Focus on: Pickles

Many vegetables can be pickled, but most people think “cucumber” when they hear the word “pickle.” The iconic pickle spears that accompany a sandwich or the slices that top a burger start out as cucumbers before they’re submerged in a pickling solution. And it’s the quality of those cucumbers that makes or breaks the pickle.

“It’s important to source cucumbers that are firm with no interior holes and consistent in width and length,” says Julie Bowman, director of marketing at Pinnacle Foods, parent company of Vlasic pickles. To make processed pickles—also known as cured or fermented—the cucumbers are washed, placed in salt brine and held in tanks for up to a year. The pickles are then desalted and packed. Quality pickles have a bright color, firm skin and texture, slightly curved shape and not too salty flavor. “It’s all about the crunch,” Bowman adds.

Some companies produce refrigerated and fresh pack pickles in addition to processed. For the refrigerated variety, cucumbers are placed directly into jars and covered with a brine solution of vinegar and seasonings, then stored under refrigeration, explains a spokesperson for Bay Valley Foods. Fresh pack pickles start off the same way, but the jars are vacuum-sealed and pasteurized. These types are not tanked.

The explosion of burgers on menus has been good for the pickle business—chips or slices on top and/or spears on the plate are expected. QSRs have traditionally been the major buyers of pickle slices, but with the premium-ization of burgers, Vlasic is in the midst of developing a “casual-dining pickle.” Chunks, gherkins (midget cukes) and whole pickles are other available formats. While burgers and sandwiches are the primary applications, pickles also show up in appetizers, salad bars, relish trays, wraps and deli platters.

The most popular pickle flavors are sweet, dill and sour, with variations within each. Kosher dills, for example, are enhanced with garlic and other spices for a more robust flavor, according to Bay Valley Foods. Bread and Butter pickles are sweetened
and flavored with a clove and cassia blend. Pickle brine may also be infused with hot peppers, honey, ginger, mustard seeds, celery seeds and/or other seasonings.

Most foodservice pickles are packed in pails, cans and jars, but plastic pouches are becoming more prevalent for their sustainability factor. Vlasic’s Flex Pouch packaging, for instance, reduces waste and shipping costs, making it more sustainable and economical. “You pay for the pickle, not the pail,” Bowman notes. The 5½-pound pouches, currently used for pickle chips and pickled jalapeños, are packed four or eight to a carton.