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, University or Extension, 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 use other vinegars unless you're sure of acid content
The three vinegars listed above contain 5 percent acetic acid. Occasionally you will find 3 and 4 percent acetic acid vinegars. These are salad vinegars and are not strong enough to make good quality or safe pickles for home canning.
- 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.
Dill is often added to each jar before adding the brine. Use clean, fresh, insect-free heads of dill. Avoid over-mature, dry, brown dill. Frozen dill may be used if stored in airtight containers, but flavor loss or change may occur. Add 1 whole head per pint or 1.5 heads per quart. You can substitute: 1 tbsp. of dill seed for 1 dill head, if needed.
Garlic is often added to each jar before adding the brine. Only use the amount of garlic indicated in your recipe. Adding more garlic or other low acid foods like hot peppers can make the product unsafe.
The water you use may impact the final product. use soft, distilled or filtered water when possible to avoid a cloudy brine. Hard water can interfere with the formation of acid and prevent pickles from curing properly. Water with above-average calcium content can shrivel pickles, and iron compounds can make them darker than normal. To soften hard water, boil for 15 minutes and let it sit undisturbed for 24 hours and discard sediment; add 1 tablespoon vinegar per gallon of water before using. Chlorine in municipal water does not negatively impact the quality of the final product.
Can I reuse pickling brine?
According to a National Center for Home Preservation’s blog post on drying, you can save and reuse pickling brine (vinegar, salt, sugar, water solution) if it was not combined with the vegetables you are pickling. However, do not reuse brine mixed with vegetables. The vegetables soak up the vinegar solution making them acidic while making the pickling solution less acidic. For safety sake, do not use leftover brine that previously held vegetables for another recipe. Remember, fresh is always best.
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.
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.
Alum does not improve the firmness of fresh-pack pickles. 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.
Calcium chloride is a safer alternative to pickling lime and has become available to home canners as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. 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 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, therefore 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 of each cucumber has the same effect as grape leaves.
The calcium in lime (Calcium hydroxide) 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.
If using lime (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.
- Accidental ingestion can cause burns of the throat and esophagus.
How do I….Pickle. National Center for Home Food Preservation.
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 2021