Pickles and relishes are very popular condiments. They are easy to make; however, it is very important to following the steps correctly to ensure a safe product. Many vegetables can be pickled with cucumbers and cabbage the most often pickled.
Pickling is the term used for preserving foods with acid and salt. Pickling relies on adding acid to lower the pH of the product to 4.6 or lower to allow the food to be processed using the boiling water or steam canner process. There are two pickling methods that can be used to achieve this level of acidity, fermentation and the fresh-pack or quick-process method. Measure or weigh the amounts of food carefully because the proportion of fresh food to the other ingredients will affect flavor and safety of the final product.
Fermented pickles, including sauerkraut, are made from cucumbers or cabbage that are fermented and cured for several weeks. This process produces pickles by encouraging microorganisms to grow in foods, by fermenting them in a 2-3% saltwater solution for several weeks. Bacteria that are naturally present on these vegetables produce lactic acid under the proper conditions. The amount of salt should never be altered when making pickles or sauerkraut by the fermentation process. A special flavor results when pickles are made by this method.
There are many products that can be produced by fermentation, but only those for which recipes have been developed for processing in a boiling water canner will produce a shelf-stable product. For example, currently, there is no home canning recommendation for kimchi or kombucha.
Fresh-Pack or Quick Pickles
Fresh-pack or quick process pickles are made by adding acetic acid (vinegar) to lower the pH. Spices, salt, and sugar are added for flavor. It is important to use vinegar with an acidity level of 5% or more, to ensure the safety of the product. Never reduce the amount of vinegar called for in this type of recipe. These pickles do not require a fermentation period and they are usually made and processed within a day. The major flavor of a fresh-pack or quick pickle is due to the vinegar.
Many recipes are available for fresh or quick pickles many of them are old family recipes, found on the internet, or in canning books. The best practice is to use tested recipes that are available from the USDA or Nebraska Extension.
The term "refrigerator pickles"are not heat processed and are stored in the refrigerator. These pickles produced either by fermentation or by vinegar acidification. The lack of a heating step in fermented pickle has raised safety concerns about some of these products. Fermented refrigerator dills should not be consumed by those people most susceptible to Listeria infections. (pregnant, elderly, or immune-compromised people). Fresh-pack refrigerator pickles are less of a concern because they are prepared by pouring a vinegar containing brine or syrup that usually has been heated to boiling over the cucumbers. When processed in this manner the growth of Listeria is reduced. If refrigerator pickles are to be eaten by some at high risk for getting a Listeria infection, the pickles should be heated to 160° F then cooled before consuming.
Guide 6 Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables, Complete Guide to Home Canning, 2015, USDA
Fundamentals of Consumer Food Safety and Preservation: Master Handbook, 2015, Washington State University
Publication originally written by Julie Albrecht. Updated and reviewed by Nancy Frecks in 2021.