A Guide to Quick Pickling and Water-Bath Pickling
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 Pickling vs. Water-Bath Pickling
There are essentially two ways to go about pickling:
- 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.
- 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.
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 1-1/2 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.
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.
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 1/2-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.
- 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 (1/2 inch for pickles).
- 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 1/2 inch of headspace.
- 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.
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 1/2 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.
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.
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.
Leave jars undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours to cool. Do NOT retighten bands, as this may interfere with the sealing process.
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.
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!
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.
Now that you know the process, here are some yummy pickling recipes!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo credit: Sam Jones/Quinn Brein
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.
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.
Summer Squash Pickles. Photo Credit: Sherry Yates Young/Shutterstock.
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.
More Pickling Recipes Using Vegetables and Fruit
- Pickled Carrots
- Green Tomato Pickles
- Zucchini Pickles
- Pickled Green Beans
- Sour Mustard Pickles
- Zucchini Relish
- Green Tomato Relish
- Pumpkin Pickles
- Watermelon Pickles
- Peach Chutney
- Curried Apricot and Peppercorn Chutney
- Something different for your taste buds—a sweet chutney with a subtle spice.
- Easy Kimchi
- Kimchi is a tasty fermented food that’s easy to make at home. It’s considered Korean “soul food” and has been served as a side dish there for many generations.
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.
- 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.
- Hollow pickles: poorly developed cucumbers; cucumbers left too long between harvest and pickling; improper brine strength.
- 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.
- Dark pickles: use of ground spices or too much spice; use of iodized salt; minerals in water, especially iron; use of iron utensils; overcooking.
- 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, RDN, FAND. 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.
Introduction to Preserving
Making Quick Pickles
Making Quick Jams: Refrigerator or Freezer Jam
How to Can Pickles
How to Can Jam and Jelly
Salting and Brining