If you are new to pickling the following will help you get started making tasty pickles in a safe manner. Most of this information may be found on the UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE website (you will need to google for the site URL since it changes occasionally).
Preserving food can be very safe if a few precautions are observed. Above all, any food that has an off-color or odor should be viewed suspiciously. If in doubt, disposed of it. Cleanliness is vital when preserving food. Sterilize all containers, jars and utensils in boiling water. Never alter the ingredients for the brine (water/salt/vinegar) listed in the recipe. Accepted safe practices should be observed but are not difficult and should not deter you from making your own preserved foods.
Pickle recipes call for quarts, cups or pounds of cucumbers. Just how many cucumbers is that? Here's a conversion that may be useful. Keep in mind that these are estimates since each cucumber will not be the same size or weight. The following table assumes 4" to 5" long cucumbers.
* 1 quart = four cucumbers (7-8 cups sliced)
* 1 pound = 2 cucumbers (4 cups sliced)
* 1 cup sliced = 1/2 cucumber (1 cucumber = 2 cups)
For our purposes, there are two basic methods for making pickles.
1. Fermented (also called Brined)
2. Fresh Pack (also called Quick Processing).
We should briefly mention the "Refrigerated Method". These are not really pickles in the traditional sense. However they look like pickles, taste like pickles and contain most of the ingredients of real pickles. Refrigerated pickles are cucumbers mixed with water, salt, vinegar and various other vegetables that are combined and refrigerated. They are not processed, cooked or sealed. They must always be stored in the refrigerator and must be consumed in a few days. We do not cover this method here but if it interest you go to our OVERNIGHT DILL PICKLE RECIPE.
FERMENTED (BRINED) METHOD
This is a curing process using a brine (salt and water) solution for an extended period, usually one or more weeks. This is the older, less popular method since it takes more time, is less reliable and takes a touch more skill.
When fermented, the process itself produces acid that preserves the pickles. Brined cucumbers (or other foods) are cured but not completely fermented, therefore some form of acid (usually vinegar) may be added to aid preservation.
When using the fermentation process, the cucumbers must be kept submerged in the brine. This is accomplished by placing a weight on top of the cucumbers. A plate of suitable size may be placed on top of the cucumbers, then a weight, such as a jar full of water, is placed on top of the plate. Another method is to fill a food grade plastic bag with water,seal it and place on top of the cucumbers.
FRESH PACK OR QUICK PROCESS
This is the easiest, fastest and most popular form of pickling. Two large pots are required: one for the brine and one for the hot water bath.
The brine consist of a boiling vinegar, salt, water mix. Additional ingredients such as dill weed may be added. The pot used for the brine should be stainless steel, anodized aluminum, glass or un-chipped enamel ware. Copper, brass, low grade aluminum, galvanized or iron utensils should not be used since these metals can react with acids or salts and cause undesirable off-flavor and color changes in the pickles.
The brine is boiled and then poured over the cucumbers in the jars and serves as the preserving agent. The sealed jars of pickles, covered with brine, are them processed in a hot water bath.
THE HOT WATER BATH
The hot water bath is simply the process of placing the sealed jars of pickles in a large pot of plain boiling water for a specific time. The boiling water in the pot should completely cover the top of the jars. The jars are placed in the boiling water and after the water returns to a full boil the pickles are left for a specific time as stated in the recipe (usually 10-15 minutes). The pot used for the hot water bath may be made of any material that can withstand boiling water.
The following tools will be helpful, but you can improvise and substitute whatever works for you.
When using the fermenting method, use crocks made from stoneware, glass, stainless steel, aluminum or un-chipped enamel ware. Only food-grade plastics should be used (plastic garbage bags should not be used).
When using the fresh pack (quick) method a long-handled, stainless-steel spoon, wide-mouth funnel, jar lifter and bubble freer are helpful but not essential tools. An ordinary kitchen knife may serve as the bubble freer (a process of plunging a knife up and down in the jar to make bubbles rise to the top).
Regular canning jars should be used. These jars are made of glass designed to withstand the boiling water of processing. Sealing rings (bands) may be reused but new lids should always be used. Other jars, such as Mayonnaise jars, are not recommended because a proper seal may not be achieved.
VEGETABLES, FRUITS, ETC.
The food you are preserving should be fresh and free from bruises and blemishes.
Non-iodized canning or pickling salt should be used. Kosher salt may be used but pickling salt is preferable. Do not use Iodized table salt since it tends to impede the fermenting process and also results in a cloudy, unattractive brine.
Use a high-grade cider or white distilled vinegar of 5 percent acidity (50 grain). This is the common vinegar sold in most stores. Do not use homemade vinegars or vinegars of unknown acidity. The level of acidity in a pickled product is important for safe pickling. It is best to follow the recipe ingredient proportions closely.
For best results, always use fresh spices in canning or pickling.
Sugar: Use ordinary, white, granulated sugar unless the recipe calls for another type.
Water: When using the fermented (brining) pickling method, hard water may interfere with the formation of acid and prevent pickles from curing properly. Use soft water or distilled water if possible.
Of course if you are using the more popular quick pack pickling method the water will be boiled so ordinary faucet water may be used.
Firming Agents: There are several firming agents listed in many pickle recipes. The only one we use is fresh grape leaves. However, grape leaves are not available to everyone. In that case we recommend using no firming agent. But be sure to follow these steps:
1. Use fresh cucumbers.
2. Wash the cucumbers in plain cold water thoroughly.
3. Cut a 1/16 inch slice off of the blossom end of the cucumbers.
4. Refrigerate pickles before serving.
We can not overemphasize the importance of using fresh cucumbers. Store bought cucumbers are generally several days old and are typically coated with wax. If at all possible use cucumbers from your garden or buy from a farmers market. And...pickle the cukes the same day.
PROBLEM Q AND A
Q - How should I store fresh cucumbers?
A - If you can not use your cucumbers immediately for pickling you can store them in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, but do not store near apple or pears, which produce ethylene that can accelerate spoilage. Poke holes in the plastic if you are storing them in bags. Preferably, you should use the fresh cucumbers for pickling the same day you obtain them and not store them at all.
Q - Can I use table salt for pickling?
A - Most recipes call for granulated pickling or canning salt. Table salt varies in density and is usually iodized. It is not recommended for pickling.
Q - Can I use burp-less cucumbers for pickling?
A - Mature burp-less cucumbers produce an enzyme that causes the pickles to soften during fermentation. Burp-less cucumbers are not recommended for use unless only smaller cucumbers (with small seed) are used.
Q - Why are my pickles turning cloudy?
A - Cloudiness of the brine might indicate spoilage. Check the pickles for signs of off-color, foul odors or mushiness. You might even see mold or scum in the jars. If these signs are absent, the cloudiness may be due to the use of table salt or hard water and the pickles should be safe to eat. In all cases, if in doubt, throw them out.
Q - I have a pickle recipe that does not call for a boiling water bath process. Do I really need to process pickles?
A - If using the "quick pack" pickling technique: Processing is necessary to destroy the yeasts, molds and bacteria that may cause the product to spoil. Process pickled products for the length of time specified in the recipe. If no time is given, process the product for at least 10 minutes.
If using the "fermented" pickling method: Fermented pickles will not need a boiling water bath if the recipe is followed exactly and safe pickling practices are observed.
Finally, such talk about spoilage, mold and bacteria is scary but do not let that deter you from pickling. If you follow these instructions and your recipe closely you should not incur any problem. When you taste your first crunchy, home made pickle you will be wondering why you did not do this sooner.