Kosher Pickles

So what is a kosher pickle, exactly?

I mean, pickles don’t have meat or dairy in them and don’t come from animals that have to be slaughtered. It’s not like there’s a law of kashrut specifying a method for packing a cucumber in brine.

The term “kosher pickle” really describes a style of pickle, the kind you’ve been able find in Jewish delis for over a hundred years: crunchy half-sour pickles packed with dill, garlic, mustard seed, and kosher salt, as well as whatever that specific deli used to give the pickles a distinctive flavor note, such as bay leaf, chili pepper, or celery seed.

Kosher pickles at Factors Deli, Pico Blvd., Los Angeles on May 7, 2006. By Karen, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped).

“Half-sours” aren’t a shelf-stable, highly acidic pickle; they’re actually lacto-fermented, a process we’ve discussed in the post for kimchi from Martinez, California. Lacto-fermentation didn’t come into use in Europe until the 16th century, and the modern American kosher dill pickle looks like what Polish communities made in the centuries since, albeit with a bit more garlic.

In short, rather than using a heavy vinegar brine and boiled “kill phase” to kill everything in the jar, half-sours are packed with a salty brine that is either entirely vinegar-free (which some purists insist is the only true kosher pickle) or has just a hint of vinegar for flavor. Good bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, raising the pH of the cucumbers and keeping them crunchy and free of bad bacteria.

Kosher pickle at Katz’s Deli in NYC on March 18, 2011. By ercwttmn, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped).

Once the desired level of “souring” (just like sauerkraut, which is also lacto-fermented) is achieved, the pickles are refrigerated, halting the process. A half-sour pickle can be achieved in around ten days to two weeks; a full-sour would take around three weeks. So while the pickles you find sitting on the shelf in the grocery store have had any living things boiled out of them, the good bacteria in the half-sours at the deli are still alive, though possibly dormant from the cold.

That’s why you really can’t get a real kosher pickle from the shelf, and frankly, even the best brands don’t come close to the ones you get plucked from the barrel at the deli.

There’s a little bit more to the story than that. To sell something with the word “kosher” on it in the U.S., it does have to be actually kosher, which limits what can be added to the brine.

Occasionally, pickles can contain polysorbate 80, an additive that is used as an emulsifier (that is, it helps keep substances mixed together) and a solubilizer (that is, it helps things dissolve into liquids), though the latter application is what earns it a spot in some pickle brines. Without getting too deep into the science of it, polysorbate 80 is a molecule of sorbitol (what shows up on labels as “sugar alcohol” these days) bound to a fatty acid. The result is a molecule that attracts water on one side and repels it on the other side, which is what gives it its culinarily useful proprerties.

Hypothetically, the oleic acid used to make polysorbate 80 could come from an animal source, which could lead to non-kosher pickle brine, and in turn, non-kosher pickles. In reality, most producers of polysorbate 80 use one of the abundant (and often cheaper) plant sources of oleic acid, like canola oil, which is 61% oleic acid by volume.


Ad from March 21, 1927 Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer

Either way, the potential presence of polysorbate 80 had nothing to do with the evolution of the name “kosher pickle,” because polysorbate 80 wasn’t approved by the FDA as a food additive until 1977. Meanwhile, the term “kosher pickle” has been in use since at least the 1920s.

So with that framework, are these kosher pickles? No, not in the traditional sense, because they’re packed with a hot brine, which will soften the pickle. These are what you might find identified as “kosher-style pickles,” which have the garlic and dill flavor but not the traditional crisp texture.

There’s also a great deal of debate over whether vinegar adulterates the flavor of the kosher

For a more traditional pickle, consider this recipe from the July 26, 1965 edition of the Syracuse Herald-Journal:

Most cookbooks have a variety of recipes for pickles and relishes. One of our readers has asked for a recipe for Kosher-Style Dill Pickles. a true Kosher Dill Pickle is made without vinegar. We hope the following recipes will be helpful:
Kosher Dill Pickles
(in a crock)

1/2 bushel small, firm cucumbers
1/2 bunch dried dill
water to cover (about 3 gallons)
1 pound salt (about)
5 pods garlic, sliced
1/2 pound mixed pickling spices

Wash cucumbers v dry carefully. place in a large stoneware crock. Break up dill and place among cucumbers. Make a brine of water, salt, garlic, and spices. (A fresh egg, in the shell, when placed in the water will rise to the surface when the proper amount of salt has been added to the water.)

Add brine to cucumbers to completely cover. Cover cucumbers with an inverted dish weighted down with a clean, heavy stone. Let stand at room temperature until done to your liking. Refrigerate to halt pickling process.

Makes about 10 quarts.

From a box sold in Nampa, Idaho.

Kosher Pickles

Sterilize quart jars. To each add:

  • 1 large sprig dill
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tsp. pickling spice

Pack jars with washed small cucumbers (4 to 6 inch).

Cover with hot brine made as follows:

  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup vinegar

Seal jars.

Too salty. See other side.


9/1/74

Try brine as follows as experiment. 2 qts.

  • 1 quart water
  • 3 Tbsp. salt (1/3 previous recipe)
  • 1-1/2 cups vinegar, double triple previous

Pretty good. A little spicy.


8/31/75

  • 2 qts water
  • 5 Tbsp. salt
  • 3-1/2 cups vinegar

Makes enough for 4 quarts.

Per quart jar:

  • 1 sprig dill
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3/4 tsp. pickling spice

Yesterdish reminder: Follow modern canning practices if you want these to live on a shelf.


One Comment

  1. My grandmother used to have a secret recipe that she used to make pickles from her garden. They were one of my mom’s favorite foods while she was growing up. That’s interesting that Kosher pickles will usually have a little different flavor note like garlic, bay leaf, chili pepper, or celery seed. That might be why certain individuals are so loyal to a specific recipe or brand of kosher pickles. It’s that extra flavor that really appeals to them. Thanks for the article.

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