A General Guide To Pickling, Relish & Fermenting Basics

Introduction

When is a vegetable not a vegetable? When it’s a pickle! Same goes for fruit, meats, and eggs. Pickles take the ordinary to the extraordinary. And jars of pickles can be pretty! It would be rather strange to give someone a gift of a plain jar of green beans, but a festively decorated bottle of dilly beans with the recipe attached is the perfect choice for someone who loves to cook. The possibilities for pickling are almost endless. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at the basic ingredients and discover how they all combine to create that wonderful crunch.

The Science Behind Pickling

Also known as “fresh pack,” pickling is closely tied to the fermentation process and it’s an ancient way of preserving foods. In fact, just about every culture has found a way to get pickled. However, as far as food products go, early methods of pickling involved soaking in a salt brine and allowing fermentation to take place. In this process, certain types of bacterial growth are encouraged (lactic acid bacteria) and others (the ones that cause food to spoil) are discouraged. It’s a selective process.

During the fermenting process, there’s a delicate balance among the ingredients in the pickling crock and keeping everything in balance is the key to producing an excellent pickle. Two important players in this production are lactic acid bacteria and salt.

Lactic acid bacteria feed on the sugar contained in cucumbers. This allows the bacteria to grow and multiply, and it also imparts the familiar “bite” of fermented pickles.

Salt is very important in keeping the balance. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears. If there’s too much salt, lactic acid can’t survive, let alone thrive. Too little salt and the spoilage bacteria get the fighting edge. But with just the right amount of salt, your pickles will be perfect.

Oxygen is a spoiler for fermenting pickles, so making sure you’re keeping out the air is essential. Keep the crock tightly covered.

Finally, the temperature needs to stay a fairly constant 70°F to 75°F (21°C to 24°C) to help the lactic acid bacteria stay alive, healthy, and on the job. By keeping the temperature at the low range of what’s optimal, you’ll regulate the speed of fermentation. Slow is best here for getting the best product.

The Wonderful World of Pickles

The more pickle-making you do, the more respect you’ll develop for the common cabbage and cucumber. Cabbages have been cultivated for at least 4,000 years. Their scientific name is Brassica oleracea and they’re related to broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Savoy cabbage, the crinkly kind with the deeply veined leaves, was developed in Germany back in the 16th century, so it’s safe to say that sauerkraut has been around for a very long time.

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are interesting in that just like tomatoes, they’re a fruit used as a vegetable. They’re related to watermelons, muskmelons, and squash, including pumpkins. They originated in India and have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. They’re mostly water (96%) and come in three types: slicing, pickling, and the seedless or “burpless” varieties. For pickle purposes, we use pickling cucumbers. They’re smaller than slicing cukes, with warty skins that have tiny spines.

Gherkins are the smallest pickling cukes. Their name comes from the early modern Dutch word gurken, which simply means “small pickled cucumber.” Depending on how you process them, you can make sweet or dill gherkins.

The last important plant ingredient in vegetable pickles is dill (Anethum gravealens). It’s an herb and belongs to the celery family. It was first reported as a find in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II around 1400 BCE.

With this background knowledge, let’s move on and see how to use these ingredients.

Brined or Fermented Pickles

Assorted pickled vegetables in jars for sale

These take the longest to make—a week or longer—but if you love pickles, they’re the best. It’s a curing process done in a crock. Brining and fermenting are two different processes. Brining uses a saltwater solution in a specific strength to cure the pickles. Afterward, acid must be added (vinegar) as a preservative. Fermenting causes lactic acid bacteria to grow and act as a preservative.

Kosher dill pickles have just enough garlic added to the brine to give them their characteristic texture and flavor. However, these pickles aren’t necessarily kosher. It’s become a commonly applied name to this particular kind of pickle. If you’re buying them ready-made, you’ll need to check the label to see if they were made under rabbinical supervision.

Quick-Pack Pickles

These are quick, as the name says. No crock is needed—just a large kettle or pot on the stove. You can cure these pickles for a few hours first or move directly to the cooking phase with vinegar and a mix of fresh spices. Vinegar is the pickling and preserving agent, and to ensure a safe product, it needs to contain 5% acetic acid. These pickles are finished in a boiling water bath.

To be safe, always use tested, approved recipes when making pickles. Don’t alter the proportions of ingredients in the recipe and you’ll help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. Find out more about pressure canning basics.

Relishes

Relishes are pickles gone bite-size. Fresh fruits or vegetables are chopped into small pieces, added to a spicy vinegar solution, and cooked for a short period of time on the stovetop. Relishes are finished in a boiling water bath. See Chapter 16 for complete directions and recipes.

Pickling Fruits & Vegetables

Think sweet and sour for these pickles. They can be created from one variety of fruit or vegetable or a mix of several. The right proportions of sugar and 5% vinegar are combined with fresh spices to make a safe product that’s finished in a boiling water bath. See Chapter 14 for complete directions and recipes.

Equipment & Supplies

Two jars of colorful pickled vegetables on table

The first ingredients to consider are the fruits or vegetables you’ll be pickling. If you start with firm, ripe, fresh produce, you’ll be well on your way to a fine pickle. Don’t be seduced by the bargain bin. Moldy, overripe, or shriveled produce isn’t a good deal. If you wouldn’t eat it, you shouldn’t pickle it. You’ll need about 14 pounds (6.4kg) of cucumbers to make a full canner load of 7 quarts of pickles.

Cucumbers come in two basic types: slicing and pickling. Choose pickling cucumbers! The slicing varieties don’t hold up to the pickling process. They’re meant to be eaten fresh. Pickling cucumbers are generally smaller than slicing cucumbers. They also have wartier skins—a real knobby texture. You’ll probably have an easier time finding these at a pick-your-own farm or at a farmers’ market. Supermarkets generally carry only slicing cukes. Also, cucumbers shouldn’t be waxed because the wax is a barrier that keeps the brining solution from entering. Don’t delay after you’ve gotten your produce picked or purchased. Pick and process the same day if you can. If you must wait until the following morning, keep the produce refrigerated.

Either lime or alum appears frequently as an ingredient in older recipes. They were used as firming agents. Just give your cucumbers a good ice water soak for 4 to 5 hours before you begin the pickling process and you’ll get crisp pickles without these additives.

For fermented pickles, you’ll need pickling or kosher salt, a stoneware crock, and a weight (such as a dinner plate) to keep the pickles under the brine. Be sure the crock is large enough to hold the pickles and salt, with a few inches to spare at the top to accommodate the brine that forms during the fermenting process. A general rule is 1 gallon of space for each 5 pounds (2.3kg) of fresh produce.

For quick-pack pickles, you’ll need pickling or kosher salt, 5% vinegar, sugar, and spices, according to the recipe you’ll be following. The salt you use is important. Kosher and pickling salt are pure, which means they have no additives (such as iodine, which can turn pickles dark and the pickling liquid cloudy) or anti caking ingredients that keep the salt free-flowing. Kosher salt tends to be coarser than pickling salt. Kosher salt can be used as a substitute for pickling salt as long as it doesn’t contain any anticaking agents. Morton’s does, so it’s not recommended for pickling. Diamond Crystal doesn’t contain anticaking agents, so it would be an acceptable substitution for pickling salt.

Kitchen scales aren’t a luxury item. If the recipe specifies a certain weight of produce, you’ll need to get an exact measurement. Especially in fermented pickles, guesswork is almost certainly an invitation to failure. You’ve got a considerable investment in produce as well as in your time and effort. Don’t sabotage it!

General Procedures

Have a plan for your produce. Everything big or small has a place in pickle-making. If you’ll be making gherkins, use the smallest cucumbers—about 1½ inches (3.75cm) in length. Dills use the larger-sized cukes—about 4 inches (10cm) long. Produce that’s overly large can be sliced or chopped to make relishes or pickled fruits or vegetables.

Wash the produce thoroughly. You don’t want any soil remaining to potentially cause softening of the pickles. For the same reason, slice off the blossom end that contains enzymes that can cause softening. Just a tiny slice will suffice.

Assemble all the ingredients before you plunge into processing. It’s aggravating to have to stop and search for an ingredient when you’re in the middle of something important. Preparation prevents pickle problems. Follow the recipe exactly. Don’t change the amounts of salt, sugar, or vinegar. You can exchange or omit certain spices. If you don’t like turmeric, leave it out. Love cinnamon? Add an extra stick to your pickled fruits.

Wash all jars in hot soapy water, rinse them thoroughly, and keep them hot until you’re ready to fill them. Just because a jar looks clean doesn’t mean it’s clean. Be scrupulous!

Always finish with the proper time in the boiling water canner. This inactivates certain enzymes that can cause changes in color, texture, and flavor; destroys spoilage microorganisms; and ensures the seal. If you’ll be processing your jars for less than 10 minutes, sterilize the jars by boiling them for 10 minutes before packing them.

Some pickle recipes call for pasteurization instead of processing in a boiling water bath. This method uses lower temperatures (180°F to 185°F [80°C to 85°C]) and can give you a higher-quality product. If your recipe indicates this method, follow this procedure:

  1. Place the jars in a boiling water canner that’s been filled halfway with warm water (120°F to 140°F [50°C to 60°C]). Add additional warm water to cover the jars to a level 1 inch (2.5cm) above their tops.
  2. Turn on the heat under the canner to high. When the water reaches 180°F to 185°F (80°C to 85°C), begin timing. Process for 30 minutes at this temperature. Use a thermometer to ensure the water remains in this range. If the temperature increases, the pickles might soften.
  3. After 30 minutes, remove the jars immediately from the canner and set them on a clean, dry surface.

Again, a reminder: This process should only be used in recipes that indicate it’s safe.

Storing

The first step in storing is testing the seals within 12 to 24 hours of processing the jars. To do this, you’ll remove the ring. Your jar is sealed if the lid is concave in the center. (Compare it with an unused lid and you should see a difference. The unused lid is raised in the center.) The lid shouldn’t move when you press on it. One old-time way of checking a seal was to hit the lid with a spoon and listen for a pure ring (as opposed to a dull thud). However, this method isn’t all that reliable.

If your lids have sealed, you’re ready to move on to step two: washing the outside of the jars. Many jars are sticky after processing and rinsing them in warm water will remove that sticky residue. Wipe with a clean, dry towel.

Next, use an indelible pen to label each lid with the jar’s contents and the date. Leave the ring off. Leaving the ring on can make a jar that’s come unsealed appear to still have a tight seal. Also, rust can form between the ring and the jar, and that can make unscrewing the ring later quite difficult. It also looks nasty.

Finally, store the jars away from sunlight in a cool, dry location. The shelf life for home-canned pickles is about 1 year. As long as they were properly prepared, processed, and stored and the lids are still sealed, the food should be fine. However, quality decreases over time, so eat up! The best way to make sure your preserved produce stays fresh is to rotate your stock! Just as stores rotate their stock—putting older items out front and placing new items behind them—so should you. “First in, first out” is the home food preserver’s motto.

Before using your pickled products, check to be sure the lid is still sealed. If it’s bulging or any liquid has seeped out (indicating a poor seal) or if after opening the jar you notice an off-putting odor, mold, foam, questionable texture to the pickles, or any kind of movement of the liquid in the jar, dispose of the product without tasting it. Boil the food for 10 minutes and dispose of the contents in the garbage.

You can reuse the canning jars even if the pickles have spoiled. The Extension Service recommends cleaning them with a solution made from 1 part chlorine bleach to 5 parts water. Allow the solution to remain on the glass surfaces for 5 minutes, then rinse. You can then wash them in the regular cycle of your dishwasher.

This message bears repeating often: Never taste food you suspect has spoiled. Need to learn about planning for canning and preserving.

Troubleshooting

In a pickle about your pickles? When pickles go wrong, it can be frustrating. Generally, there are some simple explanations for what happened and knowing the cause gives you a chance to find a remedy for the problem. Here are some of the most common pickle problems and what to do about them.

Hollow Pickles

A hollow pickle can start out as a hollow cucumber. This can happen if the cuke didn’t mature properly, was on the vine too long, or sat around on the counter or in the refrigerator waiting to become a pickle. You can usually spot these when you’re giving them their initial scrub in the sink. They’re floaters. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful in relishes, where they’re cut up into small pieces, but they’re definitely not whole pickle timber. If you’re fermenting pickles and end up with some hollow ones, the fermenting process might have been too quick or the temperature during fermenting might have been too high.

Soft Pickles

Nobody likes soft pickles. Soft is sometimes coupled with slippery and it’s just not a good thing at all. You can’t turn a soft pickle crunchy again, so it’s best to prevent it in the first place. Depending on what caused the softening, the pickle is either safe to eat or it’s not. Did you remove the blossom at the tip? Enzymes responsible for softening are located there, so be sure to slice off the end. If this is the cause, the pickles are safe to eat but unappetizing.

If harmful bacteria got a chance to grow during the fermenting process because the salt concentration was too light, toss the pickles. They’re not safe to eat. It’s essential to follow the recipe exactly regarding the amount of ingredients and proper procedures. Don’t cut back on the salt or the acid, and be sure the cukes remain covered with brine throughout the fermenting process. Also, skim off any scum that forms.

Finally, observe proper processing procedures. Follow the fermenting process with the correct amount of time in a boiling water bath to ensure a proper seal. If the seal fails, the pickles aren’t safe to eat and must be disposed of.

Splotches & Blotches

These problems are cosmetic. The pickles are safe to eat but won’t win any prizes for beauty. Too much sun can cause skin scalding and too much time on the vine can make cukes old. In that case, you’re probably really dealing with age spots. Also, keeping the cucumbers in the fridge too long before processing can cause browning. Cucumbers should be fresh, firm, not overripe, and a uniform green color if they’re going to make a pickle worth its salt.

Weird Colors

Pickles that turn out an alarming shade of green or garlic that becomes blue or purple usually means copper is to blame. If that’s the case, the pickles should be discarded. Where does the copper come from? You might have some expensive copper cookware that works beautifully for most kinds of cooking, but it’s not the right choice for making pickles—and neither is brass or iron. Also, avoid using galvanized utensils. Copper reacts with acid and salt to make copper sulfate and creates these changes. If you use stainless steel, enamelware, or stoneware, you won’t have this problem.

Dark Pickles

Dark pickles might look unattractive, but the pickles are still safe to eat.

It could be a spice problem. If you’ve used ground spices instead of whole, used too much (didn’t follow the recipe), or left the whole spices in the pickling solution when you packed the jars, you might end up with dark pickles.

Darkness could also be a salt problem. Use pickling or kosher salt—never iodized table salt—for your pickles.

Or it could be a water problem. Soft water—not hard—is best for pickling.

Shriveled Pickles

These pickles are screaming “Too much! Too much!” Follow the recipe carefully. If you use too much sugar, too much salt, or too much vinegar at the outset and then cook the pickles too much or process them too long, they’ll shrivel. Be sure to follow the directions exactly! The pickles are safe to eat but won’t impress the judges.

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