Your Guide to Homemade Pickles
Basic pickling how-to — tips, recipes and info about ingredients, methods and spices for making pickles.
A symbol of both thrift and abundance, the pickle jar is a staple in every well-stocked pantry. Putting up your cucumber bounty with Grandma’s directions for dill pickles maintains an important link with the past — and a promising future.
If growing your own cukes or dragging out the big canner like she did isn't appealing, consider making your own pickles using a simple refrigerator method or by fermenting your pickles in a crock or jar. All you need is produce, the right ingredients, and a culinary sense of adventure (to make it fun)!
What to pickle — Think outside the cucumber patch
Cucumbers are traditional for pickling, of course, but almost any veggie will do. (Although when you say the word "pickle," most people assume you're talking cukes. Otherwise, you'd likely say "pickled beets," or "pickled cauliflower," for example.) Cauliflower, radishes, baby carrots, onions, green beans, shallots, zucchini, okra, broccoli, red peppers, beets, green tomatoes, and garlic cloves all make perfect pickles.
Here, for example, is a crisp and mildly spicy recipe for Radish Pickles. And here's one for Cauliflower Pickles.
For the best pickles, choose fresh, crisp veggies, and pickle them as soon as possible (within 24 hours of harvest is ideal). When it comes to cukes, those specified "pickling cucumbers" produce the best results. Stick with cucumbers that are less than 2 inches in diameter.
When preparing your veggies for pickling, cut off the blossom end (it harbors microbes), and cut into roughly the same size pieces so that they'll pickle consistently. Slice cucumbers lengthwise, leave whole, or cut crosswise (for bread-and-butter pickles, for example). Tip: Soaking whole fresh cukes in ice water for 4 to 5 hours before pickling will help keep them crisp.
Other Pickling Ingredients
Vinegar is what pickles your produce. Most recipes call for white vinegar, but other vinegars—apple cider, wine vinegar—work, too. (Balsamic is not recommended.) Vinegars should have 5 percent acetic acid for pickling. (Commercial vinegars meet this requirement, and you can buy a pH meter to test homemade vinegars.) Sometimes vinegar is used straight, and sometimes it's diluted with water (up to three times the amount of water).
If your recipe calls for water along with vinegar, use soft or distilled water. Hard water will interfere with the pickling process, producing discoloration and off-flavors.
Salt draws moisture out of the veggies and helps with the production of good bacteria (necessary for the pickling process). According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, pickles can be made using iodized or non-iodized table salt. However, many table salts include non-caking materials that will make your brine cloudy. The Center does not recommend flaky salt like kosher or sea salts, since the salt particles vary in density so much that it's hard to consistently add the right amount. On the other hand, some pickling connoisseurs enjoy using a variety of sea salts in their pickles, so you may want to do some experimenting!
Sweeteners, such as sugar, brown sugar and honey, are used most often when making sweet pickles. Usually the vinegar isn't diluted in these recipes.
Spices distinguish the pickle, and good spices are essential to good pickling. If you have fresh herbs and spices in the garden, such as stalks of graceful dill, include those for visual interest and fresh taste. But dried spices are all you really need for great tasting pickles.
Popular spices for pickling include allspice, bay leaf, black pepper, caraway, cardamom, celery seed, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, dill, fenugreek, fennel, garlic, ginger, juniper, mace, mustard, and nutmeg. (See the info below for guidelines to the most common spices in the different varieties of pickles.)
There are exceptions but, in general, whole spices are preferable to powdered, because powdered spices can make your brine cloudy and sludgy. Spices can be added to the jar before the produce, or they can be tied into a cheesecloth sachet and added to the brine (and later removed).
You'll want to have a good pickling spice blend on hand, too. Stock up on a reliable, convenient pre-made blend, like one of Frontier's Pickling Spice blends. Or try your hand at making your own. Here's a recipe for Get-You-Started Pickling Spice Blend.
Have some fun concocting your own custom spice combinations, too. One person's favorite pickles might highlight the warm sweetness of cardamom and allspice, for example, while another cook's favorite blend might pop with chili peppers and garlic.
The supplies you'll need will vary according to the method of pickling you're tackling, but here's a quick rundown:
No matter your method, glass jars are preferred for pickling because they don't absorb odors (won't always smell like a pickle). They also look wonderful lining a cupboard shelf!
You'll also likely need a large stainless steel, glass, or enamelware (unchipped) pot. Large spoons, a funnel, and a ladle will also come in handy. Don't use utensils made of galvanized metal, zinc, iron, brass, or copper, though, as these substances can react with the acids and salts and ruin your pickles.
If you're canning, you'll need a canner (pot in which to sanitize the filled jars), as well as wide-mouth canning jars, lids, and rings (metal bands that secure the lids to the jars; these may be reused). A jar grabber and lid lifter (to pick up the hot jars/lids from boiling water when sanitizing) are also useful.
A pickle is produce preserved in brine. There are several ways to carry out the preservation, and it needn't be a painstaking process. One involves canning, or sterilizing, jars of pickles in big canning pots. Another is a simple fermentation process, and the third is a quick and easy refrigeration method.
Quick-Process or Fresh-Pack Pickles
Produce is combined with a pickling solution of hot vinegar and spices, and then the jars are processed in a boiling water bath in a canner. Bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, and pickled beets are often made this way.
Here are some directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation for making Quick Fresh-Pack Dill Pickles.
Fermented Pickles or Crock Pickles
Produce is covered with a brine solution in a crock or jar for several weeks. The ideal temperature for fermentation is in the 65 to 80 degree F range; warmer produces slime and cooler slows the process. During this time, lactic acid bacteria grow, preserving the pickles and giving them flavor. Once the pickles are ready, they're moved to the refrigerator. This method is often used for making dill pickles, half sour pickles, and sauerkraut.
For comparison with the fresh-pack dills above, here are some directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation for making Dill Pickles using fermentation.
Refrigerated Pickles or Quick Pickles
This is the quick and easy method! Produce is covered in a brine solution and kept in the refrigerator for hours or days until the desired taste and crispness is achieved. The taste is fresher and less acidic than in pickles produced via other methods. While refrigerator pickles don't last as long as canned pickles (and they need to be kept in the refrigerator), they'll be good for a couple months or more (and if your recipe is a success, they'll be long gone by then). Sour/half sour pickles are often produced this way, as are many relishes.
Here's a Quick Pickles recipe for pickling just one cucumber. Have it with lunch tomorrow!
For more pickling recipes, visit our recipe pages.
Don't know a gherkin from a kosher dill? Here are some quick definitions:
Bread and Butter Pickles
Not as sweet as the sweetest pickles but not as sour as a dill, this mildly sweet/tangy pickle is frequently processed with onions and bell peppers. Cut into slices (with waffle-like edges), you'll find it atop burgers and sandwiches.
The spices most often used in bread and butter pickles include celery seed, coriander, mustard seed, and turmeric. Red pepper flakes, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice might also be added.
Here's a Bread-and-Butter Pickles recipe that will be ready to eat in one week.
This slightly sour pickle is the most popular pickle in the U.S. There are several varieties of dill pickles, including Polish dills, genuine dills (dill weed is added near the end of fermentation, yielding a stronger and more sour taste), and kosher (which relates not to kosher laws but to the flavor produced by including a good deal more garlic than other varieties). "Sour dills" (or "old dills") have been fermented longer, while "half-sour dills" (or "new dills") have been in the brine for a shorter time, leaving them crisper and brighter colored. Dills are usually sold whole but are also available in spears.
Dills are heavily spiced with dill, of course. Other spices commonly include mustard seed, celery seed, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper, and/or mixed pickling blend.
Pickling spice blend and red-hot chile peppers enliven string beans!
This sweet treat is made by simmering whole or sliced fruit (peaches, crabapples, apricots, etc.) in a spicy, sweet/sour syrup.
Warm spices frequently used in desserts—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom— are perfect for fruit pickles.
A small cucumber used for pickling, gherkins are usually sweetened. Small gherkins pickled with tarragon are called cornichons; these are popular in France.
Turmeric, celery seeds, cinnamon, fennel, and/or pickling spice blend are used to make sweet gherkins.
Kimchi is a spicy pickled Nappa cabbage (or sometimes cucumber or daikon) used in Korean cuisine.
It's typically spiced with garlic, ginger, and hot pepper flakes and/or chili powder.
Cukes, cauliflower, pearl onions and sweet peppers are soaked in brine, then cooked in a creamy mustard sauce to produce this hand-me-down favorite pickle.
Dry mustard and turmeric and sometimes celery seed are typically used to season the "sauce."
This little, mild chili pepper (also called Tuscan pepper) is often pickled and stuffed with cheese. Banana peppers are also sometimes pickled and called pepperoncini. (In Italy, pepperoncini are served as part of an antipasti dish. They're also a component of Greek salads.
Bay leaf, coriander, black peppercorns, cloves and garlic might be used to pickle pepperoncini.
Chopped fruits and/or vegetables are cooked in spiced vinegar. Corn relish (with splashes of bright sweet peppers) is a popular variety, but other veggies can be highlighted, too, as in this recipe for Hot Tomato Relish.
Allspice, cloves, mustard seed and turmeric are often used in pickle relishes.
Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage, also known as German "sour cabbage." It may also contain white and red onion.
A variety of spices might be used in making sauerkraut, including caraway, coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard, and fenugreek.
These are cukes that have been pickled in a brine of vinegar and spices as well as sugar. Examples include sweet gherkins, candied pickles, and bread and butter pickles. Sweet and spicy pickles have a kick of hotness added, thanks to chile peppers.
Celery seed, bay, cinnamon, allspice, turmeric, cloves, mustard seed and/or a pickling blend are often found in sweet pickle recipes. For sweet and spicy, jalapenos or other chile peppers are frequently added.
Here's a recipe for Sweet Mixed Pickles, using cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, sweet red peppers, honey, and a handful of pickling spices.