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Troubleshooting common problems with home canned pickles

It’s frustrating when your home canned pickles don’t turn out the way you expect. Explore common problems home canners face with pickled products and solutions to prevent it from happening with your home canned pickles. 

Watch our video to learn how to produce a crunchy and tasty home canned pickle:

Pickled pickles cucumbers.

Hollow pickles

  • If you experience problems with hollow pickles, the most common cause is too much time between gathering and pickling. Start processing as soon as possible after picking - preferably within 24 hours. If you cannot begin pickling immediately, refrigerate or spread out the cucumbers in a cool place with good air circulation.
  • Another cause is using poorly developed cucumbers. Check cucumbers during washing. Hollow cucumbers usually float on top. Use hollow cucumbers for relish or chunk-type pickles.
  • In fermented or crock pickles, the most common reason for hollow pickles is improper curing. Use proper brine strength and keep the product well-covered.
  • If the cucumber is too large, over 2 inches across, the pickling solution is not able to penetrate the core properly. Use smaller cucumbers for pickling.
Cucumber with curly vine screen.

Shriveling

  • Shriveling happens most often in very sweet or sour pickles. Using too strong a salt, sugar or vinegar solution at the beginning of the pickling process causes shriveling. Measure ingredients carefully when preparing a cucumber pickle that requires the addition of sugar, vinegar or salt over a 3-day to 2-week time.
  • Whole and large pickles are more likely to shrivel than sliced or chunk pickles.
  • Overcooking, overprocessing or not using fresh cucumbers also causes shriveling.
  • Very dry weather can also contribute to shriveled cucumbers.
  • Cucumbers lose moisture quickly; even one day at room temperature may lead to hollow-centered or shriveled pickles.

Soft pickles

  • Use pickling cucumbers which have a thinner skin, making it easier for the vinegar and salt to enter the flesh to preserve the cucumber. University of Minnesota Winners from the Master Gardener Seed Trials over the last several decades include Chicago Pickling, Cool Breeze, and Little Leaf. Other common pickling varieties include Pickle bush, Straight 8 or Gherkins.
  • Crispness can also be lost if cucumbers are stored longer than 24 hours in the refrigerator from harvest to pickling.
  • Pick cucumbers  in the cooler parts of the day, before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Avoid harvesting cucumbers during the hot hours because the heat of the day will turn them limp and they become 
  • Thoroughly wash each cucumber, especially around the stem area, where soil can be trapped. Any remaining soil may be a source of bacteria and can cause a soft pickle. 
  • Remove 1/16th” from the blossom end to eliminate enzymes which  cause the pickles to become soft. 
  • One of the simplest methods of firming pickles is to use ice. Soak cucumbers or other vegetables in ice water or layer with crushed ice for 4 to 5 hours before pickling. Sometimes this step is combined with a salt solution indicated by the recipe.
  • If you use up to date, tested recipes and fresh quality produce, firming agents are unnecessary. However, some home canners still like to use firming agents when making pickles. Let’s review some common firming agents you can use starting with Calcium hydroxide. 
    • Calcium hydroxide does improve pickle firmness. Common names, including hydrated lime, slack lime, pickling lime and “Cal '' in Spanish. Pickling lime is widely available in stores and online. Lime provides calcium, which combines with natural pectin in cucumbers to form calcium pectate, giving the pickles a firmer texture. Only use food-grade pickling lime, not agricultural or burnt lime.  Use lime only in the initial soak for 12-24 hours before pickling them. Lime is added at a rate of no more than 2 Tablespoons per gallon of water in the soaking solution. Excess lime must be removed as pickling lime is highly basic (non-acidic) and can increase the possibility of botulism in home canned products. After the initial soak, drain, rinse and then re-soak the cucumbers in fresh water for 1 hour, then rinse and repeat the fresh water soak and rinsing steps two more times, for a total of 3 rinses. If used incorrectly, lime can be unsafe. Do not use aluminum containers for soaking. Lime may pit aluminum causing it to soak into the cucumbers and making them unsafe to consume. The rinsing process is very important because excess lime absorbed by the cucumbers can make pickles unsafe to eat and may increase the risk of botulism. If using calcium hydroxide follow these Safety guidelines
      • Handle carefully. Follow manufacturers instructions for safe handling. 
      • Do not inhale or expose the lime dust to the eyes.
      • Do not consume food grade calcium hydroxide straight. 
      • It is a strong base solution and may be harmful. Accidental ingestion can cause burns of the throat and esophagus. 
    • Calcium chloride is a safer alternative to pickling lime. This generic firming agent is used in the pickling and canning industry. In recent years calcium chloride has become available to home canners as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. You can find these products with the canning supplies; the pickling packets also contain calcium chloride. These products offer fast results with the same great taste and crispness of lime and does not have the hydroxide component of lime and therefore does not lower acidity of pickled food or pose a food safety risk. A small amount is added to each jar of pickles before sealing the jar with lid. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions. Calcium chloride can also improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches and to keep whole canned tomatoes together Calcium chloride may leave a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium.  These products have an indefinite shelf life but will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity, so it is important to keep them in as dry of conditions as possible. Commercial canners and food entrepreneurs use calcium chloride as an alternative to removing the blossom end. 
    • Grape leaves contain tannins to inhibit the enzyme that makes pickles soft. Cutting off the blossom end 1/16th of an inch has the same effect as grape leaves.
    • Alum is a compound used in old recipes to make pickles crisp. It is no longer recommended by the FDA and current science-based recipes no longer include it. If ingested in large quantities, it can produce nausea or severe distress with the digestive system. 
  • Your recipe may give you the low temperature pasteurization option. Low-temperature pasteurization treatment can produce a crisper pickle. Carefully manage and monitor time and temperature to avoid possible spoilage. Only use it if indicated in your recipe. Preheat your water to 120-140 degrees. Fill jars of cucumbers with pickling brine at temperatures between 165-180 degrees, Add filled and capped jars to the canner, and cover jars with 1-2” of hot water. Heat to 180 degrees F and maintain this temperature for a full thirty minutes. Temperatures higher than 185º F may cause unnecessary softening of pickles.  Once complete, remove the lid and let your jars rest  for five minutes before removing them from the canner.

Off color pickles

Cucumbers with small brown spots should not be used.

  • Pickles may turn dark for several reasons. The most common cause is using water with too many minerals, especially iron.
  • Using ground spices rather than whole spices or using iodized salt, or cooking the cucumber brine too long with spices causes pickles to darken.
  • Cucumbers that have had a delayed growing season, or had been inadequately fertilized, produce a darker pickle product.
  • Do not use iron or brass utensils when preparing pickles. Use only unchipped enamel, stainless steel or heat-resistant glassware when heating pickles. For fermented pickles, use a stone crock, glass or heavy foodgrade plastic container for the process, not a plastic garbage container.
  • Sunburned or over-mature yellow cucumbers may produce a pickled product that is dull or faded in appearance. Cucumbers with small brown spots should not be used.
  • If the pickle liquid turns pink shortly after canning, over-mature dill may be the cause.

Overall appearance and safety

  • Soft water is best for pickling. If only hard water is available, boil it, skim away the surface scum and let it sit for 24 hours. Then draw water off the top of the container without disturbing any sediment at the bottom. Or buy distilled water.
  • A cloudy appearance or a white sediment may indicate the use of table salt rather than canning or pickling salt. Yeast develops and settles to the bottom of the jar. It may be a normal reaction during fermentation caused by bacteria. If the pickles are soft, they are spoiled from the yeast fermentation. Don't use them.
  • Using too weak a salt brine or vinegar solution may cause soft or slippery pickles, as can using moldy garlic or storing the pickles at too warm a temperature. These pickles are spoiled and should be discarded.
  • Pack pickles to allow sufficient room for the pickling solution to surround each piece. 
  • Make pickling brine according to recipe. Heat on the stove top  to boiling just before needed. Don’t overcook the brine as overcooking can change the acetic acid level and lose its ability to keep stored pickles safe.
  • To form a tight vacuum seal, process pickles in a boiling water bath canner according to USDA recommendations. Use standard canning jars with new lids.

Marilyn Herman; Deb Botzek-Linn, former Extension educator; and Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2021

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