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Extension > Food > Food Safety > Preserving and Preparing > Pickling > Making Fermented Pickles and Sauerkraut

Pickling

Making Fermented Pickles and Sauerkraut

William Schafer, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Food Science and Nutrition

Reviewed 2014 by Deb Botzek-Linn, Extension Educator — Food Safety.

The combination of acid, spices, and sugar with cucumbers creates the acidic food product known as pickles. A popular food, pickles are relatively easy to preserve. However, important steps must be followed to ensure safety and the desired quality of the final product. Before you begin the pickling process, you need to consider the type of pickles you will be making.

Kinds of Pickles

Pickle products are classified on the basis of ingredients used and the method of preparation. There are two general classes:

Fermented or brined

Fermented pickles or brined pickles undergo a curing process for several weeks in which fermentative bacteria produce acids necessary for the preservation process. These bacteria also generate flavor compounds which are associated with fermented pickles. Other vegetables may be fermented, such as using cabbage to produce sauerkraut.

Initial fermentation may be followed by the addition of acid to produce such products as half dills or sweet gherkins.

Fresh-pack or quick process

Fresh-pack or quick process pickles (i.e., whole cucumber dills, crosscut cucumber slices, bread-and-butter pickles) are made by the addition of an acid such as vinegar and not by the natural fermentation of the vegetable. The tart flavor of these easily prepared products is due to the acetic acid in vinegar.

Fruit pickles are also made using a fresh-pack or quick process. These are usually prepared from whole fruits or smaller pieces and simmered in a spicy, sweet-sour syrup. Fruits such as peaches, pears, and watermelon rind may be used.

Relishes

Other examples of pickle products are relishes. These are prepared from fruits and vegetables which are chopped, acidified, seasoned, and then heated to desired consistency.

Safety Precautions

Control of acidity

Whether fresh-pack/quick process or fermented, both types of pickles require sufficient acidity to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum and possible toxin production. Refer to the food acidity and processing methods section of our canning basics series for a more detailed explanation.

The following safety tips are critical when preparing pickle products:

Salt is a critical ingredient for fermented products. It helps to prevent undesirable bacteria from growing instead of the naturally present, desirable bacteria that produces lactic acid.

Keeping the correct temperature during the fermentation is also important to be certain that the desired bacteria grow and produce the needed acid and flavor compounds.

Heat processing

Yeast and molds are common spoilage microorganisms of acid foods such as pickles. These and most acid-tolerant bacteria are destroyed by proper water bath processing. Remember that increasing altitude requires a longer processing time because the boiling temperature of water is lowered. Use only recommended methods with researched processing conditions to prevent spoilage.

Ingredients

Vegetables

Cucumbers. Select a variety of unwaxed cucumbers intended for pickling. Do not expect good quality pickles if you use immature table-type or "slicing" cucumbers. Use 1½ inch cucumbers for gherkins; 4 inch for dills. Odd-shaped and more mature cucumbers should be used for relishes and bread-and-butter style pickles. For optimum quality, pickle the cucumbers within 24 hours after picking. If you can't do this, at least refrigerate or spread out the produce where it will be well ventilated and remain cool. Wash the cucumbers thoroughly, especially around the stem area to remove soil containing bacteria. Remove the blossom end to prevent softening by enzymes. Do not use produce that contains mold. Proper processing will destroy the organism but not the off-flavors which may have been produced. Other vegetables and fruits used in pickle products should be fresh and of a good quality.

For optimum quality,
pickle the cucumbers
within 24 hours after picking.

Dill. Use clean, fresh, insect-free heads of dill. Avoid overmature, dry, brown dill. Frozen dill may be used if stored in airtight containers, but flavor loss or change may occur.

Vinegar

For those products requiring added vinegar, check the label to be sure the vinegar contains 5 percent acetic acid; 50 grain acetic acid on the label means the same thing. DO NOT USE homemade vinegar or barrel vinegar of unknown acidity. Cider vinegar or white distilled vinegar may be used in pickle methods. Cider vinegar has a more mellow taste, but may discolor certain vegetables. White distilled vinegar has a sharper taste. Use white vinegar where a light color is important. DO NOT dilute the vinegar unless the procedure specifies. DO NOT use less vinegar per quantity of cucumbers than is stated. Doing this will change the preservative effect.

Salt

Use special canning salt which does not contain any iodine and anti-caking agents that sometimes cause darkening and cloudiness in pickles. Again, this is a critical ingredient for fermented products because it inhibits the growth of undesirable bacteria. DO NOT USE LESS SALT OR MORE WATER THAN THE PROCEDURE REQUIRES.

Water

Use soft water if possible. Extremely hard water can cause discoloration of pickles, particularly if it has a high iron content. Some types of hard water may be somewhat softened by the following method. Boil water for 15 minutes, skim off the scum, and let the water rest 24 hours. When the sediment has settled to the bottom, pour off the water from the top and use.

Sugar

White or brown sugar may be used. Brown sugar may darken the liquid slightly. If you plan to use a non-nutritive, saccharin-type sweetener, follow the instructions that accompany these products.

Spices

Use fresh spices for the best flavor in pickle products. Store leftover spices in airtight containers and in a cool place.

Firming agents

Alum may be safely used to firm fermented pickles. However, it is unnecessary and is not included in this publication. The calcium in lime also improves pickle firmness. Food-grade lime may be used as a lime-water solution for soaking fresh cucumbers 12 to 24 hours before pickling them. However, excess lime neutralizes or removes acidity and so must be washed out to make safe pickles. Drain the lime-water solution, rinse and then re-soak the cucumbers in fresh water for 1 hour. Repeat the rinsing and soaking steps two more times.

Equipment Needed

For measuring

Measuring cups and spoon. You will need household scales if ingredients are specified by weight.

For fermentation

Suitable containers, covers, and weights: A 1-gallon container is needed for each 5 pounds of fresh vegetables. Therefore, a 5-gallon stone crock is of ideal size for fermenting about 25 pounds of fresh cabbage or cucumbers. Food-grade plastic and glass containers are excellent substitutes for stone crocks. Other 1- to 3-gallon non-food-grade plastic containers may be used if lined inside with a clean food-grade plastic bag. Caution: Be certain that foods contact only food-grade plastics. Do not use garbage bags or trash liners. Fermenting sauerkraut in quart and ½-gallon Mason jars is an acceptable practice, but may result in more spoilage losses.

Cabbage and cucumbers must be kept 1 to 2 inches under brine while fermenting. After adding prepared vegetables and brine, insert a suitably sized dinner plate or glass pie plate inside the fermentation container. The plate must be slightly smaller than the container opening, yet large enough to cover most of the shredded cabbage or cucumbers. To keep the plate under the brine, place 2 to 3 sealed quart jars filled with water on the plate. Covering the container opening with a clean, heavy bath towel helps to prevent contamination from insects and molds while the vegetables are fermenting. Fine quality fermented vegetables are also obtained when the plate is weighted down with a very large clean, plastic bag filled with 3 quarts of water containing 4½ tablespoons of salt. The bag should be properly sealed. Freezer bags sold for packaging turkeys are suitable for use with 5-gallon containers.

The fermentation container, plate, and jars must be washed in hot sudsy water, and rinsed well with very hot water before use.

For heating pickling liquids

Do not use copper, iron,
or galvanized utensils.

Use unchipped enamelware, stainless steel, aluminum, or glass pans for heating pickling liquids. DO NOT use copper, iron, or galvanized utensils. These metals may react with acids or salts and cause undesirable colors and flavors, or even form toxic compounds in the pickle mixture.

For packing the pickles

Use standard canning jars free of chips, cracks, or nicks which could prevent an airtight seal. Wide-mouth jars are easiest for dill pickles. Other types of jars are not heat tempered and often break during heat processing. Have the jars clean and hot when packing them prior to heat processing. Thoroughly wash, scald, and keep the jars hot; or if you have a dishwasher, put the jars through the complete cycle. Two-piece, self-sealing lids are the most widely used type of sealing device. The lids can be used only once.

For processing the pickles

Heat process all pickle products in a boiling water bath to destroy yeast, molds, and bacteria that cause product spoilage and to inactivate enzymes that may affect color, flavor, and texture of the pickle product. Heat processing pickles also ensures a good seal on the jar. Any large pan that allows jars standing on a rack to be covered by 1-2 inches of boiling water may be used as a water bath canner.

Other equipment

This may include measuring spoons, measuring cups, knives, jar lifters, tongs for handling the hot lids and bands, a ladle, a colander, a funnel with a large opening, potholders or mitts, and wooden boards or folded newspapers on which to place hot jars.

USDA Methods

These methods are based on research sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and conducted at the Extension Service Center for Excellence in Home Food Preservation, Pennsylvania State University. Generally, these differ from previous USDA and current Minnesota methods in the following ways:

  1. Increased processing times adjusted for altitude to ensure adequate heat treatment. Only processing times for the maximum Minnesota altitude (2,000 ft.) are given in this publication. If your location altitude is below 1,000 ft., you may deduct 5 minutes from the recommended processing time.

    Note: If you move to another state, be sure to check with the local extension office for the correct processing recommendations.
  2. Option of using lime as a firming agent followed by three rinsing and soaking treatments.

Selection of fresh cucumbers

Quantity: An average of 14 pounds is needed per canner load of 7 quarts; an average of 9 pounds is needed per canner load of 9 pints. A bushel weighs 48 pounds and yields 16 to 24 quarts—an average of 2 pounds per quart.

Quality: Select firm cucumbers of the appropriate size: about 1½ inches for gherkins and 4 inches for dills. Use odd-shaped and more mature cucumbers for relishes and bread-and-butter style pickles.

Low-temperature pasteurization treatment

Caution: Use only when method indicates. The following treatment results in a better product texture but must be carefully managed to avoid possible spoilage. Place jars in a canner filled halfway with warm (120° to 140° F) water. Then, add hot water to a level 1 inch above jars. Heat the water enough to maintain 180° to 185° F water temperature for 30 minutes. Check with a candy or jelly thermometer to be certain that the water temperature is at least 180° F during the entire 30 minutes. Temperatures higher than 185° F may cause unnecessary softening of pickles.

Ready to start? Jump to recipes for dill pickles, sweet gherkin pickles, 14-day sweet pickles, or sauerkraut.

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