By Lee Havlicek.
Refreshing, zesty, tangy, crunchy, bright. These may not all be words that come to mind when describing your last, or even most, pickles. But after tasting more than a few of the Good Food Awards pickle winners from this year, I can tell you that they’re all first for me. Every jar was packed with incredible flavor, each one a reminder that pickled foods should not all taste basically the same. The cabbage tasted like cabbage, cherries like cherries, cucumbers like cucumbers and so on. Shocking, right? But really, it is.
So few pickles do anything but make you pucker, either from too much sugar or too much acidity. Others just taste like salt. But this complexly and uniquely flavored Good Food Award-selected group of pickled fruits and vegetables are, to be blunt, spectacular. Each is paired with a brine, herbs, and spices that bring out its particular shine. And boy, does the craft that goes into these jars make a difference. There was nary a limp, bland, or overly seasoned pickle in the batch.
But the biggest surprise: everything tasted fresh. I understand, of course, that by virtue of being pickled, these foods are not technically fresh. But they tasted like they’d been picked that way. The reason for this? These winning picklers listed below are the best in the business. They get the freshest, best ingredients (think organic, think picked at the perfect moment, think tried and true, but surprising choices when it comes to ingredients and flavors) and then craft the perfect pickle. These ordinary foods—squash, cabbage, cucumbers, cherries, beets, and more—go from tasting like the (potentially) delicious foods we know and (perhaps) love, to something entirely new and surprising.
And if you think pickles are just for sandwiches or snacking alone (that is…without accompaniment, though the GFA winners are so unbelievably delicious, you probably won’t want a snacking partner around as that would mean sharing), you’ve been scarfing down the wrong stuff. I’ve unashamedly put these pickles on all sorts of things you think you wouldn’t: tacos, salads, pastas, grilled meats, quinoa, ice cream, and yes, many forks. There was even one deliciously pickle-y Manhattan cocktail and one unbelievable egg sandwich created when my fiancé had the mad genius idea to layer kimchi, a fried egg, chili-garlic thai hot sauce, avocado, and buttered toast. (Sorry, he’s taken.)
Our friends at the Good Food awards discovered some seriously exquisite creations. And I, in turn, have converted to an all-pickle diet.
Just kidding. Kind of.
The Good Food Awards offer nine categories for entry, each of which is assigned an expert judging panel to choose their share of the 114 winners, 13 of which are in Pickles, from 1,366 qualified entrants that met the GFA criteria for submission in their category. With a base-line standard so high that contestants are impressive just by virtue of being admitted, competition often comes down to subtle nuances captured only by the truly spectacular. We’re talking degrees of greatness here.
All in all, the Good Food Awards have come up with an amazingly expansive and accountable way of assessing food quality—a thing that goes much deeper than taste. The Good Food Awards were created to celebrate American grown and made food that is “tasty, authentic and responsibly produced.” Award winners are true craftsmen and leaders in their industry. They are the bar-setters—the people who are continually heightening standards, while maintaining a commitment to sustainability and social and agricultural responsibility. For each of the nine categories awards are given to “producers and their food communities” that best embody the ideals of the Good Food Awards, while also creating the most spectacularly delicious delicacies.
Aside from meeting the basic criteria for GFA entry, in order to compete in the Pickles category, each “vinegar or lacto-fermented [savory]” must be made using herbicide/pesticide/fungicide/fertilizer-free ingredients that were locally grown or foraged “with respect for seasonality.” Nothing artificial or genetically modified is permitted. This, as you might guess, is decidedly not how your typical pickle is made. And that’s why these are just so ridiculously good.
Food lovers, business owners, chefs, and pickle aficionados, be it from eating or making, were entrusted with delivering pickle judgement. The roster was filled out by the likes of Peter Jacobsen of Jacobsen Orchards; Nick Wiseman, founder of Roadside Food Projects; Cal Peternell, chef at the incredible Chez Panisse; Lynne Bennett, writer at the San Francisco Chronicle; Brenda Crow, owner of FoodShed; Ron Tanner, VP at NASFT; Carla Jenkins, owner of Texas Farmers Market; Chad Newton, Culinary Director at FK Restaurants & Hospitality; Amber Turpin, freelance food writer; Autumn Teeter, pick maker and slow food enthusiast; Chris Sullivan, Digital Director at Williams Sonoma; and Felicia Campbell, assistant editor at Saveur Magazine, along with other notable contributors to the food world.
Here are 13 ways to not to sour on pickles:
Aunt Nita’s Homestyle Foods, Sweet Jalapeño Relish, Texas
Blessed Earth Farm, Summer Squash Curry Relish, North Carolina
Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, Pickled Garlic Scapes- Massachusetts
Coldwater Canyon Provisions, Tarragon Cherries- California: If you guessed one of these guys was the crowning jewel in the aforementioned Manhattan, you were correct. As perfect in the drink as they were paired with cheeses, these small-batch pickles were a happy discovery, indeed. Though tarragon-cherry may not be a flavor profile you see on the regular, their combination is something really special, particularly when backed by peppercorns, vinegar, and bay leaves. Try adding them to meats, like duck and pork, salads, and even ice cream. The liquid they’re packed in makes an incredible marinade or vinaigrette, too, so don’t waste a drop. The cherry season is especially short, and when it’s done, so is jarring Coldwater Canyon’s Tarragon Cherries. So, be warned! You may have to scramble for a jar.
Cultured Pickle Shop, Japanese Cucumber and Arame Kimchee & Kasu-Zuke Jalapeños- California
Firefly Kitchens, Ruby Red Kraut- Washington: I love sauerkraut. Hot dogs are really just a vehicle for it to me—albeit a tasty one. I’ll eat a bowlful of kraut by itself any day of the week. You might not agree…yet. But one forkful of Firefly Kitchens’ Ruby Red version and you could be converted. If you think of kraut as being unappetizing, even a look at the beautiful purpley-red mixture of all organic green cabbage, red cabbage, beets, green onions, carrots, and Celtic sea salt might do it. The incredibly fresh flavor and crunch of this kraut is due to Firefly Kitchens’ raw, natural pickling: there’s no heat, no preservatives in the process, which means refrigeration even before opening is a must. But wait and see what a difference it makes. It’s worth noting, too, that these guys aren’t new to the GFA: Their spicy Cortido Kraut won in 2012 and their gingery Yin Yang Carrots won in 2011. (Also delicious: their Firefly Kimchi.)
Midori Farm, Organic Horseradish Leek Sauerkraut & Organic Kimchi & Organic Savory Kraut- Washington
Gordy’s Pickle Jar, Sweet Chips- Washington, D.C.: Having grown up in D.C., there was more than a little hometown pride going on when I popped my first Gordy’s Sweet Chip. These pickles are the most perfect version of what you may, in the back of your mind as you savor these awesome bursts of flavor, faintly remember as a bread and butter pickle. Though one bite of these and the memory will be awfully hazy. But as you’re loving the just-right balance of sweet and sour and the incredibly satisfying crunch, you’ll notice it all gives way to a totally unexpected flavor: allspice. It’s not cloying or overpowering, but actually enhances the fresh taste of the chips, complementing the other spices and the cucumber beautifully and perhaps winning the biggest ingredient surprise in the bunch.
Pogue Mahone Pickles, Jalapeño Mint- Texas
Sour Puss Pickles, Plum Shrub- New York
Jarred SF Brine, Oven Roasted Pickled Golden Beets and Shaved Shallots- California: Pickled beets have one bad reputation. Feared by middle-schoolers and adults, alike, these little guys are supposedly loved only by out-of-touch grandmothers and sadistic lunch ladies. And that’s exactly why you’re going to be so shocked by what you find in this perfect jar: bright, punchy, zesty gems, with no mush amongst them. The golden beets and shallots perfectly pair together to make what can only be described as food glory. These got eaten so fast in my apartment that we hardly had the chance to do anything but eat them directly from the jar. (Though one extraordinary salad featuring them with arugula, pine nuts, goat cheese, and roasted tomatoes did make it to the plate…briefly.) When they were gone, we were all so disappointed that we saved the brine to make salad dressing, which was also, unsurprisingly, delicious.
Southport Grocery & Cafe, Dilly Beans- Illinois
Unbound Pickling, French Quarter Pickled Beans, Aromatic Cajun Spice- Oregon