The real dill
May/June 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Richard Green
Central Valley family tops off its legacy with pickles.
The Kruger family takes a team approach to making the perfect pickle. Patriarch Dennis Kruger, center, and his children, Leslie, Erik and Kara Kruger, right, work closely with farmer Dino Del Carlo, far left, and Kruger Foods Field Representative Sam Myer
You've probably bitten into their product more than a time or two, even if you haven't seen their label at the grocery store. Kruger Foods condiments grace the burgers and sandwiches at national and regional fast-food chains and restaurants, including McDonald's, In-N-Out Burger and Subway.
At their pickle plant in Stockton, a cool 1 million pounds of cucumbers are processed into pickles each day during summer's peak harvest season. The company also makes banana wax peppers, jalapeño peppers, bell peppers, relish and diced peppers for salsas.
While the numbers tell one tale, it's the people behind the pickles who are the real story. Kruger Foods, the largest pickle processor in California, has been family-owned and -operated since the 1930s.
"It actually started with my grandfather and father," said president and patriarch Dennis Kruger. His grandfather was in the wine business in Denmark and, once in America, had to change careers due to Prohibition. With a lot of empty wine barrels lying around, the young immigrant felt compelled to find another use for them.
"Well, being Scandinavian, you pickle things. So they started making pickles, and that is pretty much what we've been doing ever since," added Dennis' daughter and fourth-generation pickle maker Kara Kruger, who carries on the tradition with siblings Leslie and Erik. Although Dennis started working in the business at about age 8, picking cucumbers and lifting crates, his children went the traditional college route.
"Our father did not pressure us to go into the family business," Erik said. "We had our intentions to go other ways, but we all were brought back, just by our own accord."
"I feel like we are building on a legacy," Leslie explained. "We are continuing to build up tradition, being part of something that is a piece of our grandparents and our great-grandparents. It keeps the history of our family alive."
It begins with a cucumber
For the Krugers, the art of pickles starts with the ideal cucumber—often from local growers. "We stick as close to the plant as reasonably possible," Kara said. "We purchase up and down the state of California."
Fourth-generation farmer Dino Del Carlo grows about 1,200 acres of cucumbers for Kruger Foods.
Dino Del Carlo, a fourth-generation farmer whose fields are a 30-minute drive from Kruger Foods, grows about 1,200 acres of cucumbers for the pickle maker. Cucumbers are a quick crop, he said, growing to maturity in 40 to 60 days. This member of the gourd family thrives in the Central Valley's Mediterranean climate, with its low humidity and heavy, dry ground.
So what exactly does the perfect pickling cucumber look like? "It's green pretty much all the way around, it doesn't have a lot of seeds inside, it tastes good and it's the right size," Del Carlo explained. "Size is a big part of it."
While Kruger Foods uses cucumbers of all sizes, Del Carlo grows a variety called Palamino, which results in shorter, blockier pickles. This specific shape allows the pickle to be sliced into pickle chips for the top of a burger or inside of a sandwich.
The making of a pickle
While cucumbers are a predictable crop, they have to be constantly monitored. "Cucumbers are so quick that you've always got to be on your toes and able to react," explained Sam Myers, Kruger Foods field representative. "Dino and I are in constant communication. If I'm not looking at the field, then he is looking at it for me."
Once cucumbers are harvested from the fields, they are immediately brought by the truckload to Kruger Foods. "Then they are graded, sized and sorted from tiny, tiny little cucumbers all the way up to fairly large ones to great-big, state-fair colossal things," Kara said.
What happens next depends on where the pickles will end up. Will they be whole pickles, pickle chips or relish? When it comes to flavor, Kruger Foods specializes in dill pickles, which is predominantly what people are eating and what the company's restaurant customers want. The only exception is relish, which is made sweet.
Kruger Foods employees sort cucumbers to be sliced and prepared as pickle chips.
After being organized, the cucumbers head to Kruger's tank yard—possibly the largest in the world—with its swimming pool-sized tanks filled with brine. Brine is a mixture of vinegar, salt, garlic and spices that the cucumbers soak in for five to six weeks.
"We are taking naturally occurring sugars in cucumbers and allowing the fermentation process to turn those into acids," Kara said.
"It's an ancient science," Erik added. "We provide the environment for fermentation to occur, and it does. We are really just monitoring to make sure what nature is doing is actually happening."
Pickling is an ancient science. Large tanks are used for brining the cucumbers.
Once out of the brine bath, the now-pickles are processed into their final form for the wholesale food and restaurant market. Even the texture of the pickle is considered.
"Some places want a really crunchy pickle," Dennis said.
With more than 80 years of pickling experience behind them, Kruger Foods is confident it can deliver the goods, however the customer wants it.
From cucumber to pickle: Let me count the ways
Most cucumber pickles are made by one of three methods: processed, fresh-packed or refrigerated:
1. Processed: Cucumbers are placed in a salt brine solution in large tanks where they undergo full fermentation during the course of one to three months. The salt is added gradually throughout the process so it permeates the cucumbers evenly. Pickles are then removed from the tanks, rinsed of excess salt and put into jars with different additional seasonings. Processed pickles have a sharper flavor and are usually dark green and somewhat translucent.
2. Fresh-packed: Cucumbers are placed directly into jars and covered with a pickling solution of vinegar and seasonings, depending on the variety of pickles being produced. The containers are vacuum-sealed, quickly heated to pasteurize and then cooled. Fresh-packed pickles are generally crispier and less acidic than processed pickles. They also retain some of the flavor and color of fresh cucumbers. Jars of fresh-packed pickles will say "fresh pack" on the label.
3. Refrigerated: Cucumbers are put into jars, covered with a seasoned pickling liquid and immediately refrigerated. The entire fermentation process takes place under refrigeration. Once the cucumbers have absorbed the seasonings, the pickles are then shipped. These extra-crispy pickles are available in the refrigerated section of the supermarket and are marked with an expiration date, because their shelf life is shorter than processed or fresh-packed pickles. They also must be refrigerated at home.
Source: Pickle Packers International (www.ILovePickles.org)