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

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Hello, I made pickles in a

Hello,
I made pickles in a water bath a couple years ago and they turned out great so I decided to buy a pressure canner this year to can all of my produce. I just canned my pickles in the new pressure canner but everywhere that I'm reading is saying to use a water bath for pickles due to the high acidity. I didnt realize that water baths are recommended or else I would havr done that. Is my batch that I just did in the pressure canner going to turn out mushy? And for what length of time is recommended for canning pickles in a pressure canner?

Water bath is the preferred

The Editors's picture

Water bath is the preferred method to pickle cucumbers. If you do them in a pressure cooker use 15PSI for about 15minutes.

I finally found a recipe for

I finally found a recipe for pickled peppers that are supposed to be crunchy. Every batch I've ever made has been soft, which I hate. Can you tell me if this recipe would be safe as it omits the processing step?

:

Banana peppers, sliced into 1/3 inch rings & seeds removed (enough to fill 4 pint jars)
1/8 tsp of Ball’s Pickle Crisp Granules, per jar

For brine:
5 cups white distilled vinegar
1 cup water
4 tsp Canning and Pickling salt
2 Tbsp sugar
2 whole cloves of garlic

Instructions:

1. Chop banana peppers and add to four sterilized pint jars. Tap jars on counter to pack peppers a bit tighter. Add 1/8 tsp of Pickle Crisp to each jar.

2. Mix brine ingredients, and bring to a boil. Boil for five minutes. Meanwhile heat canning lids in boiling water.

3. After five minutes have passed, remove garlic. Keep brine at a boil. Working with one jar at a time pour brine into your jar. Again, tap on counter to remove bubbles and leave 1/2 inch of head space.

4. Wipe rim of jar clean, put on your hot lid from boiling water, and fasten with a ring.

5. Hold upside down for 10 seconds and put on a heat proof surface to seal.

6. Make sure all jars have sealed before storing

I use this method for all my

I use this method for all my pickling. I have never had a bad jar and they seem to be good for a long time. I do leave my jars upside down for at least a day on a towel just to be sure they are sealed. They then go into our "spider bedroom" (cold storage). A jar made Oct 2013 was opened in April 14 and we are still sporadically eating from that jar kept in the fridge today Aug 2014.

We left our cucumbers

We left our cucumbers overnight in a salt solution (bread and butter pickle)...should have only ben 1-1/2 hrs...is there something we can do to get all that extra salt out. Have been rinsing in cold water but cucumbers are still pretty salty!

"How salty" may be different

The Editors's picture

"How salty" may be different for every palate but some sources indicate that an overnight soak is not too long. (Did you use the preferred pickling/canning salt or table/iodized salt??)
You might keep going with it (if you indeed still have the pickes when you read this). The sugar and vinegar and other ingredients may very well balance the salt and give you the desired result.
 

I was unable to get back to

I was unable to get back to my pickles and the cucumbers soaked in lime for almost 48 hours. Do I have to throw them out or is there anything I can do? I've rinsed them and am soaking them in fresh water in case the response is that they can be salvaged.
Thank you for your help!

Sorry it took so long to

The Editors's picture

Sorry it took so long to respond, kd. We would have suggested that you continue making the pickles. Assuming by now (July 17) that you made a decision one way or the other...what did you do? and how did they come out?

I can understand boiling, par

I can understand boiling, par boiling the veggies, and boiling the containers to make them sterile (jars)but I see recipes out there that say to boil the vinegar brine

What is the purpose of this (vinegar brine) boiling?

thanks

Boiling the brine helps the

The Editors's picture

Boiling the brine helps the flavors to meld better.

I am trying to find a recipe

I am trying to find a recipe for canning white cucumbers and am having no luck! Can you help?

Would this be the

The Editors's picture

Would this be the cylindrical, white skinned heirloom 'White Wonder'? or perhaps white skinned 'Salt and Pepper'? Either of those would be fine as pickles. Use any pickling recipe you please.

Hello, can you tell me the

Hello, can you tell me the primary differences between hot water canning and pressure canning. I want to try to make a variety of pickled vegetables as well as can my own fruit butters. I have read that some things should not be pressure canned, but not explanation as to why.

Thank you for your advice!

The safe way to process your

The Editors's picture

The safe way to process your produce for shelf storage is by pressure canning. However, the USDA does not recommend pressure canning for kohlrabi, broccoli, brussels sprouts, wild mushrooms, cauliflower, summer squash, or rutabaga.

How long are unopened jars of

How long are unopened jars of pickled pickles good for?

If properly stored (i.e., in

The Editors's picture

If properly stored (i.e., in a cool and dry place), sealed pickled jars can last one to two years.

You said the shelf life can

You said the shelf life can be one to two years, but is that different for Hot water bath, as opposed to pressure canning? I have a TON of cucumbers this year and I really want to pickle them, but some sources say they can only last a few weeks. What should I do to make my harvest last a long time? This is my first time canning and I want to make sure I do it right!

Cucumbers can be processed in

The Editors's picture

Cucumbers can be processed in a hot water bath for long storage. Here's an easy pickle recipe from our archives.
http://www.almanac.com/recipe/...
 
 

Have saved several jars of

Have saved several jars of the juices of delicious high quality dill pickles (commercial brand, in Switzerland), and want to use the juices to prepare small batches of fresh pickled vegetables - just for a condiment for one meal, not for sterile storage etc. All the recipes I see are for longer term pickling.

What is the best procedure for the short term - just slice and store in the juices for a few days ... or ?

Thanks for advice.

Hi, Chuck- That is an

The Editors's picture

Hi, Chuck-
That is an excellent use for leftover pickle juice! Simply slice, blanch, and add the veggies to your pickle juice and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, but overnight is even better.

Is there any reason I

Is there any reason I shouldn't add the juice of a lime to a quart of peppers and onions when pickling? Does it effect the acidity at all?

Great idea, Jerry. Measure

The Editors's picture

Great idea, Jerry. Measure out the amount of lime juice and then subtract that much vinegar from the recipe.

Hello, I forgot to add salt

Hello,

I forgot to add salt to my pickled beets! I canned them and realized right after and put them in the fridge once they had cooled. They've been in the fridge for a few months now. Are they still edible or should I throw them out?

When you pickle vegetables,

The Editors's picture

When you pickle vegetables, the preservative qualities of salt combine with the preservative qualities of vinegar to create an environment that will inhibit bacteria. Unfortunately, we recommend that you do not eat the beets.

HELP! I just started my

HELP!
I just started my canning hobby this year and was super proud of my canning shelf. I got a zucchini relish recipe and made 8 jars! Well come to find out she forgot to tell me to add sugar!! They have been processed for about a month and I just found out. What can I do?

The sugar is added for the

The Editors's picture

The sugar is added for the taste and texture. Your relish should be safe to eat if you used a vinegar brine and processed the jars.

what causes mustard pickles

what causes mustard pickles to separate and go runny. How can I fix this problem

What kind of thickener does

The Editors's picture

What kind of thickener does your recipe call for. Some older recipes use flour and others use Clear Jel. Compare your recipe to other mustard pickle recipes. Another suggestion is to put the veggies to be pickled in a brine overnight to draw out some of the excess water in the vegetables.

I had this problem a well!

I had this problem a well! The first batch I made of mustard pickles turned out perfect. The second batch made 2 weeks later same recipe! What happened was cooked, canned, and three hours later they look to have an layer of clear liquid on top. Flour is my filler! Can I do anything to fix? Are these still eatable?

Flour is no longer

The Editors's picture

Flour is no longer recommended as a thickener when canning. ClearJel is today's preferred thickener. It doesn't break down during heat processing as flour does.

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