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

If you redo the water bath it

The Editors's picture

If you redo the water bath it will soften the pickles and they will not taste good. We suggest that you drain the jars and make a sugar syrup to cover the cucumbers. Then keep them in the refrigerator. See our easy sweet refrigerator pickle recipe at
almanac.com/blog/cooking-blog/easiest-pickles-ever.

Icanned d pickles 48 hrs

Icanned d pickles 48 hrs ago.. didnt boil the filled jars. Can I boil them now or too late?

Hello did you get an

Hello did you get an answer... I just did a batch of pickles 3-4 hours ago can I boil now? Or too late?

You can do the water bath

The Editors's picture

You can do the water bath now, but make sure the jars are at room temperature when you start. Don't put cold jars in a hot water bath.

This is my first attempt at

This is my first attempt at pickling. Please guide me on how I pickle vegetables without using a canning machine. We don't have canning machines in India! I am considering boiling the jars in hot water but not sure if I have to cool the brine before I put the lids on. The information available online is confusing. I am planning on pickling a couple of variations so wish me luck!

I would like to can my recipe

I would like to can my recipe for Red Onion Marmalade but it is not a USDA approved recipe. I have found a USDA approved one and am wondering if the vinegars and sugars are equal would the non-USDA one be safe to preserve?
Thanks for your help.

would like to know how to

would like to know how to make corn relish...

Hello Tony, Company's Coming,

Hello Tony,

Company's Coming, Preserves Edition, page 121 has a recipe, I have it let me know if you are still looking., I could send it to you via email.

Dallas

Pickled onions - help! Hi I

Pickled onions - help!

Hi I made some jars of pickled onions last week but have just noticed that i didn't put enough liquid in and so the tops of a few of the onions are poking out. Will they be ok? If not, can I open jars to top up with vinegar and then put lids back on?

I didn't use the water bath method as the recipe I used just said to sterilise jars (and lids), fill while hot and then put lids on and store.

How do I stop my pickled

How do I stop my pickled onions going brown. I would like them to stay the colour like you buy them in the shops

Did you pickle in malt? If

The Editors's picture

Did you pickle in malt? If so, you could try pickling in clear vinegar. Otherwise, be sure none of your onions have any brown or soft spots when you start. Also, do not leave an air gap in the top of the jar when you put it on. Hope these thoughts help.

I made sweet mustard pickles

I made sweet mustard pickles and they are salty. I followed the recipe to a T but they are salty. The recipe calls for 1 cup of salt poured directly on the vegetables and then covered with cold water and sits overnight. Rinsed thoroughly with cold water before cooking but still salty. This isn't the first time I've used this recipe so I don't know why they turned like this.

Sorry to hear about your

The Editors's picture

Sorry to hear about your pickles! The only explanations we can think of are the cukes sat in the salt solution too long or they were not rinsed long enough.

I made a batch of bread and

I made a batch of bread and butter pickles and a couple of jars of dill pickles.My dill pickle jars didn't pop so I unscrewed the lids and re screwed them,it was within a couple of hours of canning,after re screwing the lids they seemed to pop in,will those jars be okay

May we suggest that you put

The Editors's picture

May we suggest that you put them in the fridge to be safe. If you unscrewed the lids, some air may have gotten into the jars.

pickled mix vegetables in oil

i just canned mixed vegetables(quart) size 1 Tab. oil on top in water bath for 15 min. They all sealed. I now read that I needed to use pressure caner instead. Are my vegetables safe? Do you have a good recipe? thanks

safe vegetables?

The Editors's picture

Hi, Connie, if you heard the jar tops “pop,” your food is probably safe. We can not be certain without knowing more, but that corresponds with our advice on this page: http://www.almanac.com/content/canning-guide-how-can-safely

There you will also see al link to the USDA guide to home canning, if you want to explore further.

I made refridgerator dill

I made refridgerator dill pickles last night but forgot to put them in the refrigerator until this morning (8-9hours later). Will they be safe to eat?
Also, I made salsa but we forgot the canning salt in one batch. Will this affect the taste and/or the quality of the salsa?
Thank you!

Hopefully you put them in the

The Editors's picture

Hopefully you put them in the refrigerator this morning when you noticed them sitting out. If you did, then yes, they are safe to eat.
Not such good news for the salsa. Leaving out the salt will affect the taste and preservation.

it has been a week I just

it has been a week I just realized I put them on the shelf should I discard these

I doubled the brine recipe

I doubled the brine recipe but forgot to double the Salt. Will the pickles be okay. I used 3 quarts water, 1 quart white vinegar and 3/4 cup canning salt. I should have used 1 1/2 cups of salt. Just need to know if the pickles will be okay to eat.

The salt concentration is

The Editors's picture

The salt concentration is very important when pickling with brine. Too little salt will cause undesirable organisms to grow and makes the pickles soft and slimy.

I canned bread and butter

I canned bread and butter pickles last year. In pulling out one of my last jars I see that the brine didn't cover the top pickles. After I opened them and noticed that the brine wasn't to the very top I put them in the refrigerator. Are pickles safe to eat if they weren't totally covered in the brine?

am looking for a recipe

am looking for a recipe called cinnamon brown sugar pickles. understand it is an old one. can you help out? thank you

Hi Sharron, You can find some

The Editors's picture

Hi Sharron,
You can find some pickle recipes using brown sugar and cinnamon at
www.countryfarm-lifestyles.com...

I am making zucchini relish;

I am making zucchini relish; I have one recipe that says to drain the salt and rinse well and another one that does not tell me to rinse only drain. Which is correct.

Hi Lynn, Most zucchini

The Editors's picture

Hi Lynn,
Most zucchini recipes suggest that you drain and rinse. Compare the 2 recipes and see how much salt is added later. The recipe that only instructs you to drain may add less salt.

Why would my pickles fade

Why would my pickles fade white after processing? The liquid is still clear.

I just canned for the first

I just canned for the first time. I done jalapenos in water bath. I followed a recipe I found online. I didn't try the brine before pouring it over the pepper (stupid) and realized after 14 pint jars done that I used canning salt instead of regular salt in the brine therefore I used wayyyy top much salt.. so I have 14 cans of very salty sliced jalapenos. Can I save them somehow or are they trash? Thanks in advance.

Hi! There is almost nothing

Hi! There is almost nothing that is over- or under-spiced, salted, seasoned, etc. that can't be reworked and used. Use your salty jalapenos one or two at a time in pasta sauce, chili, curry, stew, or in a dip. Rinse and dry your jalapenos on a paper towel and taste one. They may not be quite as salty as you think and when used in a recipe that has tomatoes, pasta, potatoes, cream, or rice, just do not add additional salt. I've been cooking for 55 years and canning for 43, made many mistakes and thus far haven't had anything I couldn't adjust. Maybe I've just broken my streak of luck!

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