Tips for Preserving Pickles

— By Kate McCarty, Food Systems Professional, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Green beans and cucumbers are starting to appear in Maine gardens and at farmers markets, which means it’s time to kick off pickling season. Our tips will help you create high-quality and delicious pickled vegetables of all kinds, from classics like dill pickles and bread and butter to pickled green beans, beets, or carrots.

The two methods for making delicious homemade pickles are quick-pack pickling and fermentation. Both achieve an acidic final product that helps to prevent spoilage organisms from growing, while also delivering delicious, tart pickled flavors. Once pickles are prepared, they can be refrigerated for short-term use or canned to create a shelf-stable product that’s safe for long-term storage.

Be sure to use a research-based, tested recipe from recommended resources like National Center for Home Food Preservation, USDA, Ball, or Cooperative Extension. Once you have selected your recipe, these ingredients will ensure you have a high-quality final product.

Use Canning and Pickling Salt

The ingredients that make up the pickling liquid, or brine, can affect both the safety and the appearance of your pickles. First: salt. Canning and pickling salt is recommended for use in pickling as it is pure granulated salt. It doesn’t have any additives like anti-caking agents or iodine that can cause your brine to turn cloudy or your pickles to darken. Other salts like sea salt and kosher salt also don’t have additives, but can measure differently because of the crystal size, resulting in under- or over-salted pickles. So it’s best to use canning and pickling salt to ensure a consistent final product.

Vinegar and Acidity

Next, vinegar: Look for 5% acidity on the label to ensure safety. Don’t use homemade vinegars, as the acidity varies and may not create a safe final product. White vinegar is usually the default vinegar, as it is neutral in flavor, but you can use any kind of vinegar, as long as it’s 5% acidity. Try apple cider vinegar in your sour mustard pickles or bread and butter pickles and white distilled vinegar for dill pickles and other pickled vegetables like dilly beans.

Best Cucumber Varieties for Pickles

For best results, use fresh pickling cucumbers. Pickling cucumbers have thicker skins, less water in the flesh, and smaller seeds which will give you a crunchier pickle than a variety grown for fresh eating. Non-pickling varieties are commonly labeled as European, English, and slicing cucumbers.

Cucumbers are best refrigerated after harvest and used within 24 hours. It’s not always possible to know when the cucumbers were harvested if you’re purchasing them, so just make plans to pickle your cucumbers shortly after you buy them.

How to Make Crunchy Pickles

A big concern around homemade cucumber pickles is crispness. You’re never going to get that Claussen snap with home-canned pickles. But there are several things you can do to improve the firmness of your pickles.

One tip is to prepare your cucumbers properly by cutting the blossom ends off – be sure to remove a 1/16-inch slice from the blossom end of fresh cucumbers. Blossoms contain an enzyme which causes excessive softening of pickles. The blossom end is the one opposite the stem end. Slice a sliver from this end to ensure these enzymes don’t cause your pickles to soften. 

You may find that some pickle recipes call for steps like slicing your cucumbers, salting them, covering them with ice cubes and refrigerating for several hours. These steps are to draw water out of the sliced cucumbers, which will give you a crunchier final product. Be sure to follow any of these steps to give yourself the best chance at crunchy cucumber pickles.

Commercial Firming Agents

There are also several recommended firming agents for pickling like Xtra Crunch or Pickle Crisp, a calcium chloride product. Calcium chloride helps to firm the pectin in cucumbers, helping to maintain some crunch. Add this product directly to the jars, before you add your spices or vegetables in. Follow the directions provided on the product. We did an experiment last summer and found the jars with Pickle Crisp added really did maintain a crunch more than the jars without.

Pickling lime is a crisping treatment that is no longer recommended. It was recommended to soak your pickles in and required several thorough rinses to safely remove the product before canning. We recommend other ways to keep your pickles crispy.

Alum is another outdated recommendation for pickling. It only works for fermented pickles, and as long as you follow the advice we’ve given you here today, you shouldn’t have an issue with soggy pickles.

Lastly, we recommend refrigerating prior to opening, as this will increase the crispness of your pickles. With these tips, you’ll have delicious homemade pickles this season!