August 20, 2008 in Food

Ancient art of pickling

Pickles date back as far as 2400 B.C.
By The Spokesman-Review
File photo

The best pickles are those cucumbers pickled within 24 hours after being picked.
(Full-size photo)

One more to come

This story is the fifth in our series on preservation. We covered the basics of home canning and canning fruits, canning vegetables and making jams and jellies in previous stories.

Find them online at

Next Wednesday: Tomatoes and salsas


Do you have pickling or canning questions? The WSU-Spokane County extension office can be reached at (509) 477-2048 for help with common canning and food safety questions. WSU extension also offers a toll-free number, (866) 986-4865.

Both are open during regular office hours.

Looking for fame, strength and beauty? Try pickles.

The practice of pickling foods is ancient. Archeologists say there is evidence that the Mesopotamians pickled in 2400 B.C., according to research from the New York Food Museum.

Pickles were said to not only be nutritious but they were also an ancient beauty secret. “Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles,” according to museum researchers.

Here are some other surprises from the museum’s “Pickle Timeline”:

4th century B.C. – Aristotle praises the healing effects of cured cucumbers.

27 B.C. – Roman emperors feed pickles to their troops believing it would give them physical and spiritual strength.

16th century – In England, Queen Elizabeth’s love of pickles is noted by her chefs and Shakespeare is writing pickles into his plays, both in references and in metaphor. Early explorers, including Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus, bring pickled vegetables aboard their ships.

19th century – It was Napoleon’s belief that pickles helped preserve the health of his armies. So, according to the museum researchers, he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve food safely.

The man who won the prize in 1809 was a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you removed air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn’t spoil. He was, essentially, the first home canner. (Louis Pasteur later explained the scientific ins and outs of the process).

“Known today as the ‘boiling water bath,’ Appert’s discovery was one of the most influential culinary contributions in history,” according to the New York Food Museum.

There are now endless varieties of pickled products at the supermarket, but pickling at home is easy. Creating your own pickles, pickled vegetables (and fruits), sauerkraut and relishes is popular among people who have piles of produce this time of year. It’s also a tradition for many families, who have passed their techniques and recipes down through the generations.

Here are some tips and steps to get you safely pickling at home. They come from the Pacific Northwest Extension publication “Pickling Vegetables,” hand-outs on pickling from a recent Master Food Preserver course through Washington State University extension and the book “So Easy To Preserve” from the University of Georgia cooperative extension:

Pick your produce carefully. Use a pickling variety of cucumber. Do not expect good results from using “table” or “slicing” cucumbers. Choose unwaxed cucumbers if you buy them for pickling whole because the brine cannot penetrate the wax.

Use 1 1/2-inch cucumbers for gherkins, 4-inch for dills, and save the odd-shaped and bigger cucumbers for relishes and bread and butter pickles.

The best pickles are those pickled within 24 hours after being picked. (If you can’t pickle right away, then store produce in the refrigerator.) Wash carefully and remove a 1/8-inch slice from the blossom end of vegetables because the blossoms contain enzymes that can make pickles soft.

Avoid produce with any signs of mold. It can produce an off flavor in pickles.

There are two basic ways to pickle foods: brined and quick pack (or fermented and unfermented).

Fermented pickles or sauerkraut require several weeks of curing at room temperature. Colors and flavors change as lactic acid bacteria grow and preserve foods.

For quick pack (unfermented pickles), vegetables are packed into a jar and covered with boiling water, vinegar, spices and seasonings. Sometimes a recipe may call for brining for several hours and draining before the pickling liquid is added. These pickles are easy to prepare and have a better flavor if they are allowed to stand for several weeks in the jar before opening.

Use pickling or canning salt. Other salts contain anti-caking ingredients that may produce a cloudy brine.

Use cider or white vinegar. It should have 5 percent acidity (50 grain). Cider vinegar may darken white or light-colored fruits or vegetables, but has a milder flavor. White distilled vinegar is more pungent and is usually used for onions, cauliflower and pears.

Homemade vinegar, or vinegar of unknown acidity, is not recommended for pickling. Do not dilute vinegar unless the recipe requires it. Add a small amount of sugar rather than decreasing vinegar, which is required for preservation, if you want pickles to be less sour.

Use white sugar, unless the recipe calls for brown. Sugar substitutes are not recommended. They can become bitter or lose their flavor and they don’t have the same preservative effect on produce. Sugar helps keep pickles plump and firm.

Use whole, fresh spices. Powdered spices will cloud the brine and make your pickles look dark.

Check your water. Soft water is preferred for pickling. Hard water can prevent pickles from curing properly. To soften hard water, boil it 15 minutes and let it sit for 24 hours, covered. Remove any scum and pour into a new container slowly so the sediment is not transferred. Distilled water may be used.

Firming agents are not necessary to make crisp pickles if good-quality ingredients and up-to-date recipes are followed. Try soaking cucumbers in ice water for 4 to 5 hours prior to pickling, which is safer.

Alum, sometimes used to firm fermented pickles, is no longer recommended. It doesn’t work in quick-process recipes.

Lime helps improve pickle firmness. Be sure to use food-grade lime from the grocery store. It is used to make a lime-water solution that fresh cucumbers are soaked in 12 to 24 hours before pickling. Excess lime must be removed by rinsing and soaking cucumbers for 1 hour before pickling. Failing to rinse and remove lime can increase the risk of botulism.

Calcium chloride (found near canning products and sold under the trademarked name Pickle Crisp) can also help preserve pickle firmness. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Gather your equipment. A 1-gallon container is needed for every 5 pounds of fresh vegetables. A 5-gallon stoneware crock is the ideal size for fermenting about 25 pounds of cabbage or cucumbers. Make sure the crock is designed for food use. Food-grade plastic and glass containers are good substitutes. (Don’t use garbage cans, metal containers or plastic not meant to come in contact with food.)

A weight keeps the fermenting food under the brine. Use a dinner plate or glass pie plate slightly smaller than the mouth of your crock and weigh it down with 2 or 3 filled quart jars. Or use a food-grade plastic bag filled with brine (1 1/2 tablespoons salt per 1 cup water). Close the bag before putting it in the fermentation container. Using brine means your pickles won’t be diluted if the bag springs a leak.

Don’t use zinc, copper, brass, galvanized metal or iron utensils, which can react with the acid and salt in pickle recipes and cause quality and safety problems.

Check your recipe for safety. The USDA and university extension services recommend using recipes that have been tested in a lab, but untested recipes can be checked for safety.

•Make sure the recipe calls for vinegar that has 5 percent acidity.

•Quick pickle recipes must have a 1-to-1 ratio of water to vinegar to be safe.

•If lime is included, the recipe must have a rinsing step.

•Brined pickles or sauerkraut recipes must include salt.

•Processing instructions must be correct. Quick pickle recipes can be processed as soon as they are made. Brined pickles must not be processed until they have a sour taste.

Processing can be done two ways. Pickles must be processed to stop fermentation and bacteria growth. Use either a boiling water bath or low-heat pasteurization to make them safe.

In a boiling water canner, jars should be covered with at least 1 to 2 inches of water and boiled gently for the recommended amount of time. For step-by-step instructions for boiling water canning, look at our previous stories on canning. They can be found at www.spokesman, or there’s a link to this series on the Fresh Sheet blog,

For low-heat pasteurization, which many believe produces a better product, directions must be followed carefully.

Place filled canning jars in a boiling water canner and cover with water to reach 1 to 2 inches above the jars.

Heat the water to 180 to 185 degrees and start a timer. Process for 30 minutes; check with a candy or jelly thermometer to be certain that temperature stays at least 180 degrees (higher temperatures may soften pickles).

Immediately remove jars at the end of processing time. Cool jars on a rack or towel with space between them so the air can circulate around them.

Here are some recipes to get you started pickling at home:

Pickled Dilled Beans

4 pounds fresh tender green or yellow beans (5 to 6 inches long)

8 to 16 heads fresh dill

8 cloves garlic (optional)

1/2 cup canning or pickling salt

4 cups white vinegar (5 percent)

4 cups water

1 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes (optional)

Wash and trim ends from beans and cut to 4-inch lengths. In each sterile pint jar, place 1 to 2 dill heads, and, if desired, 1 clove of garlic. Place whole beans upright in jars, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace.

Trim beans to ensure proper fit, if necessary. Combine salt, vinegar, water, and pepper flakes (if desired). Bring to a boil. Add hot solution to beans, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process. Pints should be processed for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath for elevations below 1,000 feet. For elevations of 1,001 to 6,000 feet, process beans for 10 minutes.

Yield: About 8 pints

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Quick Fresh Pack Dill Pickles

From “Pickling Vegetables” a publication of the Pacific Northwest Extension.

8 pounds of 3- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers

2 gallons water

1 1/4 cups canning or pickling salt (divided)

1 1/2 quarts vinegar (5 percent)

1/4 cup sugar

2 quarts water

2 tablespoons whole mixed pickling spice

3 tablespoons whole mustard seed (1 teaspoon per pint jar)

14 heads of fresh dill (1 1/2 heads per pint jar)

4 1/2 Tablespoons dill seed (1 1/2 teaspoons per pint jar)

Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch slice off blossom end and discard, leaving 1/4-inch stem attached. Dissolve 3/4 cup salt in 2 gallons water. Pour over cucumbers and let stand 12 hours. Drain.

Combine vinegar, 1/2 cup salt, sugar, and 2 quarts water. Add mixed pickling spices tied in a clean white cloth. Heat to boiling.

Fill jars with cucumbers. Add 1 teaspoon mustard seed and 1 1/2 heads fresh dill per pint. Cover with boiling pickling solution, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process using the low-temperature pasteurization treatment described above under “Processing can be done two ways,” or in a boiling water bath canner.

Process pints for 10 minutes and quarts for 15 minutes at elevations from 0 to 1,000 feet. For elevations of 1,001 to 6,000 feet, process pints for 15 minutes and quarts for 20 minutes.

Yield: 7 to 9 pints

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Curried Apple Chutney

This curry, from the “Ball Complete Guide to Home Canning,” is filled with spices inspired by Indian cuisine. Serve it with chicken satay skewers.

4 cups white vinegar

8 cups chopped, cored, peeled apples

5 ½ cups raisins

4 cups lightly packed brown sugar

1 cup chopped onions

1 cup chopped, seeded red bell pepper

3 tablespoons mustard seeds

2 tablespoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground allspice

2 teaspoons curry powder

2 teaspoons salt

2 chili peppers, such as hot banana or jalapeño, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar and apples. Add raisins, brown sugar, onions and red pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. Add mustard seeds, ginger, allspice, curry powder, salt, chili peppers and garlic. Boil gently, stirring frequently, until thick enough to mount on a spoon, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare canner, jars and lids.

Ladle hot chutney into jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot chutney. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 15 minutes, adjusting for altitude (see note below on recipe for Traditional Bread and Butter Pickles for altitude adjustments). Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Yield: About 10 pint jars

Approximate nutrition per 2-ounce serving: 95 calories, no fat, less than 1 gram protein, 24 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 73 milligrams sodium.

Traditional Bread and Butter Pickles

From the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.”

10 cups sliced trimmed pickling cucumbers

4 medium onions

1/2 cup pickling or canning salt

3 cups white vinegar

2 cups granulated sugar

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

1 teaspoon celery seeds

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

In a glass or stainless steel bowl, combine cucumbers, onions and salt. Mix well, cover with cold water and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Transfer to a colander, place over a sink, rinse with cool running water and drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, prepare canner, jars and lids.

In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds and turmeric. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir in vegetables and return to a boil.

Pack vegetables into hot jars within a generous 1/2 inch of top of jar. (See note). Ladle hot pickling liquid into jar to cover vegetables, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot pickling liquid. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude (see note). Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Note: Processing time must be lengthened when canning at elevations higher than 1,000 feet above sea level. For elevations between 1,001 and 3,000 feet, add five minutes of processing time to those given in the recipes. For elevations between 3,001 and 6,000 feet, add 10 minutes. At 6,001 to 8,000 feet, add 15 minutes.

Ball editors recommend using Pickle Crisp to make fresh-pack pickles crisper. Add 3/4 teaspoon to pint jars and 1 1/2 teaspoons to quart jars before processing.

Variations: For British Bread and Butter Pickles: Substitute 3 cups cider vinegar for the white vinegar and 2 cups packed brown sugar for the granulated sugar. Add 1 teaspoon ground ginger along with the turmeric.

For Zesty Bread and Butter Pickles: Substitute 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish for the celery seeds and 2 tablespoons grated gingerroot for the turmeric.

Yield: About 5 pints

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Dill Pickles

From “Pickling Vegetables,” a Pacific Northwest Extension Publication. Use the following ingredients for each gallon capacity of your container.

4 pounds 4-inch pickling cucumbers

2 tablespoons dill seed or 4 to 5 heads fresh or dry dill weed

1/2 cup of salt

1/4 cup vinegar (5 percent acidity)

8 cups water

Add one or more of the following ingredients:

2 cloves garlic (optional)

2 dried red peppers (optional)

2 teaspoons whole mixed pickling spices (optional)

Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch slice off blossom end and discard. Leave 1/4-inch of stem attached.

Place half of dill and spices on bottom of a clean, suitable container (see “Gather Your Equipment” above). Add cucumbers, remaining dill, and spices. Dissolve salt in vinegar and water and pour over cucumbers. Add suitable cover and weight.

Store where temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees for about 3 to 4 weeks while fermenting. Temperatures of 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit are acceptable, but the fermentation will take 5 to 6 weeks. Avoid temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit or pickles will become too soft during fermentation.

Fermenting pickles cure slowly. Check the container several times a week and promptly remove surface scum or mold.

Caution: If the pickles become soft, slimy or develop a disagreeable odor, discard them.

Fully fermented pickles may be stored in the original container for about 4 to 6 months, provided they are refrigerated and surface scum and molds are removed regularly. Canning fully fermented pickles is a better way to store them.

To can them, pour the brine into a pan, heat slowly to a boil and simmer 5 minutes. Filter brine through paper coffee filters to reduce cloudiness, if desired. Fill hot jars with pickles and hot brine, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process as below, or use the low temperature pasteurization treatment (see “Processing can be done two ways” above) or process in a boiling water canner.

Process pints for 10 minutes and quarts for 15 minutes for elevations from 0 to 1,000 feet. For elevations of 1,001 feet to 6,000 feet, process pints for 15 minutes and quarts for 20 minutes.

Yield: Varies

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.


From “Pickling Vegetables,” a Pacific Northwest Extension publication.

25 pounds cabbage

3/4 cup canning or pickling salt

For the best sauerkraut, use firm heads of fresh cabbage. Shred cabbage and start kraut between 24 and 48 hours after harvest.

Work with about 5 pounds of cabbage at a time. Discard outer leaves. Rinse heads under cold running water and drain. Cut heads in quarters and remove cores. Shred or slice to a thickness of a quarter.

Put cabbage in a suitable fermentation container and add 3 tablespoons of salt. Mix thoroughly, using clean hands. Pack firmly until salt draws juices from cabbage. Repeat shredding, salting and packing until all cabbage is in the container.

Be sure it is deep enough so that its rim is at least 4 or 5 inches above the cabbage. If juice does not cover cabbage, add boiled and cooled brine (1 1/2 tablespoons of salt per quart of water).

Add plate and weights; cover container with a clean bath towel.

Store at 70 to 75 degrees while fermenting. At temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees, kraut will be fully fermented in about 3 to 4 weeks; at 60 to 65 degrees, fermentation may take 5 to 6 weeks. At temperatures lower than 60 degrees, kraut may not ferment. Above 75 degrees, kraut may become soft.

If you weigh the cabbage down with a brine-filled bag, do not disturb the crock until normal fermentation is completed (when bubbling ceases). If you use jars as weights, you will have to check the kraut 2 to 3 times each week and remove scum if it forms.

Fully fermented kraut may be kept tightly covered in the refrigerator for several months or it may be canned as follows:

Hot pack: Bring kraut and liquid slowly to a boil in a large kettle, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and fill jars rather firmly with kraut and juices, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. For elevations of 0 to 1,000 feet, process pints for 10 minutes and quarts for 15 minutes. For elevations of 1,001 to 6,000 feet, process pints for 15 minutes and quarts for 20 minutes.

Raw pack: Fill jars firmly with kraut and cover with juices, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. For elevations of 0 to 1,000 feet, process pints for 20 minutes and quarts for 25 minutes. For elevations of 1,001 to 2,000 feet, process pints for 25 minutes and quarts for 30 minutes. For elevations of 2,001 to 3,000 feet, process pints for 30 minutes and quarts for 30 minutes.

Yield: About 9 quarts

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate

Marinated Whole Mushrooms

7 pounds small whole mushrooms

1/2 cup bottled lemon juice

2 cups olive or salad oil

2 1/2 cups white vinegar

1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves

1 tablespoon dried basil leaves

1 tablespoon canning or pickling salt

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup diced pimento

2 cloves garlic, cut in quarters

25 black peppercorns

Select very fresh, unopened mushrooms with caps less than 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Wash. Cut stems, leaving 1/4 inch attached to cap. Add lemon juice and water to cover. Bring to boil. Simmer 5 minutes. Drain mushrooms.

Mix olive oil, vinegar, oregano, basil and salt in a saucepan. Stir in onions and pimento and heat to boiling. Place 1/4 garlic clove and 2 to 3 peppercorns in each half-pint jar. Fill half-pint jars with mushrooms and hot, well-mixed oil-vinegar solution, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Adjust lids and process in a boiling water bath, or use the lower-temperature pasteurization described in the story above.

For boiling water bath processing, process half pints at 1,000 feet or lower for 20 minutes. For elevations of 1,001 to 2,000 feet, process for 25 minutes. For elevations of 2,001 to 3,000 feet, process for 30 minutes.

Yield: 9 half-pint jars

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email