a dry rub (recipes hopefully forthcoming) for a unique smoker experience on just about any kind of meat. Try mixing some with some mayo and chipotle hot sauce for the best burger dressing you can imagine.

Someone mentioned to me that athletes drink it to alleviate cramps. I did not research this one further, but I don’t doubt it! I’d love to hear of other uses of pickles and pickle-juice in your cooking.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *