The Lost Magic of the Wooden Pickle Barrel

By | Jul 17, 2017

Blond and rather slender for its type, a pickle barrel stands by the takeout counter of the famous Washington, DC delicatessen Wagshal’s. Lined with plastic, it may satisfy a certain nostalgia but amounts to no more than a storage unit on the bulk-bin grocery aisle—a pale iteration of the big-bellied, oak casks I remember from my childhood.

For generations in America and Europe, such wooden workhorses were where the magic happened: the lacto-fermentation of cucumbers, i.e. old-school pickles. At full strength, one barrel could house hundreds of specimens as salt, clean water, spices and time joined forces to transform raw vegetables into bacteria-free, preserved food. Pickles stored in wooden barrels were prized for their flavor and their texture. The brine reacted with the cucumbers to kill harmful bacteria and extracted enough moisture to keep the resulting pickles crisp yet juicy. One unintentional benefit of these wooden pickle barrels was a kind of olfactory come-on. Their porous material emitted wondrous aromas science has identified as proven appetite stimulants. Folks would catch the waft—for example, along New York’s Lower East Side “Pickle Alley” in the 1930s—and come running.

Of course, the salt-involved preservation of food (and pickles in particular) has gone on for thousands of years. Mesopotamians did it in 2400 BCE. Pickling was also practiced in early Asia, ancient Greece and medieval Italy, with reputable sources citing aficionados as wide-ranging as Aristotle, Napoleon and Cleopatra, who credited pickles for her beauty. Some 350 years ago, the Dutch brought their pickling practices (including the use of salt, spices and vinegar) and old oak barrels to New York (then New Amsterdam) and planted small cucumbers where Brooklyn now thrives.

Present-day pickle aficionados can no longer pick their pickles from wooden barrels.

When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in New York, they too were familiar with pickles. Their ancestors had fermented cucumbers, beets and cabbage for generations, relying on these preserved vegetables to get them through the winter and spice up their otherwise bland diets. The immigrants snapped up the cheap and plentiful cucumbers to process and sell on the streets. They peddled their pickles in pushcarts and, eventually, sold them in delis. At one time Essex Street—the heart of New York’s Jewish enclave—featured as many as 80 pickle merchants. Their most famous product was the kosher dill, a.k.a. the Jewish pickle. (A Jewish pickle is just one that includes raw garlic in the brining process.)

But food-safety regulations in the 1970s forever altered commercial pickle production in this country. The New York health department prohibited the use of wooden barrels because they could not be properly disinfected (between wooden seams) and were not airtight against outside pathogens. Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation deli man with Cordon Bleu training and co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, has a word for the officials’ work: narishkeit, Yiddish for “foolishness.” “I have never known anyone to get sick from them,” says Gruber, who grew up on the Lower East Side in the days of wooden barrels and stainless-steel bowls of pickles and tomatoes on deli tables.

For generations in America and Europe, wooden barrels were where the magic happened: the lacto-fermentation of cucumbers. At full strength, one barrel could house hundreds of specimens as salt, clean water, spices and time joined forces to transform raw vegetables into preserved food.

These days, most artisan pickles are cured in plastic buckets and barrels. Some say that hasn’t affected the quality of the product. Alan Kaufman of the Pickle Guys on Essex Street, a Queens native who has been fermenting pickles since 1981, says good flavor can develop in a plastic barrel, but a wooden one can yield pickles almost a week faster.

Wagshal’s proprietor Bill Fuchs recalls similar regulations that were introduced  in Washington, DC in the mid-1990s. “We had to get rid of our original barrels,” he says. The “faux barrels,” as he calls them, don’t draw the same attention as the wooden ones.

Pickles’ popularity in modern-day America has waxed and waned. Fuchs sees less of an appetite for them these days. “Lots of people don’t even want them anymore,” he says of the one-sixth pickle spear customers receive wrapped in with their sandwich orders. One reason may be that the modern pickle universe has been populated with cucumbers that are not brined, but rather are vinegarized and pasteurized. The heat involved in the latter would kill the lactobacilli in a true fermented pickle. The process often comes at a cost—a less crunchy, less-than-stellar pickle. And certainly a far cry from what would have been drawn from a wooden barrel.

15 thoughts on “The Lost Magic of the Wooden Pickle Barrel

  1. Laura Kumin says:

    Thanks Bonnie. I miss the barrel-fermented pickles and never knew why they disappeared. Maybe it’s just that kid memories are better than the real thing, but I swear they tasted better.

    1. If you’re seeking the distinctive quality of OAK BARREL fermentation, we stand alone as the sole producers of this method in the country. We extend an invitation to explore our range of Pickles, Kraut, and Kimchi, each steeped in time-honored tradition. These products are not only steeped in tradition but also embrace modern dietary preferences, being Gluten-Free and Kosher-certified.

  2. Ernest Miller says:

    “Bacteria-free, preserved food”? The opposite. Fermented pickles are bacteria-laden preserved food. Good bacteria such as lactobacillus.

  3. Barbara Segal says:

    I have wonderful memories….growing up in The Bronx, in the Fifties…walking many blocks, to a deli, with my best friend…putting down a nickel…reaching into the huge barrel…choosing a crunchy and delicious pickle….asking the clerk to cut it in half…and then walking back home with my friend…enjoying the incredible flavor of that salty, spicy and incredible pickle!!!

  4. Ken says:

    I remember when as a kid, my mother would take me grocery shopping. I always had to stop by the big pickle barrel and ask her to let me fish one out, ( with metal tongs ) and put it into one of the attached waxed paper bags ( remember waxed paper bags, even for pretzels and potato chips? ) I loved hose pickles more than any candy bar!

  5. I have a 15 gallon wooden bourbon barrel that I bought in Kentucky. It is burned on the inside and smelled intoxicating when I removed the upper hooos to get the wooden lid off. I used a recipe that my grandfather, a pickle and sauerkraut manufacturer used when I was little (1950’s). My 20#’s of dills turned out excellent! Now that they are all gone and after scrubbing out the barrel with water and a stiff brush I noticed a white wax looking film on the inside of the barrel up to the level of where my brine was. My question is how do I deal with the inside of the barrel before my next batch this coming growing season? The inside still smells like a whiskey still so I don’t want to lose that…

  6. barry says:

    any white looking lines may just be kharm yeasts part of the fermentation process a bye product
    a good scrub fill to the top with hot water to soak in for a while

    empty sprinkle salt all around inside rinse
    you could even pour in a little alcohol or apple cider vinegar for cleaning
    simple natural cleaning is the way to go

    i recently used a small old oak barrle that i made apple cider vinegar in gave it a simple rinse out and loaded up kimchi inside within 24hours it was bubbling like crazy .

    use oak for the main fermantation then i bottle it in glass jars and put it in the fridge

  7. Jamie says:

    Can anyone share any recipes please?

  8. Harmony says:

    Simple solution:
    Take the plastic or glass barrels (glass would be better as it doesn’t leech a lousy flavor into the barrels), wrap them in wood for appearance. Then, include wood dowels or balls into the brine to get the flavor and smell. Done.

  9. Howard Koor says:

    Great article…
    My family in the 1950’s and 1960’s owned a meat market, with the standard-issue large wooden barrel full of pickled delight. Also, a separate barrel for making corn beef. The bakery was right next door, where I could buy a single fresh roll, and make a tasty sandwich with spicy pickle on the side. Oh those days……………..

  10. Vanessa Slowe says:

    I recall my childhood living on the lower Eastside in the Alfred E. Smith Houses. My parents would take my siblings and I to Essex St Market for the barrell pickles which we loved Soooo much, they were Soooo Awesome! I shonuff missed them for yeeeeaaaars! Wow…! We would go to Essex Market, get our waxed bags of pickles,then up the street to the garment district shopping Delancey/Orchard St. shopping, then head off to the Famous Katz Deli! WOW! Those were definitely the Good and Best times of my life!! (Now, 69 yrs of age, 70 this coming Oct. 6th)

  11. TC Anderson says:

    This article made me cry. I have been searching everywhere for the old kosher dill pickles in a barrel. I had no idea they had been discontinued. The ones i buy in the market just don’t have the wonderful flavor and crunch that I distinctly remember from childhood. I guess I will have to learn to make my own.

  12. Michael Udolf says:

    My family ran Guss Pickles for generations, led by my grandfather Izzy Guss. If you were a family member it was expected that eventually you’d help sell the various products (pickles, sourkraut, hot/sweet peppers, horseradish, etc). There were several LES locations but the best known one was on Hester St, just off of Essex. I worked many a colsd Sunday as a teenager, putting my hands in the freezing brine of wooden barrels to pack jars for retail customers. My grandfather died in 1975 and by 1985 my family sold the bane Guss Pickles to a competitor on Essex St (a picture of the guys that bought the name is in your article). It then went thru other sales and offshoots in the neighborhood, and the Pickle Guys on Essex are the “linear” descendant of my grandfather’s business

  13. Max Katz says:

    Bubbe’s Pickles are kind of close, if not really the same ….

  14. Kathy Thompson says:

    We have had the wood from just the lid of an industrial pickle barrel and it would probably be about 12′ in diameter. The boards are about 2″ thick. There was a Gedney pickle factory near us and my father in law purchased the wood at auction probably in the 1970’s. Any idea what type of wood it would be? Not heavy enough to be oak.

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