Cucumber Selection: Select fresh, firm, unwaxed cucumbers free from spoilage and of the appropriate size for the type of pickle to be made. For gherkins, select cucumbers about 1½ inches in length and for dill pickles, use 4-inch-long cucumbers. For the best results choose pickling rather than slicing cucumbers. Burpless cucumbers are not suitable for making fermented pickles because they produce an enzyme causing the pickles to soften during fermentation. Smaller burpless cucumbers with small seeds may be suitable for making quick-process pickles Remove and discard a 1/16-inch slice from the blossom end of fresh cucumbers. Blossoms may contain enzymes which may cause pickles to be soft. Wash and rinse cucumbers with cold water before use.
Cabbage Selection: For the best sauerkraut, use firm heads of fresh cabbage. Freshly harvested cabbage is very crisp and fractures easily. Keep freshly harvested heads in a cool dry place for one to two days before shredding for kraut use.
Salt: Canning or pickling salt is recommended. Fermented and fresh pack or quick pickles may be safely made using either iodized or non-iodized table salt. However, noncaking materials added to table salt may make the brine cloudy and iodine may darken the pickles. Flake salt varies in density and is not recommended for use when pickling. Reduced sodium salts may be used in quick pickle recipes. The pickles may, however, have a slightly different taste than expected. Reduced sodium salts should not be used in fermented products because they may compromise the safety of the product.
Sugar: White granulated and brown sugars are most often used. Corn syrup and honey, unless part of a tested recipes, may produce undesirable flavors. Replacing sugar with substitutes in recipes developed using sugar as an ingredient may compromise the safety of the final product. Sugar substitutes should only be used when following recipes developed for these products.
Spices: Use fresh, whole spices for the best flavor in pickles. Powdered spices may cause the product to darken or become cloudy. Tying whole spices loosely in a cheesecloth bag, putting the bag in the pickling liquid and the removing the bag before canning is best. If desired, add individual spices, such as a cinnamon stick, from the bag to each jar. Spices deteriorate and quickly lose their pungency in heat and humidity.
Vinegar: Use white distilled or cider vinegars of 5% acidity. Any kind of vinegar with unknown acidity should not be used. White vinegar is usually preferred when a light color is desirable. The level of acidity in a pickled or fermented product is as important to its safety as it is to taste and texture. Do not alter vinegar, food, or water proportions in a recipe. Use only recipes with tested proportions of ingredients Tested recipes are available from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, USDA and Extension offices. There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed product to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which is a bacteria capable of producing deadly toxins in canned foods when not properly processed. Pack the product so there is room for the pickling solution to surround the food being pickled.
Water: Use soft water, if possible. Extremely hard water can discolor pickles, especially if it has a high iron content. Sediment from hard water also may be a problem when extremely hard water is used to make pickles. Some types of hard water may be softened by boiling the water for 15 minutes, skimming off the scum, and letting the water rest for 24 hours. When the sediment has settled to the bottom, use the water above the sediment and use for pickling.
Firming Agents: When using good quality ingredients and up to date methods for making pickles, firming agents are not needed for crisp pickles but can be used. Firming agents include:
- Alum (available in the spice section in grocery stores) can be safely used to firm fermented pickles. It is not necessary and is not included in the recipes in this publication but could be used. Alum does not improve the firmness of quick process pickles.
- Pickling Lime: The calcium in lime improves pickle firmness. Food grade or pickling lime may be used as a lime water solution for soaking fresh cucumbers 12 to 24 hours before starting the pickling process, never in the processing liquid. Excess lime absorbed by the cucumbers must be removed to make safe pickles. To remove excess lime, drain the lime water solution, rinse, and then resoak the cucumbers in fresh water for one hour. Repeat the rinsing and soaking steps two more times.
- Calcium chloride can be used to improve pickle crispness and is easier to use than lime. It can be added to filled jars just before processing. Food grade calcium chloride can normally be purchased in stores that sell canning and freezing supplies.
Crispy Pickles, June 25, 2019, Penn State Extension
Food Preservation: Making Pickled Products (FN 1989, Revised Aug. 2019) North Dakota State University
Fundamentals of Consumer Food Safety and Preservation: Master Handbook, 2015, Washington State University
Guide 6 Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables, Complete Guide to Home Canning, 2015, USDA
Publication originally written by Julie Albrecht. Updated and reviewed by Nancy Frecks in 2021.