We’ve all had them, bad hair days. And, for those who practice the art of canning, the same goes for less than optimum pickles. Luckily, like hair care, the laws of pickling are simple and finite — start with the freshest cucumbers you can find, follow the recipe, and process them, but not too much. Still, we frequently receive questions regarding problems with pickles, and we hope this compendium of advice will help you towards making the perfect one.
Of the three main categories of pickles — fermented, refrigerator or quick, and quick-processed — here, we concern ourselves with the processed version, where variability of texture and flavor most occur. Though the focus is mainly on cucumbers, these tips may apply to any variety of fruit and vegetables that are used for pickling.
– Pickling, as with all canning, begins and ends with good ingredients. Select firm, unblemished cucumbers; any presence of mold or rot may produce off-flavors in the finished product.
– There are three main varieties of cucumbers: slicing, pickling, and “burpless.” While all three types may be pickled or eaten fresh, cucumbers bred for pickling have a thinner skin, the black spines giving a characteristically bumpy appearance.
– Weather may also have an effect — too dry and the skin can toughen and become bitter, too wet and cucumbers become waterlogged, chancing soft and flavorless results. It’s recommended to wait at least 2 to 3 days after heavy rain fall before using vegetables from your garden to make pickles.
– Use cucumbers that have been freshly picked, and keep them cold until it’s time to process them. Cucumbers are 90% water and, once picked, will lose moisture rapidly, especially if let to stand at room temperature. They may start to develop a hollow center after 24 hours, which traps air and causes them to float.
– Wash cucumbers well — mold and yeast left clinging to the skin may produce off-flavors.
– To avoid using additives, presoaking in ice cold water for 4 to 5 hours prior to pickling is recommended for crispier pickles. Alum, a firming agent, does not work in the case of quick-processed pickles.
– Squash blossoms contain an enzyme that softens pickles. This can be removed by cutting a 1/16-inch slice off the blossom end, and is more convenient than plunking a grape leaf in the brine, especially if you’re grapevineless.
– Choose salt without anti-caking additives; these additives will cause the brine to become cloudy. In general, whole spices are preferable to powdered, which may also make the brine cloudy and sludgy.
– When a recipe calls for it, sugar helps to keep pickles plump and firm. Do not substitute artificial sweetener — through heat and/or storage, these may cause bitterness or loss of flavor.
– Choose a vinegar of at least 5% acidity; if too weak, the pickles may become soft or slippery, or even spoil. If water is included in the recipe, choose distilled or soft water; hard water may contribute to off-flavors.
– Use equipment made of nonreactive materials. Metals such as copper, brass, galvanized or iron react with acids or salts, and cause undesirable color changes in pickles.
– Freshly made, unused pickling solution may be stored in the refrigerator for later use.
– The high temperatures of a boiling water bath may rob pickles of their crispness and color. To minimize the amount of time the pickles are exposed to heat during processing, pre-warm the water in the canner to 140° for raw-packed foods, and 180° for hot-packed. Once processing time is complete, remove jars immediately from the canner.
– An alternative to processing in a boiling water bath is low-temperature pasteurization. With this method, the jars are processed for a longer period in a 180°F water bath. Care must be taken with this method to maintain the water at a steady temperature, and is not appropriate for reduced-sodium pickles.
– Pickles are edible soon after they are processed; to develop flavor, store jars for 4 to 5 weeks before using. A crispy texture is further enhanced by chilling the jar before serving.
– For best quality, use pickles within one year of canning. If processed properly, they will last far longer, however, they will deteriorate in both texture and flavor. To store, remove screw bands from sealed jars, wash food residue from jars then rinse, and keep in a cool, dry place. Avoid storing in a warm place, which may cause pickles to lose quality or even spoil within a few weeks or months, depending on the temperature.
– Always check the jar for spoilage — signs may be a bulging lid or leakage, spurting liquid, disagreeable odor, change in color or unusual softness, mushiness, or slipperiness of the product. If there is even the slightest indication of spoilage, do not taste and dispose so it cannot be eaten by humans or animals.
• Let’s Preserve: Pickles, UMaine Cooperative Extension
• Pickling, National Center for Home Food Preservation
• Causes and Possible Solutions for Problems with Pickled Foods, National Center for Home Food Preservation
• Crispy and Delicious Homemade Pickles, Winnebago County UW-Extension
• Mastering Food Preservation: Pickles & Relish