NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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A Peck of Pickles

A Peck of Pickles


                Pickling is one of the oldest known methods of food preservation. Pickled foods add a special touch to many snacks and meals. The many varieties of pickled and fermented foods are classified by ingredients and method of preparation. The four general classes are: brined or fermented, fresh-pack or quick-process, fruit and relishes.  Whatever type of pickled product you are making, the level of acidity in a pickled product is as important to its safety as it is to taste and texture.  There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.  For that reason, we cannot alter vinegar, food or water proportions in a recipe or use a vinegar with unknown acidity and must only use recipes with tested proportions of ingredients.

                Begin your pickling process by selecting fresh, firm fruits or vegetables that are free of spoilage. Use a pickling variety of cucumber because the table or slicing varieties may result in a poor-quality pickle.  Plan to pickle fruits or vegetables within 24 hours after the harvest for highest quality. If produce cannot be used immediately, refrigerate it and use it as soon as possible.

A bushel of cucumbers weighs 48 pounds and yields 16 to 24 quarts, an average of 2 pounds per quart. Choose the appropriate size. Use cucumbers about 1½ inches long for gherkins and 4 inches for dills. Odd-shaped and more mature cucumbers can be used for relishes and bread-and-butter style pickles.

Next is the important ingredient of salt. Use a canning or pickling salt. Non-caking material added to other salts may make the brine cloudy. Do not reduce salt in fermented pickles because proper fermentation depends on the correct proportions of salt and other ingredients. Flake salt varies in density and is not recommended for use.  Some fresh-pack pickles can be prepared safely with reduced or no salt. Use only tested recipes formulated to produce the proper acidity. Both the texture and flavor of these pickles may be noticeably different than expected.

For pickle making, white distilled or cider vinegars of 5 percent acidity (50 grain) are recommended. White vinegar usually is preferred when light color is desirable, as for fruits and cauliflower. Do not dilute vinegar unless the recipe so specifies. If a less sour pickle is preferred, add sugar rather than decrease vinegar.  When it comes to sugar and pickle making, white granulated and brown sugars are used most often. Brown sugar gives a darker color and distinct flavor. Corn syrup and honey will alter the flavor.

A soft water is recommended for pickle making. Very hard water may have an undesirable effect on the color and flavor of pickled products. However, some hard water might produce a firmer pickle.

Hard water may be softened somewhat by the following method: Boil the water for five minutes. Skim off the scum and let the water sit for 24 hours. Then ladle off the water without disturbing the sediment in the bottom. 

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 then 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. Store opened spices in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Alum may be used safely to firm fermented pickles.  Alum does not improve the firmness of quick-processed pickles. The calcium in lime definitely improves pickle firmness. Food-grade lime may be used as a lime-water solution for soaking fresh cucumbers before pickling them. Excess lime absorbed by the cucumbers must be removed to make safe pickles. To further improve pickle firmness, you may process cucumber pickles for 30 minutes in water at 180 degrees Fahrenheit (F). This process also prevents spoilage, but the water temperature should not fall below 180 F. Use a candy or jelly thermometer to check the water temperature.

Containers are another important component of pickling. For heating pickling liquids, use unchipped enamelware, stainless steel, aluminum or glass pots. Do not use copper, brass, iron or galvanized utensils. These metals may react with acids or salts and cause undesirable color and flavors, or even form toxic compounds in the pickle mixture. For brining or fermenting, a 1-gallon container holds 5 pounds of fresh cucumbers.  Glass and food-grade plastic containers are excellent substitutes for stone crocks. Other 1- to 3-gallon food-grade containers may be used if lined inside with a clean food-grade plastic bag. Do not use garbage bags or trash liners. A large sealed food-grade plastic bag containing 4½ tablespoons of salt and 3 quarts of water may be used as a weight to hold cucumbers under the surface of the brine. A plate and jars of water also may be used. Select a pie or dinner plate just small enough to fit inside the fermentation container. Cover the weight and container top with a heavy, clean bath towel to reduce mold growth on the brine surface.

For research-based pickle recipes, call the Ramsey County Office of the NDSU Extension Service at #662-7027 or check out the publications online at: http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/


Reduced-Sodium Sliced Dill Pickles

4 pounds pickling (3- to 5-inch) cucumbers

6 cups vinegar (5%)

6 cups sugar

2 tablespoons canning or pickling salt

1½ teaspoons celery seed

1½ teaspoons mustard seed

2 large onions, thinly sliced

8 heads fresh dill

YIELD: About 8 pints

PROCEDURE: Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch slice off the blossom end and discard. Cut the cucumbers in ¼-inch slices. Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, celery and mustard seeds in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to boiling. Place two slices of onion and one-half dill head on the bottom of each pint jar. Fill the jars with cucumber slices, leaving ½ inch of head space. Add one slice of onion and one-half dill head on top. Pour hot pickling solution over the cucumbers, leaving ¼ inch of head space. Adjust the lids and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes for pints.

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