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The correct combination of acid, spices and sugar with cucumbers creates an acidic food product known as pickles. Many other vegetables, from asparagus to zucchini, can be pickled also.
Pickling is a relatively easy process, but in order to produce a safe and crisp product follow a recipe specifically designed for the vegetable you're pickling. Use recipes from a reputable source:
- See our pickling recipes.
- See the National Center for Home Food Preservation for recipes.
- Other reputable sources include the USDA or recipes provided by home canning equipment manufacturers.
Use only unwaxed, pickling cucumbers. "Slicing" cucumbers will give you a soft dill pickle.
- Pickle the cucumbers within 24 hours after picking.
- Use cucumbers 1 1/2 inches in length for gherkins; 4 inches for dills.
- Wash cucumbers thoroughly, especially around the stem area, to remove soil that may contain bacteria.
- Remove the blossom end to prevent pickle softening.
- Do not use cucumbers that have any mold on them.
Pickling other vegetables
Vegetables from asparagus to zucchini can be home preserved by pickling. The key is to select a recipe from an approved source that is specifically designed for the vegetable you are pickling. Follow the directions carefully for a safe, high quality product.
- Begin by selecting tender vegetables and plan to pickle within 24 hours of picking.
- Wash well and drain.
- Pickled vegetable recommendations vary widely on the need for a first step of blanching, pre-cooking or raw packing.
- Asparagus is blanched.
- Beets need to be pre-cooked in their skins for 30 minutes.
- Green beans, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and zucchini are raw packed.
- White distilled vinegar is used for onions and cauliflower where clearness of color is desired.
Vinegar is the preservative and flavoring agent in most pickles. What kind you use depends on the color and flavor you want to have in the pickled product.
Some points to remember:
- Do not change vinegar, cucumber or water proportions.
- Never use a vinegar with unknown acidity. Check the vinegar label and look for vinegar that contains 5% acetic acid.
- Do not dilute vinegar unless the recipe specifies. The vinegar prevents botulism. Older recipes were based on a pickling vinegar of 10% strength. Using today's 5% vinegar in an old recipe may not produce a pickle as crisp as your grandmother's. If the flavor seems too tart, add a little sugar.
- The ratio of vinegar to water varies by the vegetable; again select a recipe for the vegetable you are pickling.
- Some vegetables such as onions, mushrooms and artichokes are pickled in straight 5% vinegar with no additional water.
Distilled white vinegar
Most pickle recipes call for distilled white vinegar. This is the clear, colorless vinegar made by fermenting grains. It has a mellow aroma, tart acid flavor and does not affect the color of the light-colored vegetables or fruits.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar, made from fermented apple juice is a good choice for many pickles. It has a mellow, fruity flavor that blends well with spices. However, it will darken most vegetables and fruits. Cider vinegar may be substituted for white vinegar of the same acidity.
Apple cider-flavor distilled vinegar
Apple cider-flavor distilled vinegar has the flavor and brown color of apple cider vinegar, but it is a mixture of apple cider flavoring and distilled vinegar. Use it in the same way as apple cider vinegar.
Don't other vinegars unless you're sure of acid content
The three vinegars listed above contain 5 percent acetic acid. Occasionally you will find 4 percent acetic acid vinegar. This is salad vinegar and not strong enough to make a good quality pickles that will be heat processed.
- Don't use salad vinegar.
- Don't use wine vinegars or other flavored vinegars unless you are sure of their acetic acid content (should be 5 percent).
- Don't use homemade vinegar when you make pickles because the acetic acid content is unknown and variable.
Use pickling or canning salt without iodine or anti-caking agents. Other salts contain anti-caking materials that may make the brine dark and cloudy.
Use white sugar unless the recipe calls for brown sugar. If you plan to use a sugar substitute, follow recipes developed for these products.
Use fresh whole spices for the best quality and flavor in pickles. Powdered spices may cause the product to darken and become cloudy.
Use clean, fresh, insect-free dill. Avoid over-mature, dry, brown dill. Frozen dill may be used if stored in airtight containers, but flavor loss or change may occur.
Extremely hard water can cause discoloration of pickles, especially if it has a high iron content. Soften water by boiling it for 15 minutes, skimming off the scum and letting the water rest for 24 hours. When the sediment has settled to the bottom, pour off the water from the top and use the softened water for pickling.
Alum does not improve the firmness of fresh-pack pickles.
The calcium in lime improves pickle firmness, but food-grade lime must be used when making a limewater solution for soaking fresh cucumbers. This is done 12-24 hours before pickling.
But, excess lime neutralizes or removes acidity and so must be completely washed out to make safe pickles. To do this, drain the limewater solution, rinse and then re-soak the cucumbers in fresh water for 1 hour. Repeat the rinsing and soaking steps two more times. The lime treatment is recommended only for specific USDA tested recipes.
Yeast and molds are common spoilage microorganisms of pickles. These and most acid-tolerant bacteria are destroyed by proper water bath processing. Use only recommended methods of water bath processing.
Pickled vegetable recipes are developed for pint or ½ pint canning jars. The water bath processing time is determined by the acid level of the vegetable and the pickling solution, and the size of jar. Water bath processing times range from 5 to 30 minutes to insure a safe home canned product. Many fresh pack pickles can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks without heat processing. However, discard if you see any signs of spoilage.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a variety of resources for pickling a various vegetables.
You can also call the AnswerLine at 800-854-1678.
Reviewed in 2018