Food Safety Feature Articles
Pack a perfect pickle
Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and
Health Education Specialist,
Barton County, University of Missouri Extension
Pickling is a different way to enjoy cucumbers and is often an easy process, but there are some important things to know to assure pickles are safe to eat.
The main ingredients used for pickling are acid, salt, sugar and spices. Lime and alum are also sometimes used to make crisper pickles.
The amount of acid, or vinegar, used is very important for the safety of the pickles. For this reason, it is important to use a tested recipe to assure there is enough acidity to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. White or cider vinegar that has 5 percent acidity can be used for pickling. Homemade vinegar should not be used because the acidity level is not guaranteed.
In pickling, salt is the ingredient that helps assure proper fermentation. Only use salt that is sold for canning and pickling. Regular table salt contains an anti-caking material that can make the brine cloudy. Avoid altering the amount of salt in fermented pickles.
If a pickling recipe calls for sugar, use white sugar — which gives the end product a lighter color — unless the recipe specifically calls for brown. When looking for a sugar substitute, it is best to find a tested recipe that was developed using the substitute. Heat and storage may cause some sugar substitutes to become bitter or have a bad flavor. It is recommended to avoid corn syrup or honey in pickle recipes, as they can produce undesirable flavors.
Choosing whole or fresh spices will give you the best quality of pickles. For light-colored pickles, tie spices loosely in a cheesecloth bag before placing them in the jar.
Follow instructions carefully for using lime when making pickles. The calcium in lime can improve the pickle’s firmness, but it must be used very carefully. When using lime, it’s important to soak and rinse pickles several times — lime left on the cucumbers can change the pH, which increases the risk for botulism. It’s best to use food-grade lime, which can often be found at the store with canning products, when pickling. Alum can be used for crisper fermented cucumbers, but doesn’t work for quick-process pickles. For a safe method of firming pickles, soak cucumbers in ice water for four to five hours before making your pickles.
For more pickling information and recipes, refer to these University of Missouri Extension publications online:
Last update: Monday, August 24, 2009