Suzanne Driessen, Minnesota Grown Guest Author and University of Minnesota Extension Food Safety Educator
Pickling is a skillful blending of spices, sugar, and vinegar with a fruit or vegetable. Many vegetables, from carrots to peppers, can be pickled. Last year, I pickled red beets, green beans, relish, and jalapeño peppers. The beets weren’t a hit but we are definitely pickling more green beans this year. Choose a research-tested recipe, use quality ingredients and follow correct processing time for a safe and tasty pickled product.
There are tons of pickling recipes, blogs, and videos on the Internet. Some are great - some are not. Look for sites referencing tested research recipes and methods. University, USDA, and canning and supply companies are reliable sites. The goal of food preservation is to ensure safety with the best quality possible. Use credible resources and eliminate food safety worries by using recently updated resources - particularly those published after 1994 - like the ones on the University of Minnesota Extension website.
If you are just starting out, I recommend the Ball Blue Book. It is inexpensive and has great pictures and step-by-step directions. Remember to adjust for Minnesota altitudes by choosing processing times for 1001-2000 feet. Usually you should add 5 minutes of processing time to recipes that aren’t from the University of Minnesota Extension website.
Another resource is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. They do research and provide tested recipes and methods on their website including step-by-instructions for pickling a variety of foods. There is lots of great food preservation information on our food safety website. Check out my mini-modules on 20 food preservation topics. To learn how to make a perfect pickled product, view Crunch Time: Pickling 101.
Selecting and handling your ingredients is extremely important. Be sure you:
- Select fresh, firm, high-quality produce.
- Discard bruised, moldy or insect-damaged produce.
- Pickle within 24 hours of picking.
- Clean produce before pickling under running water.
- Scrub carrots, cucumbers and peppers with a clean produce brush.
Adding an acid like vinegar to a low-acid food like cucumbers decreases the pH to levels in which most microbes can’t grow. The amount of acid added is very important to the safety of the product and to get the right ‘pickled’ flavor - that tangy flavor we all love.
Never alter the proportions of vinegar, food, or water in a recipe and use only tested recipes. All researched pickling canning recipes are tested using 5-percent acidity. There are vinegars on store shelves that are 3% - 4% acidity. Check the label and use only vinegars with 5% acidity in canning recipes calling for vinegar. This is both a safety and a quality issue. The ratio of vinegar to water varies by the vegetable. Select a recipe for the vegetable you are pickling. Onions, mushrooms, and artichokes are pickled in straight 5% vinegar with no additional water.
Soft water is best for pickling as hard water causes odd flavors and discoloration. If only hard water is available, boil it, skim away the surface scum, and let it sit for 24 hours. Then draw water off the top of the container without disturbing any sediment at the bottom or buy distilled water.
Salt is added to pickling recipes for flavor and quality. Use pickling or canning salt. Other salts contain anti-caking agents that make the brine cloudy. Salt with iodine darkens the pickled product. Salt concentrations can be modified. For best results use tested low-salt recipes.
Tested recipes provide you with the exact amounts of spices to give you the best flavor. Use whole spices for a fresher and more concentrated flavor. Powdered spices cloud the brine. Fresh garlic and dill can change the acidity level of the final pickled product. Limit the quantity of spices used to what is specified in the recipe.
The water bath processing time is determined by the acid level of the vegetable, the pickling solution and the size of jar. Water bath processing times range from five minutes to 30 minutes to insure a safe, home-canned product. Follow exact processing times indicated for your product.
Give pickling a try! You will be rewarded with a tasty product. For best flavor, store the pickled product in a cool dark place for four to five weeks to develop the ideal flavor.