Sour Power: NYC's Artisanal Pickles

Ben Detrick

There are few things as satisfying as snapping into a great pickle—who doesn't appreciate the audible crunch, the firm texture, the lip-puckering flash of sour? Here in New York City, pickles have always held a proud place alongside every pastrami-piled sandwich, but in recent years, the zesty spears have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, thanks to a devoted group of purists turning out handcrafted batches. From old-school pickle purveyors with century-old recipes to bearded Brooklyn newcomers experimenting with carrots and chipotle, it seems as if everyone is looking to submerge fresh produce in salt, spices, vinegar and water. And the results are delicious.

Any good tale of New York City pickles begins on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a bustling neighborhood of tenement apartments that has long served as a landing spot for immigrants. Thanks to the community's strong Jewish population, the Old Pickle District boasted 80-odd pickle shops and pushcarts around Essex Street at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the few remaining vendors is The Pickle Guys (although the shop opened in 2000, owner Alan Kaufman learned his recipe from briny veterans in the neighborhood), which proudly offers pickles with traditional taste gradients, including hot new, 1/2 sour, 3/4 sour and hot sour. "If you start with good produce, you'll get good product," says Kaufman. "We use a lot of garlic and a lot of spice." Simple and most definitely effective.

There was lots of hand-wringing in 2009 when Guss' Pickles, which had spent almost a century on the Lower East Side, shuttered its barrels and relocated to Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood due to shifting demographics. "Manhattan has changed so much," says owner Pat Fairhurst. "We didn't fit in with all the young people who eat out all the time." Fear not, the establishment—now named Ess-A-Pickle, Yiddish for "eat a pickle"—is doing fine. Working-class Jewish families may not have the cachet of cool that the Wayfarer-wearing throngs in the old digs have, but their taste for Fairhurst's pickled cucumbers, turnips, beets, peppers and okra has been good for business.

Thankfully, Manhattan still has plenty of excellent pickles. Kalustyan's, a Curry Hill market with enough exotic spices to justify the neighborhood's reputation all by itself, has such worldly delicacies as Spanish pickled asparagus, French cornichons and Israeli dills. The diversity of products there is yet another indication that, from kosher dills to kimchi, we're living in a great pickle town. "I think New York is a cultural melting pot, and the perfect pickle is a very subjective thing," says Rick Field of Rick's Picks, a local pickle maker whose handiwork is available at outdoor hubs for organic produce like the Union Square Greenmarket, the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket and Fort Greene's beloved Brooklyn Flea. His newest variety is spicy sriracha-habanero crinkle-cut pickle chips, aptly dubbed "Hotties." Field explains, "As far as flavor goes, I like to see things that push the boundaries of what people have experienced in the past."

But if there's a New Pickle District, it has to be Brooklyn. In keeping with the borough's recent enthusiasm for artisanal food—a trend that includes locally made chocolates, honey from rooftop hives and chickens in Bushwick backyards—there seems to be batches of pickles brewing everywhere in Kings County. "People like to know where their food is coming from and who's making it," says Bob McClure of McClure's Pickles, a Brooklyn/Detroit brand available at select national supermarkets and gourmet outposts such as Stinky Bklyn, Chelsea Market and Murray's Cheese shop, a world-renowned establishment in the West Village. "In a city like New York, where convenience is king, it gives you a sense of being part of something larger than a number in line at a grocery store." While he uses a family recipe for his standard pickles, the company's latest offering—its Spicy Bloody Mary Mix, a blend of pickle brine, tomato paste and fresh-pressed cucumber juice—is a new twist that has been flying off the shelves. Similarly, Brooklyn Brine Co., whose Moroccan Beans are the stuff of legend, supplies restaurants in the Williamsburg area, like the quaint Five Leaves and Spuyten Duyvil, a beer-drinker's paradise where Belgian bottles accompany cheese plates and smoked meat. There's some fun territorialism here, as Wheelhouse Pickles fulfills the same role on the south side of Brooklyn, furnishing Park Slope specialty store Blue Apron Fine Foods. And over in Greenpoint, Brooklyn Standard Deli sells its homemade pickles alongside health-conscious treats like jerk-marinated seitan and quinoa salad, as well as fresh bagels, Cubano Jalapeño sandwiches and Stumptown coffee.

It might seem odd that the humble pickle, so long a sidekick to sandwiches, has inspired such devotion. But we're living in a pickle renaissance, a time when age-old brining techniques are both revered and being reworked. The appeal is almost instinctual. "Pickles are the hot new thing," says Stephanie Bealert, cheesemonger of Bedford Cheese Shop, which carries McClure's, Brooklyn Brine, Sour Puss and other varieties. "So many people buy pickles, it's like selling bread." She recommends matching pickles with nutty Alpine cheese and charcuterie for an optimal snacking experience. But remember, the pickle can stand alone.