Let me start by saying that even if a pickle jar is marked as containing “kosher pickles,” it does not necessarily mean that the pickles are actually kosher to eat. And it’s not just pickles. “Kosher style” restaurants may serve chicken soup with matzah balls, but that does not mean that the food is kosher.

“Kosher” usually refers to something that is permitted according to Jewish dietary laws. With pickles, however, “kosher” merely denotes a specific pickling style. Pickles, like any other product, need to be certified kosher. The good news is that most major kosher pickle producers in the US are certified kosher.

History of the Kosher Pickle

Pickles have been around for a very long time. In the pre-refrigeration era, one of the best ways to preserve something was through pickling it.

According to one theory, cucumbers originally came from India and were first pickled in the Tigris Valley.1 Cucumbers are mentioned in the Bible as one of the foods the Jews ate when they were slaves in Egypt.2

Fast-forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when many Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States and introduced a unique recipe for pickles—which would become known as “kosher pickles” or “kosher dills.” Cucumbers were placed in a large wooden barrel of water, together with dill, garlic, spices and kosher salt,3 and were left to ferment. Depending on how long they fermented, the finished product would be called either “half sours” or “full sours.”

At first, these pickles were sold on pushcarts, then shops started selling them straight out of the barrel, and eventually a whole industry developed. Pickles prepared in a style that resembles those of the original Jewish pickle-makers have become known as “kosher pickles.”

Garlic, Salt and Vinegar

Officially, genuine kosher pickles are naturally fermented in a salt brine (usually from kosher salt) and flavored with garlic. It has been speculated that one reason for the use of salt over vinegar is that vinegar poses various kashrut concerns since, for example, it can come from wine, which has special kosher considerations.

Nowadays, it seems that many companies do add vinegar to their “kosher pickles.” In fact, according to the USDA’s database of products,4 some companies don’t even add garlic (or at least a significant amount of it) to their “kosher pickles.” So some of these “kosher pickles,” while they may actually be certified as kosher to eat, are not genuine “kosher pickles” . . . go figure!