SOME DAYS, the only vegetable I eat is the pickle on my hamburger (I call those days "Tuesdays"). Joking aside, we live in the golden age of pickles. Thanks to mustachioed dreamboat Sandor Ellix Katz's monumental The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), garlicky half-sours—previously only available at Jewish delis—and vinegar pickles are now within the grasp of average citizens.
But what if you don't want to make your own pickles, yet crave that small-batch pickle taste? In one trip to my nearest high-end grocery store, I found five brands all made right around here. Here's what a tasting panel of a few friends and I had to say about them, ranked from best to worst.
MoonBrine: Super Dill
At the risk of comparing apples to oranges, I picked up a jar of MoonBrine's lacto-fermented dills. These are a good, simple pickle. There's horseradish in the brine, which is undetectable but still tempers the sourness of the lactic acid with a bit of pungency. They have good crunch, too; the crunching could be heard from across my dinner table. Some garlic half-sour dills (the ones I make, for example) really beat you over the head with the garlic, but MoonBrine's are just right. Their brine has just a little vinegar to brighten the pickles up a scooch, a move I heartily endorse. These pickles really made the testers wish for ice-cold vodka and a trip to a Russian bathhouse—which I guess says something about how legit MoonBrine's pickles taste.
MoonBrine, 32 ounces, $6.99
Picklopolis: Garlic Dills
This one-guy shop located in the Inner Southeast Portland industrial area has made a name for itself at the Portland Farmers' Market at PSU. His garlic dill is the closest thing to a classic Jewish deli half-sour that I've encountered in Portland—just the right amount of garlic, a pure saltwater brine, and good acidity from the lacto-bacteria—but I wish the dill had been a little bit more aggressive. Try them with black bread and smoked salmon. (Note: My money is on his pickled asparagus; red wine vinegar and sassy peppercorns really help these slender beauties sing.)
Picklopolis, 32 ounces, $10
Duker's Dills: Hot Pickles
At $16 a jar, these are some expensive pickles—which is probably why they keep them on top of the olive bar at New Seasons. And they're good... but are they that good? Unfortunately, the consensus was a resounding "eh." I mean sure, they're tasty, and even a little spicy, but you could get a jar of Nalley pickles or Vlasic garlic baby dills, jam a few Thai chilies in the jar and get pretty much the same thing while spending 10 bucks less. As far as a garlicky baby dill or wee spicy gherkin goes, these aren't bad... they're just not amazing. Duker's also makes a carrot and a green tomato version—maybe those have more of the Wow Factor. These pickles, with their decent crunch, modest amount of heat, and good acidity/salt balance, made the tasters crave Bloody Marys.
Duker's Dills, 32 ounces, $15.99
Sweet Creek Foods: Organic Chili Dills
Okay, Eugene. We get it. You love apple cider vinegar. But it makes your pickles taste washy and insipid, which I guess is a pretty accurate representation. (Note: I was given permission by Eugene native and Mercury restaurant critic Andrea Damewood to mercilessly bash Eugene.) I included these in the survey because it turns out that for a city that loves talking about pickles, Portland isn't actually a huge commercial producer of them. The chopped (rather than whole) garlic, dill seed (instead of flower heads), and chintzy amount of peppers made these pickles pretty forgettable. (Additional note: Sweet Creek Foods is technically in Elmira, which is an even stinkier hippie-commune outpost of stinky hippie Eugene.)
Sweet Creek Foods, 24 ounces, $5.99
Unbound Pickling: Bacon Pickle
With endorsements from none other than Williams-Sonoma, you'd think Unbound would be resting on its laurels with its blueberry-infused bread 'n' butter pickles, but no. They've gone and uncovered a new formula for success: bacon + pickles + Portland = $$$!! Yes, folks, that's right: Everything you love in a pickle, plus the smoky taste of bacon, together at last, in one pint jar. The only problem is they taste like rimming the inside of Podnah's Pit. These dill pickle chips have a decent salt/acid balance and a good amount of garlic, but for the love of all that is decent, why the liquid-smoke bludgeoning? Unbound picklers, if you're reading this: Can the Uncle Jimbo's Industrial Hickory Juice and take it down a notch. Smoke the garlic and use pimentón instead of regular paprika. You can just have that idea, my compliments. Seriously, the nicest thing any of the tasters could muster was "this is almost something like McDonald's would do."
Unbound Pickling, 16 ounces, $8.99