Putting Food By: Pickling fruits and vegetables


Pickling produce is a great way to “put foods by” for later use. Cucumbers aren’t the only vegetables used to make pickles. Many different types of fruits and vegetables can be pickled, using a mixture of sugar, vinegar and spices.

Pickles add zip and zest to your meals, snacks, and party refreshments—if they are good pickles. They enhance the flavor of some foods that contain nutrients essential to good health.

Pickling is one of the oldest known methods of food preservation. The many varieties of pickled and fermented foods are classified by ingredients and methods of preparation. The four general classes are (1) brined or fermented, (2) fresh pack or quick process, (3) fruit pickles, and (4) relishes.

CAUTION-The level of acidity in a pickled product is as important to its safety as it is to the taste and texture.

  • Do not alter vinegar, food, or water proportions in a recipe or use a vinegar with unknown acidity. Acidity should be at least 5 percent.
  • Use only recipes with tested proportions of ingredients. Good sources are the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Center for Home Food Preservation websites.
  • You must have a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.

Selecting Produce – Use only good-quality fruits and vegetables. Select tender vegetables and firm, ripe fruits. Pears and peaches may be slightly underripe for pickling. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables carefully to remove trapped soil.

A pickling-type cucumber makes a better pickle. Some varieties found to be good are Model, Chipper, Explorer, Carolina, Ashley, Poinsett, and Gherkin. Wax-coated cucumbers (bought from the vegetable counter) are not suitable for pickling.

Select cucumbers of uniform size that are best suited to the recipe being followed. Use cucumbers within 24 hours after gathering. If they are kept (even refrigerated) longer than 24 hours before the pickling process begins, you will have a poor-quality product. Always remove the blossom. It contains enzymes that will soften the cucumber. If whole cucumbers are to be brined, leave a 1⁄4-inch stem. Harvest cucumbers before they get too large for the best-quality product. Do not use produce with any evidence of mold. 

Pickling Ingredients – Pure granulated salt with no noncaking material or iodine added is best. Pickling salt, sea salt fine grain, and pink Himalayan fine grain salt can all be used and can be found with other salts at the grocery store or in the canning section. Iodine can cause pickles to darken, and noncaking material may prevent fermentation during the brining process and turn the brine cloudy. Refined table salt should not be used for brining cucumbers. Never use ice cream salt or rock salt for pickles.

Vinegar – Use a good-grade, 5 to 6 percent acid (40- to 60-grain strength). Cider (red) vinegar, used in most recipes, has a good flavor and aroma, but it may turn pickles brown. Distilled (white) vinegar is often used for onions and cauliflower when a clear color is desirable.

Spices – Tie whole spices in a thin cloth bag; remove them before pickles and relishes are packed. Whole spices, if left in the jar, will not only darken the pickles but also may cause some off-flavor. Ground spices tend to darken pickles. Be sure to use fresh spices—ground or whole. Store spices in a cool place (about 70 degrees F) in airtight containers. If a substitution in spices has to be made, a rule of thumb is 1⁄4 teaspoon dried = 3⁄4 to 1 teaspoon fresh. For dill, 1 head = 1 teaspoon dillseed.

Sugar – Most recipes use white granulated sugar; however, some use brown sugar. If you plan to use a sugar substitute, follow recipes developed for these products. Sugar substitutes are not recommended in pickling because heat and/or storage may cause bitterness, and the sugar substitutes do not plump the pickles and keep them firm the way sugar does.

Firming Agents – The reason for soft pickles is sometimes simply not removing the blossom end of the cucumber. Slice off at least 1⁄4 inch on the end where the blossom was. The use of ice to firm pickled products is one great way to get a crunchy product. Soak produce in ice water for 4 to 5 hours before pickling.

Alum may be used safely to firm fermented pickles, but it is unnecessary. Some people have digestive issues with it. Alum does not improve the firmness of quick-processed pickles.

Equipment for Pickling – For heating pickling liquids, use unchipped enamelware, stainless steel, aluminum, or glass pots. Do not use copper, brass, iron, or galvanized utensils. These metals may react with acids or salts and cause undesirable color and flavors, or they may even form toxic compounds in the pickle mixture.

For Brining or Fermenting – Glass and food-grade plastic containers are excellent substitutes for stone crocks. Other 1- to 3-gallon food-grade containers may be used if lined inside with a clean food-grade plastic bag. Do not use garbage bags or trash liners. A large sealed food-grade plastic bag containing 41⁄2 tablespoons of salt and 3 quarts of water may be used as a weight to hold cucumbers under the surface of the brine or you may use a plate and jars of water.

Jars – Use standard canning jars. Wash and sterilize jars in boiling water; keep jars warm until they are filled. Use self-sealing lids with screw bands. Do not use lids or jars from commercially canned foods, such as mayonnaise. They are designed for use on special packing machines and are not suitable for reuse in home canning.

Bread and Butter Squash Pickles

8 cups thinly sliced yellow summer squash

2 cups thinly sliced white onions

2 tablespoons pickling salt (not iodized)

2 1⁄2 cups cider vinegar

3 cups sugar

2 teaspoons celery seed

2 teaspoons mustard seed

4 sweet bell peppers, thinly sliced

Combine squash and onions. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside for 1 hour. Drain off liquid. Combine vinegar, sugar, celery seed, mustard seed, and pepper. Bring to a hard boil. Add squash mixture. Bring to a boil. Pack into hot, pint-size standard canning jars. Adjust lids and bands. Process in boiling waterbath canner (212 degrees F) for 5 minutes.

These Pickling Basics and other vegetable storage options can be found in the Alabama Extension website under the Food Safety tab or you can purchase a copy of the Home Food Preservation Cookbook at our office. For more information, contact the Dallas County Extension Office at 334-875-3200, or log on to www.aces.edu.

Callie N. Nelson is Dallas County Extension Coordinator.

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