How to Pickle: Step-by-Step Pickling Guide

Pickling and Water Bath Pickling

September 25, 2020
Pickled Cucumbers in Jar

Homemade pickles. These are canned to last a full year on the shelf, but you can also make quick and easy refrigerator pickles. We’ll show you both ways!

J Nix/ Shutterstock

Mmmm… Ready to make homemade pickles? Just follow our step-by-step pickling guide for beginners, and you’ll be on your way. Pickling is a great way to store extra vegetables, but pickling isn’t just for cucumbers. You can pickle peppers, onions, tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, peaches—lots of different vegetables and fruit can be pickled! We also provide recipes for you to try—enjoy the garden’s bounty for months to come.

What Is Pickling?

Pickling is the process of preserving vegetables or extending the shelf-life of food by fermentation using a brine or immersion in vinegar. The acidity of the solution alters the flavor and texture of the food while favoring the growth of desirable, benign bacteria (Lactobacillus) and also preventing the growth of harmful bacteria like the one that causes botulism, Clostridium botulinum.

Pickles should be made from young, fresh vegetables and fruit, vinegar, and fresh, whole spices and herbs. Fabulously pickled products are the result of quality ingredients, proper proportions, and carefully followed recipes.

You can pickle most vegetables and fruit, including cucumbers, green beans, peppers, okra, turnips, carrots, and asparagus.

Two Ways to Pickle: Quick Pickles vs. Boiling Water Bath Pickling

There are essentially two ways to go about pickling:

  1. Quick-Pickling: A fast and simple process, quick-pickling is as simple as putting your vegetables in a pickling solution and waiting a bit. Quick pickles (aka “refrigerator pickles”) will last for several weeks to several months in the refrigerator. This process is best for pickles that you know you will be eating and enjoy within a short period of time because they will lose their crunch the longer they remain in the brine.
  2. The Boiling Water Bath Method: In this process, jars of prepared food are heated in a boiling water bath for a specific amount of time. Food that is processed correctly and stored properly should be safe for one year. Once the food has been opened, refrigerate as you would any other fresh food.

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Photo: Homemade refrigerator pickles in brine with garlic and dill. Credit: Gkrphoto/Shutterstock

Is Processing Pickles Necessary?

If you wish to store your jars of product at room temperature (in the pantry), then heat treatment is necessary and will destroy micro-organisms that cause spoilage. Heat treatment will also inactivate the enzymes that affect flavor, color, and texture of your product during storage. 

Get Ready to Pickle!

No matter what method you choose, pickles should be made with young, fresh vegetables. Do not use waxed supermarket cucumbers for pickling because the acid or salt will not penetrate them properly. Either grow your own cucumbers or go to a farmers’ market. Seed catalogs are a good source of information about suitable varieties. For cucumbers, kirby cucumbers are the classic for pickles, not English cucumbers. Persian cucumbers are a great size for packing into pint jars.

Select only the freshest vegetables for pickling that are free of bruises and blemishes. Use as soon as possible after picking. Pick cucumbers early in the day to help prevent a bitter flavor.

When choosing vegetables and fruit for pickling, select those that are nearly the same size, and cut or slice to the same size so that the pickling brine penetrates the pickles uniformly. We recommend about 1-½ inches for gherkins and 4 inches for dills. Use odd-shaped and more mature cucumbers for relishes and bread-and-butter style pickles.

How to Clean Produce

Vegetables and fruit to be pickled should be scrubbed thoroughly with a vegetable brush under running water. Soil or any soft spots left on the vegetables may contain bacteria, which can cause the pickles to spoil.

Cucumbers for pickling whole may have about a half-inch of the stem left on which should be discarded. Also, discard 1/16-inch slice from the blossom end of fresh cucumbers. The blossom end contains an enzyme that will cause excessive softening of pickles as they brine.

Optional: For crisper pickles, put the vegetables (whole or sliced) into a wide non-metallic bowl and spread a layer of pickling salt on top. Cover and let sit overnight in the refrigerator. Discard the liquid that will have emerged from the vegetables, then rinse well with cool water and dry the vegetables before pickling or canning as usual. The pickling salt helps to pull the moisture out of the vegetables and makes them crisper, and allows them to stay crisp longer.

Measure or weigh carefully, because the proportion of fresh vegetables to brine (salt to water) and other ingredients will affect flavor and, many times, safety. 

Which Salt to Use

Salt for pickling brines should be pickling salt (aka canning salt)—a pure, granulated or rock salt that has no iodine added. The iodine in table salt will darken pickles. Plain, non-iodized table salt may be used, but it contains anti-caking agents, which will make the brine cloudy.

Which Vinegar to Use

Vinegar must have an acidity of 5 percent for pickling. The strength of vinegar is usually shown on the label. Cider vinegar will give a fuller, more richly flavored pickle but will also add some color to the pickle.

If a lighter color product is desired, as with pickled pears or onions, white distilled vinegar should be used. Cider vinegar imparts a mellower taste and white vinegar a sharper taste, but both serve equally well for pickling.

Using the exact amount of vinegar called for in your recipe is critical for the quality and flavor of the pickles. If the brine or pickling syrup tastes too sharp, do not decrease the amount of the vinegar but instead add more sweetener until the taste is just right.

Supplies

For Quick Refrigerator Pickles, no special gear is needed. You’ll need a large non-metallic bowl and refrigerate in the bowl (covered) or in 2-pint jars that have been washed with hot soapy water, rinsed, and air dried. 

For Water-Bath Canning, you’ll need to buy jars that are specifically designed for home canning, such as mason or Ball jars. Most canning jars are sold with two-piece lids—a round metal screw band and a removable flat metal lid that has a rubber-type sealing compound around the outer edge. Canning jars may be re-used as long as they’re not chipped, nickled, or rusty. The screw band can be reused if it is cleaned well and does not rust. However, new jar lids must be used each year to ensure a tight seal. Never reuse lids. To prepare the jars, put them in a large pot of water and bring water to a simmer (180° F).  Allow jars to remain in the hot water until ready to fill. 

When making pickles it’s best to use non-metallic utensils because metals will react with acids or salts used and cause undesirable color and taste changes in the pickles, making them unfit to eat. 

See more supplies needed on our Water-Bath Canning Guide.

What Is Headspace?

Headspace is the amount of air space between the top of the food or liquid put into a jar and the inside of the jar lid. The correct headspace is listed on your recipe and must be followed per recipe in order for a strong seal on the lids to form during processing. In general, allow ½-inch of headspace for pickles.

“Master” Pickling Recipe for Quick Pickles or Water Bath Canning

Here is a “master” recipe for either quick pickling or boiling water bath canning, making a small batch of pickles to fill two pint-sized jars. The preparation method is similar for both; it just depends on if you’re going to process the jars or refrigerate them for quick pickles.

Ingredients for 2 Pints

  • 1-½ pounds cucumbers or other veggies
  • 1-cup vinegar. Use white distilled or apple cider vinegar with 5 percent acidity. Use white vinegar when a light color is desirable, as with fruits and cauliflower. Think twice before using red wine vinegar, as it will turn all your vegetables pink!
  • 1-½ tablespoons salt. Use kosher salt or pickling salt (aka canning salt). Kosher salt and pickling salt have no additives. Do not use iodized salt because it makes the brine cloudy and may change the color and texture of the vegetables, as well as possibly leave sediment at the bottom of the jars. 
  • 1 cup water. Note: Do not use hard water because the iron content will make the pickling solution cloudy and the pickles discolor.
  • ¼ cup sugar – optional but most recipes include.
  • Optional: 2 teaspoons dill seed or celery seed or spice of your choice such as turmeric. The classic is dill seeds. Mustard seed or peppercorns could also be used. For herbs, try dill, mint, basil, or anything that’s overtaking your garden. Always use fresh herbs and spices in canning or pickling, as herbs and spices lose their flavor quickly. 
  • Optional: A few garlic cloves, peeled, sliced or smashed, enhances flavor.

Directions:

  1. Cut your vegetables into even sizes, whether you’re doing spears or coins, and put them into the two jars, or a large bowl for quick-pickling. Pack the veggies into the canning jars tightly without smashing them and leave room at the top for the brine and headspace (½ inch for pickles).
  2. Make your pickling brine by combining the vinegar, water, and salt in a stainless-steel saucepan over high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then pour the hot pickling brine over the veggies covering them, nearly filling each jar but leaving ½ inch of headspace. 
  3. For the quick pickles, pour the brine into the two jars of pickles and let them rest on the counter until cooled to room temperature, and no more than 1 hour. Then put a lid or plastic wrap on the bowl and place in the fridge. Wait anywhere from three days to a week for the flavor to develop, and the veggies will taste truly pickled. Keep in mind that the longer it brines, the better it tastes! You can also reuse the brine for your next batch.

    The quick-pickling process stops here. To make pickles for longer-term storage, continue with boiling water bath method below.

  4. If you’re going to process and preserve your pickles for longer storage, tap the two jars gently to remove any air bubbles and top off with brine, if the veggies settle, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Use a clean plastic wand or plastic spatula and run gently around the jar between the food and side of each jar to release any additional trapped air.  After filling always wipe the rim of the jar clean just before putting the lid on, to ensure a good seal.  Add the new lids, which have been washed and dried to remove any possible debris, and screw bands.

  5. Using the jar lifter, place the jars into a simmering pot of water or water-bath canner with a rack in the bottom. Make sure that the simmering water covers the jars by 1 to 2 inches and during processing. Cover and when the water comes back to a boil, set the timer for 10 minutes. When done processing, turn off heat; wait 10 minutes to remove the lid. 

  6. Remove jars using the jar lifter and place each on a towel or rack to cool. You may hear the jar lids “ping,” which means the jars are properly sealed. 

  7. Leave jars undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours to cool. Do NOT retighten bands, as this may interfere with the sealing process.

  8. After jars are completely cool, check the seals. Unscrew bands and press down gently on the center of the lid. If you don’t feel any give, the jar is properly sealed. If the lid springs back up, it didn’t seal. Put the jar in the fridge and eat within 2 weeks.

  9. Label and date your jars and store them in a clean, cool, dark, and dry place such as a pantry, cabinet, or basement. Don’t store in a warm spot!

  10.  To allow pickles to mellow and develop a delicious flavor, wait at least 3 weeks before eating! Keep in mind that pickles may be ready to enjoy earlier. It’s all up to you and your tastes! Just don’t let them go too long or the veggies’ texture can deteriorate and turn rubbery. Refrigerate after opening.

Store jars in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 1 year as recommended by National Center for Home Food Preservation.

See our full guide on how to “water-bath can” for more details on processing properly.

See our Measuring Vegetables and Fruits charts to translate pounds to cups.

Pickling Recipes

Now that you know the process, here are some yummy pickling recipes! 

Refrigerator Sweet Pickles

Refrigerator Dill Pickles

Video on How to Make Refrigerator Dill Pickles

As discussed above, “refrigerator” pickles do not need canning or processing. They can be eaten right away, but the flavor is better after about a week.

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Photo credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein

Traditional Bread and Butter Pickles
Bread and Butter Pickles got their name from Omar and Cara Fanning in the 1920s. They’re delicious combination of sweet and salty with a nice crunch.

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Photo credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein

Traditional Dill Pickles
The classic dill pickle delivers a crispy crunch with a strong vinegar profile. The brine has salt, sweet dill, and usually garlic, and the pickle is often pump and juicy. Great for a cook-out.

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Dilly Green Beans
This pickle name refers to the herb in this recipe: dill. Along with zesty peppers and garlic, Dilly Beans are perfect for adding a little spice to any meal and provide a zing to any sandwich.

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Photo credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein

Pickled Peppers
When you only have a few peppers, this pickled peppers recipe will do nicely. Just grab some white vinegar and go! You can use any kind of pepper.

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Photo credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein

Summer Squash Pickles
When your neighbors refuse to take any more summer squash or zucchini off your hands, it’s time to pickle.

Pickled summer squash
Summer Squash Pickles. Photo Credit: Sherry Yates Young/Shutterstock.

 

Pickled Beets
These pickled beets have a good combination of sweet and sour tastes and, because of this, have won first place at five different Ozark Empire Fairs.

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More Pickling Recipes Using Vegetables and Fruit

5 Pickling Problems

Something go wrong? We hope not! However, pickling is a learning process as with all cooking. Peruse this list for possible explanations for inadequate pickling results.

  1. Soft or slippery pickles: too little salt or acid in brine; scum in brining process not removed regularly; cucumbers not covered with brine; too warm a storage temperature; insufficient processing; blossom ends not removed from cucumbers.
  2. Hollow pickles: poorly developed cucumbers; cucumbers left too long between harvest and pickling; improper brine strength.
  3. Shriveled pickles: allowing too much time between gathering and pickling; pickling solution too sweet or too strong in vinegar; brine too salty at beginning of curing; overcooking or overprocessing of pickle.
  4. Dark pickles: use of ground spices or too much spice; use of iodized salt; minerals in water, especially iron; use of iron utensils; overcooking.
  5. Poorly colored or faded pickles: poor-quality cucumbers; sunburned or overmature fruit. 

See our Canning 101 Guide for beginners which covers tomato sauces, jams, and more!

This Canning Guide was updated and fact-checked as of September 2020, by Christina Ferroli, PhD, RDNFAND.  If interested in nutrition counseling and education practice to make healthier choices—or, simply stay up-to-date on the latest food, nutrition, and health topics—visit Christina’s Facebook page here.

 

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Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

how to pickle

If we did not boil the water before placing jars in the hot water bath, will that pose a problem for sealing the lids?

Pickling

The Editors's picture

Tough question! Boiling water bath canning requires the water in the canner to be 140F for raw packed jars and 180F for hot packed jars. The reason for having the water hot and then bringing to roiling boil (212F) is because jars can break!  You would lose all your hard work!  Also, important is that the timing stated in each recipe was determined with hot water in canner and is important to follow the same procedures in order to make a product safe. 
 

great post

Thanks for sharing this information on how to pickle. It’s nice! Lots of great recipes to try.

Picking

Our favorite thing to pickle is spicy pickled okra. It is absolutely delicious. My husband could eat his weight in it and my kids love it too.

canned rhubarab

Growing up SDA and vegetarian we grew our own fruits and veggies and canned and froze them,homemade canned grape juice etc,jams and jellies etc..Learned alot of old school ways from my grandpa and my daddy who grew up in the great depression. My daddy use to make canned rhubarb which was really good on pancakes etc...he also canned boysenberries and gooseberries...is there a recipe you could suggest in canning rhubarb..my daddy is 89 now and can't remember how he did them...would really like to enjoy rhubarb canned again ;)

Like you, I grew up in a

Margaret Boyles's picture

Like you, I grew up in a family that tended food gardens and preserved the harvest for the colder months. Although I didn’t at the time (so much work!), today I consider it one of the great gifts of my small-town upbringing.

As for rhubarb, we grew it then, and I have a small patch now. I’ve eaten many dishes of stewed rhubarb and rhubarb pies, but I’ve never canned it. 

But I think this is the recipe you’re looking for. With all science-tested recipes, the National Center for Home Food Preservation is the smart cook’s go-to resource for safely preserving just about anything.

The University of Montana Cooperative Extension has ever prepared an entire rhubarb cookbook. Maybe you’ll find something there that brings back the memories of home. Good luck!

Pickling Eggs, non refrigerated

I would love to find a recipe for pickling quail eggs, that doesn't require refrigeration. That is the only recipe I have at the moment. Could you please publish egg reciepe's for non refrigerated eggs? That would be great. Have searched the Web over. Nothing!

Pickles

I am not sure if i processed my pickles long enough in hot water bath. Instead of storing them is it safe to put in fridge and just eat right away? Also if receipe calls for garlic clive can i substitute jarred minced garlic?

are my pickles safe?

The Editors's picture

Yes, you can store them in the fridge and eat them within the next few weeks. And yes, you can add minced garlic.

zucchini relish

I canned my first batch of zucchini relish 4 days ago. It tasted great. However today while I was canning my 2nd batch, I realized that I did not put vinegar, which the recipe called for, in my first batch. The jars have already been processed. Can I take the relish out of the jars and reboil the mixture with vinegar and reprocess the jars? Or should I just toss the relish out?

asparagus

Hi I was wondering if I can use a dill pickle recipe to can asparagus . I've never done this before and there are just to many recipes out there and most call for to much sugar for my liking . Please help !

pickled vegetables

When canning pickled vegetables. I packed the vegetables in hot (HOT) jars, covered the vegetables with a boiling hot vinegar mixture, then put the lids on. The jars sealed before they went into the water bath, do I have to/need to process the sealed jars in a water bath?

to bathe or not to bathe...

The Editors's picture

If it’s not too late, we would say better ot be safe than sorry. Process the jars now, rather than wish you did later. Hope this helps!

Pickled cauliflower

I canned some pickled cauliflower in late July of this year using Mrs Wages spicy dill pickle mix. Delicious. But now in mid October the top portion of the cauliflower is turning brown. Why, and is it safe to eat?

unsealed pickled beets

I pressured canned pickled beets in August. All sealed great. Two months later we are getting ready to go south for the winter and packing up the canned goods. We found 7 out of 14 quarts had unsealed. A few days after moving the jars into packing crates we have discovered 3 more have unsealed. I used a new brand of lids called Empire. Never again. My question is this...Are they still safe to eat? I opened one and it smells great. Pressure canned at 15 pounds for 15 minutes.

Bad beets??

The Editors's picture

Hi, Linda, This is, as you know, a pretty important matter. Our best recommendation is that you click into the site below from the National Center for Home Food Preservation that is specifically about beets. Briefly, it is noted there that the size of the jar dictates the time in the pressure canner, as does your altitude. Note also on this site the links to “Using Pressure Canners” and “Principles of Home Canning” for additional guidance.

Here is the site: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_04/beets.html

It would be tragic to have to discard the beets after all that work but it would be better to be safe than sorry.
All the best!

Canning Pickled Beets

I was looking at this site to determine the correct time to wait before eating my pickled beets. I read this question about the pressure-canned pickled beets not staying sealed & wondered if it was because they were pressure-canned rather than using a boiling water bath - which is the method my Blue Book recommended for Pickled Beets.

Pickled Garlic

Hi, I tried pickling today for the first time as my garlic wasn't getting used quickle enough. I pickled about 7 heads of garlic today in two,what I estimate to be 350 ml, jars today. The hot brine recipe asked for 1 and a quarter cup of vinegar, 3/4 cup of water and a tbsp of coarse salt. The bottle of vinegar I bought didn't have enough in it, there was only 1 cup of vinegar. I poured it over the garlic and it almost covered it completely andI topped it up with some boiled water. I processed the bottles in a water bath for 15 mins and let them cool before they went in the fridge where they are turning a lovely blue around the edges. I'm wondering if there is too little vinegar for the garlic to be safe to eat?

good garlic?

The Editors's picture

Without knowing more—the source of your recipe, for example—we can not respond absolutely to your question but we suggest you consult these sources in determining a solution to your dilemma (all are education web sites and each presents alternative storage options):

• Suggests that garlic is not suitable for canning  (see page 2): http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uc_davis/uc_davis_garlic.pdf

• see page 3 (the link here redirects to the page above): https://www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/home-food-preservation-ne...

• This page states “There is no scientifically tested process for canning garlic; disregard information to the contrary on the internet”: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/food/canning/canning-tips/31preserving-...

It is a disappointment to learn that your efforts were in vain but it would be better to be safe than sorry.

Freeze it.

I vacuum pack and freeze excess garlic. Minimal work and it still tastes good.

Dills Sealing

I put down 5 quarts of dills on Monday and just noticed that 2 of them did not seal properly. The lid isn't tight to the touch. What do I do to fix this or can I? Thanking you in advance for your reply.

loose lids

The Editors's picture

You might be wise to eat the loosely lidded jars first, Bev. Put them into the refrigerator asap and keep them there until they are consumed.

We are planning on making

We are planning on making dilly beans but would like to process in the pressure cooker because we can process more at once and generally faster timewise. I cannot find a conversion from a water bath to a pressure cooker. I believe they would process at 10lbs pressure but looking for confirmation on length of time. Is there a way to convert from water bath to pressure cooking?

Pressure cooking canning

The Editors's picture

Hi, Kari, This is a dodgy idea, apparently. The National Center for Home Food Preservation advises against it, depending on the size of your jars and equipment. (There is too much to explain; pls see details here: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/factsheets/pressurecookers.html

Another source says simply and directly, pressure cookers are not safe: http://foodsafety.wisc.edu/consumer/fact_sheets/pressurecannerandcooker.pdf

We certainly understand that this may alter your plans but we can not recommend the idea and have no further information. Sorry, Kari.

Salty and Shriveled

It's been years since I made spicy green beans but I don't remember this happening before.
My beans looked shriveled so I opened a jar to taste - very salty. Also, my one jar of asparagus all but disintegrated. Will the saltiness mellow after a few weeks (it's only been a few days) and what did I do wrong with the asparagus? Help...

Salty beans

The Editors's picture

Hi, Deb, In the beans, did you use table salt? Does the container say “iodized”? If so, that could be the source of the problem with both vegetables. It is best to used pure salt, with no additives. Table/iodized salt can contain anti-caking additives that create undesirable conditions for pickles, from cloudy liquid to discoloration (and disintegration as you describe), and may be the reason for the salty taste. You need to use Kosher salt or “pickling salt.” And, no, the saltiness is not going to go away.

I forgot to boil the vinegar

I forgot to boil the vinegar/sugar/salt before adding the vegetables for zucchini relish. I just brought all of them to a boil. Is that ok? Are they ok to can?

Pressure canning dilly beans

I have looked everywhere! You said in a comment that you can not do cucumbers cause it will turn them to mush but green beans are a harder vegetable. So is it ok to do them in the canner? I have done green beans plain and the recommended time was 25 minutes but because of the acidity of the vinegar and I do not want to overcook, "better crispy" should I only do for 10minutes?

Pressure Canning Green Beans

The Editors's picture

Hi Chris,

Yes, pressure canning is the way to go with green beans. We recommend sticking with 20 to 25 minutes (or any recommendation that came with your canner); food safety should be the highest priority.

Beetroots are sealed but not quite covered by vinegar

I have baked beetroot in sterile jars together with hot spiced vinegar. There is a good vacuum seal on the kilner jars, but I can see beetroots are not quite covered.....should I break the seal to top up the vinegar, or just turn jars over from time to time? And if I should top up, should I use hot or cooled vinegar?
Help!!!!

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