The Pickle Project: A Quest for the Perfect Refrigerator Pickles

The Pickle Project: A Quest for the Perfect Refrigerator Pickles
Let these easy, customizable refrigerator pickles be your gateway to home food preservation—or simply crunchy, tangy pickle bliss. (SosnaRadosna/Shutterstock)

It began with my friend, Amy Alkon, gushing about Dietz and Watson brand kosher dill pickles, which she calls “the crowning glory of picklehood.”

Alkon is an award-winning, science-based advice columnist and author. On Twitter, she called her D&W’s the “best thing to stress eat ... when the writing is going a little hopelessly.” Her pickle habit soon became an addiction. And, like most addictions, it was expensive. Dietz and Watson pickles are “$5.67 for about 6,” she wrote in a tweet. “I could eat those in a single setting!”

My first canning project was a batch of cucumber pickles, and I’m probably not the only one for whom pickles were a gateway to home food preservation. Like most home economists, I had a background in cooking before I ventured into pickle-making. Alkon, however, calls herself a “lazy culinary hedonist” and finds food prep an irritating necessity that cuts into her writing time. As she puts it: “I don’t cook; I heat.”

Given Alkon’s lack of interest in the culinary arts, I knew it was a long shot when I offered to teach her how to make her beloved D&W pickles at home. But she was game.

Look for small-to-medium-sized pickling cukes with rough, spiny skin. (Kovaleva_Ka/Shutterstock)
Look for small-to-medium-sized pickling cukes with rough, spiny skin. (Kovaleva_Ka/Shutterstock)

Research and Reverse-Engineering

This meant I had to get my hands on some D&W kosher dills, which turned out to be a tall order in Missoula, Montana. The mere fact that neither Amazon nor any other outlet would deliver them to me was an important clue to what makes these pickles tick. Alkon confirmed my suspicion that her pickles of choice are sold in the refrigerated section.

This style of pickles is often referred to as “refrigerator pickles.” Unlike canned pickles, refrigerator pickles can’t languish for months at room temperature on a pantry shelf because they aren’t processed with heat, which kills microbes.

Because fridge pickles are not preserved, their salt and vinegar levels can be more flexible than their shelf-stable cousins. If you want your fridge pickles sweeter, add more sugar. If you want them more sour, add more vinegar. Thus, fridge pickles offer a superior eating experience to that of canned pickles. Not only is the flavor more customizable, but they will be crunchier thanks to not being cooked until limp.

This time of year, you can find fresh dill crowns at the farmers market. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)
This time of year, you can find fresh dill crowns at the farmers market. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)

The bad news is that you can’t go to the farmers market and pick up a load of cucumbers and make a year’s supply of fridge pickles, because where would you keep them?

“I will get a dorm fridge,” Alkon announced. “It will be my dedicated pickle-torium.”

Determined to get me her preferred pickles so I could reverse-engineer them in my kitchen lab, she reached out to her Twitter followers and found somebody to drop off some Dietz and Watsons, literally the next morning.

A man named Zach, who was driving from Seattle to Indiana to bring his son to college, had seen Alkon’s Tweet. He picked up two containers at a Spokane supermarket and hit the road for Montana, pulling off Interstate 90 and into a parking lot where I was waiting.

As we got talking, I realized that Zach was more than just a volunteer delivery man hoping for a signed copy of Alkon’s book (which he most certainly was), but a legit pickle expert. We decided to hold an impromptu parking lot pickle-tasting session.

Alas, we both found the Dietz and Watson pickles underwhelming. A good pickle must be salty, we agreed, but these had too much. We could barely taste the dill, and there wasn’t a hint of sweetness. They were at least very crunchy, being fridge pickles, but we wanted more.

Zach suggested I check out Grillo’s brand pickle spears, another type of fridge pickle. Although Grillo’s are similarly unavailable in Missoula, I studied them, and they looked promising. I based my version on the Grillo’s ingredient list, including the grape leaves, which old timers know help pickles stay crispy.

Grape leaves, as old timers know, help the pickles stay crispy. (Scisetti Alfio/Shutterstock)
Grape leaves, as old timers know, help the pickles stay crispy. (Scisetti Alfio/Shutterstock)

Pickle Perfection

This time of year, it’s possible to find fresh dill crowns at the farmers market, with the seeds starting to dry. I have also had good luck asking the produce person at the grocery store; sometimes, the dill crowns are in the back when they aren’t on display.

As for cucumbers, look for small-to-medium-sized pickling cukes with rough, spiny skin. Large, smooth slicing cucumbers won’t turn out as crispy as pickles made with pickling cucumbers.

I picked up a peck or two of cucumbers and some dill at the farmers market, as well as the necessary supplies from the grocery store. Two days later, I had my first batch of kosher dills. The pickles were perfect.

Since then I’ve made several batches, tweaking the seasonings each time. Salt-averse picklers: Don’t reduce the salt by much, because a certain amount is necessary for the cucumbers to pull the vinegar inside them so they taste like pickles. And if you are like Alkon and you want salt as the dominant flavor, try dialing back the dill and sugar before adding more salt.

I don’t know if Alkon will actually try to make these pickles herself. But if she does, may her pickle-torium stay packed.

Kosher Dill Fridge Pickles

This recipe works for me, but you are free to tweak the ingredients, especially the sugar, dill, and blend of vinegar. The grape leaves don’t influence the flavor but do help the pickles maintain their state of crispiness.
  • 8 cups white vinegar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 tablespoons salt
  • 8 tablespoons dill seed
  • A handful of grape leaves
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 5 pounds pickling cucumbers
Add all of the ingredients, except the cucumbers, to a stainless steel pot and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for 10 minutes, and then allow it to cool to room temperature.

When the brine has completely cooled, either leave it in the pot and add the cucumbers, or transfer the brine to a plastic, glass, stainless steel, or ceramic tub, and add the cucumbers. Put the pot in the fridge (or pickle-torium). After about two days, they will start tasting like pickles. Keep them in your personal pickle-torium and enjoy them until they are gone. And then, make more.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.