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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

  • #1: Heinz Sweet Relish
  • #2: Heinz Hot Dog Relish
  • #3: B&G Hot Dog Relish

There are a lot of good things to be said about relish. It's the basis for the classic Tom Swifty.* It has a shelf life of forever. It tastes great on hot dogs.

Head out to some of the great hot-doggeries in this country, say, Marci's in Jersey or Speed Dog up in Boston, and you'll know that what goes on top of the dog is almost as important as the dog itself. If you don't start with a high quality frank, preferably with a snappy, natural casing, you're never going to have a good eating experience—but a perfect relish, with a balance of sweet and tangy flavors and real crunchy bits of vegetables can take a good dog and turn it great.

*"I love hot dogs," said Tom with relish.

Think of it like a tail for your tiger or a shot of sake for your light beer. Necessary? No, but it certainly makes the whole party a bit more fun.

While technically relish is a term that refers to any sort of chopped vegetable or fruit-based condiment, when we say relish 'round these parts, we're talking specifically about the sweet, tangy, crunchy, jam-like condiment made with cucumbers and typically flavored with mustard seed (or mustard!).

We've all had it on our hot dogs at summer camp and backyard barbecues. We've spooned it out of fixin's bars during late-night stops at 7-Eleven, and we've squeezed it out of packets at the movie theater. Some of us may have even picked the neon-green variety off of our Chicago hot dogs and flicked it onto the pavement where it belongs.

We tasted all the relishes we could find (along with hot dog palate cleansers) to see which was the most worthy condiment.

The Contenders

We picked eight nationally available brands for our taste test:

We included both "sweet relish" and "hot dog relish" in our lineup, the latter being distinguished by having the addition of extra mustard and other flavorings. All of the relishes we tasted had a cucumber base flavored with sugar, vinegar, and spices.

The Criteria

A good relish should have crunchy, fresh-tasting chunks of cucumbers. Relishes that were mushy or tasted like cucumber skins did not score highly. The flavors should be bright and bold—this is a condiment, after all—with a good balance between sweet and tart.

Some additional spice flavor is welcome—mustard seed, a bit of clove, perhaps, but it's hot dog relish, not apple pie filling. Some had overwhelming warm spice aromas that couldn't be shook.

The Results:

As is often the case, nostalgia and taste memory played into the results to a large degree. Most of us grew up eating a specific brand of relish, and hey, guess what? It was our winner. It's just what relish is supposed to taste like in our minds, I guess.

Overall, tasters prized good texture—crunchy bits of real cucumber—more highly than they favored good flavor, though overly spiced brands saw significant drops in their overall score.

The most surprising part of the taste test? The unanimity of our results and the number of relishes we wouldn't recommend. In most taste tests, we find that there are a broad range of tastes in the house, which makes for a broad range of products we'd recommend. In this case, fully half of the relishes were... well, let's just say we'd rather eat our dogs naked than top them with these.

Recommended

#1: Heinz Sweet Relish (6.8/10)

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"Tastes like relish!" was the general consensus. It had a good balance of sweet and tart flavors, no spices to compete with the pickley flavor, and tons of crunch in its big cucumber bits. "This reminds me of going to the pool as a kid," said one taster, while another said "perfectly balanced with the hot dog."

This is the relish we'd put on our tables.

#2: Heinz Hot Dog Relish (5.8/10)

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The mustard-ified, spiced-up version of their regular relish boasts the same crunchy chunks of cucumber. While most tasters liked the flavor (that tasted like "French's and a pickle had a baby"), others pointed out that if you don't like mustard, you'd be unhappy with it. You're better off getting regular relish and adding mustard yourself if that's what you're after.

Good In A Pinch

#3: B&G Hot Dot Relish (4.4/10)

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Pretty ballpark classic, this one tastes sort of like a slightly mushier version of Heinz regular sweet pickle relish, though the ingredients list does mention mustard seed and spices. Not our top choice, but we wouldn't kick it off our dog.

#4: B&G Sweet Relish (4.1/10)

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Here we start heading into real mush territory. Eaten on its own, it had a very unpleasant texture with bits of cucumber skin that got caught in your teeth—it scored second to last on our good-texture-o-meter. On a hot dog, it was better, though not our first choice for wiener-topping.

Not Recommended

#5: Mt. Olive Sweet Relish (3.7/10)

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Crunchy texture, but way too sweet with hardly any acid to balance it out. A very strange aroma and aftertaste that some tasters likened to cinnamon. The ingredients list reveals nothing but "natural flavors."

#6: Vlasic Sweet Relish (3.4/10)

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Another one with strange, overly spiced flavors. This time about a third of our tasters remarked that it had an off-putting cinnamon-y aroma, though again, the ingredients only list "natural flavors." "TASTES LIKE BIG RED."

#7: Trader Joe's Organic Sweet Pickle Relish (3.2/10)

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By far the strangest tasting relish we tried. "Taste like thick applejuice with cinnamon," was one reaction. It was followed up with "blugh." "Tastes like Christmas potpourri and lacks the acid I want and need." Though it had nicely diced chunks of cucumber, the pieces quickly turned to mush in your mouth.

The award for least beat-about-the-bush comment: "I spit this one out because it was horrific."

#8: America's Choice Sweet Relish (3.1/10)

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It wasn't the worst tasting relish we tried, but the texture was off-putting. Crunchy cucumbers were there, but they were bound in a slimy liquid that was far too sweet. Celery seed and other spices dominate.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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