by Mary K. Stout

Editorial Assistant

Print Share

    “On a hot day in Virginia, I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle.” (Thomas Jefferson.)

    Sweet, sour, dill, piquant, wrinkled, puckery, crunchy, crisp. Pickles. They make you want to bite back.

    Peter Piper isn’t alone in his fondness of food cured in vinegar, herbs, and spices. Pickles have been a favorite for centuries. Cleopatra believed they were a beauty aid, and Julius Caesar fed them to his troops.

    Sauerkraut, relish, and corned beef are some of the results of pickling. Cauliflower, onions, peppers, olives, tomatoes, beets, peaches, and pears are also frequently preserved in a brine, acid, sugar, or spice solution. But cucumbers, large and small, remain the most popular pickled product.

    Of the two canning methods, fresh-pack pickling takes only a matter of hours while the brine process requires cucumbers to cure several days before bottling. The fresh-pack pickles, because of their quick processing time, are fun to make, easy to store, and nearly everybody’s favorite.

    A few guidelines before you begin:


    Use unwaxed cucumbers for whole pickling. The brine solution cannot penetrate waxed cucumbers. Use fresh produce and keep it refrigerated before you begin. The cucumbers will deteriorate rapidly, especially at room temperature. Before you begin wash the cucumbers thoroughly. Use those that are firm and crisp, with an even green color throughout and free from defects. Three- to four-inch ones are recommended.


    Do not use iodized salt. This tends to darken the pickles. Use pure, granulated salt. When added to fruits and vegetables, salt draws out their juices, hardens the tissues, and prevents spoilage. If the salt solution is weak, the pickles will be soft or slippery from bacteria growth.


    Cider or white distilled vinegar with 4 to 6 percent acidity (40 to 60 grain) is best. Cider vinegar is more mellow but may darken your cucumbers. White vinegar has a sharp, pungent, acetic acid taste and keeps the lightness of the fruit. Do not dilute the vinegar called for in the recipe unless told to do so. If a sweeter pickle is desired, add sugar rather than decrease the amount of vinegar. Your grandmother’s biggest pickle problem was the uncertain strength of her vinegar. Today’s vinegar has more acetic acid. If you use an old recipe, it may call for too much vinegar.


    Use soft water if possible. Hard water often contains large amounts of calcium and other salts. A high iron content in water may darken pickles. If your water supply is hard, boil it, skim the scum, let it sit 24 hours, and ladle out the water after the sediments have settled to the bottom. You can also use distilled water.


    Granulated sugar is recommended unless brown is specified or a darker color desired.


    Included in this group are sweet herbs, the leaves of aromatic plants grown in the temperate zone, and pungent spices—the stems, leaves, roots, seeds, flowers, buds, and bark of aromatic plants grown in the tropics.

    Use fresh, whole seasonings. Spices and herbs lose their potency with age. If your seasonings are old, the amount should be increased. You can tie whole seasonings in a piece of cheesecloth before adding them to the pickling liquid. Remove the bag before filling your bottles. Commercial “pickling spices” may be purchased at grocery stores.


    Use only stainless steel, glass, or enamel pans to cook in. Do not use copper, zinc, brass, iron, or tin utensils. These will turn dark and cause the produce to also. The pickles will develop a strong metallic taste when the acid in the vinegar reacts with the pans.

    Select jars and lids without cracks, dents, chips, or any other defect that may prevent airtight seals. Wash jars and rinse. Let them stand in boiling water. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for preparing the jars and lids.


    Fill your water-bath canner containing a rack with four to five inches of water and set it on the stove. Cover the canner and heat to boiling. In a separate container, boil some water to fill the canner after the jars are in place.

    Pack the pickles in jars according to your recipe, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Place the jars on a cloth to prevent them from slipping and to catch any drips. Spoon boiling pickling liquid over the food, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Use a potholder to hold hot jars. Work out air bubbles in the filled jars with a table knife or a rubber spatula, and wipe off jar rims to insure proper sealing. Screw on the lids following manufacturer’s directions.

    By now the water in the canner should be boiling. Place the filled jars in the rack, making sure they do not touch each other. Check the water level. The water should be at least one inch over the tops of the jars. Add boiling water if it is needed to raise the level.


    The water must cover the jars and be boiling before you start to count processing time. (On all recipe times add one minute for each 1,000 feet above sea level.)

    When the processing time is completed, place the jars on a folded towel in a draft-free area. Allow some space between the jars for air circulation.


    Check each jar to see that it has sealed properly. If it has not, reseal and process again. Wipe the jars clean, label them with name and date, and store them in a cool, dark place.

    Recipes for Beginners

    For a start, you might want to try some of these pickle recipes:

    Fresh-pack Dill Pickles

    (Yield: 7 quarts)

    17 to 18 pounds cucumbers, 3 to 5 inches long

    1 1/4 cups salt in 2 gallons of water (which is 5 percent brine)

    6 cups vinegar

    3/4 cup pickling salt (uniodized)

    1/4 cup sugar

    9 cups water

    2 tablespoons commercial pickling spice (tied in cheesecloth)

    4 2/3 tablespoons whole mustard seed

    garlic cloves (if desired)

    dill plant, fresh or dried, 3 heads per quart, or

    dill seed, 1 tablespoon per quart

    Wash the cucumbers. Cover them with the salt-water solution and let them stand overnight. Drain.

    Combine vinegar, salt, sugar, water, and pickling spices; heat them to boiling. Pack 7 to 10 cucumbers into clean, hot jars. Add mustard seed, dill, and garlic (1 or 2 cloves per jar) to each bottle. Cover with boiling liquid. Secure lids.

    Process in boiling water for 20 minutes.

    Sweet and Sour Pickles

    (Yield: 5 pints)

    3 1/4 pounds small cucumbers (2 1/2 inches) or about 50

    1/3 cup pickling salt (uniodized)

    6 cups cider vinegar

    3 cups sugar

    1 tablespoon commercial pickling spice

    Wash the cucumbers. Dissolve the salt in 4 cups boiling water. Pour the solution over the cucumbers in a large bowl. Let cool; drain. Combine vinegar, sugar, and spices in 2 cups water. Let boil and pour over cucumbers; let them stand 24 hours.

    Boil cucumber and pickling solution. Pack cucumbers and liquid into hot jars. Screw on lids and process in boiling water bath for five minutes.

    Zucchini Pickles

    (Yield: 6 pints)

    4 pounds zucchini

    4 small onions

    1/2 cup salt

    4 cups sugar

    1/2 teaspoon celery seed

    1/2 teaspoon turmeric

    4 tablespoons mustard seed

    4 cups white vinegar

    Wash and cut the zucchini into thin, round slices. Peel and quarter the onions and cut them into thin slices.

    Cover both with water and add salt. Let them stand for two hours. Drain. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil and pour over vegetables. Let stand two hours. Bring to a boil and seal. These may be eaten after refrigeration overnight.

    Bread and Butter Pickles

    32 4-inch cucumbers (or 52 3 1/2-inch)

    1 green pepper

    1 sweet red pepper

    8 small onions

    1/2 cup pickling salt

    5 cups sugar

    1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric

    1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

    2 teaspoons mustard seed

    2 teaspoons celery seed

    5 cups vinegar

    Wash the cucumbers; cut them in thin, round slices. Cover them with cracked ice and let them stand for three hours, stirring occasionally. Drain. Combine all other ingredients and pour over the vegetables. Bring to a boil and pack in hot, sterilized jars. Seal jars.

    Cucumber-Mustard Pickles

    (Yield: 9 pints)

    6 pounds cucumbers (3 to 5 inches long)

    2/3 cup chopped green pepper

    6 medium onions

    1 1/2 cups chopped celery

    1/4 cup prepared mustard

    4 2/3 cups white vinegar

    1/2 cup pickling salt (uniodized)

    3 1/2 cups sugar

    2 tablespoons mustard seed

    1/2 teaspoon turmeric

    1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

    Wash and slice the cucumbers. Blend the mustard with two tablespoons vinegar. Add the rest of the vinegar and the remaining ingredients except the cucumbers. Cover, heat to boiling. Add the cucumbers and cover, heating to boiling point; simmer while quickly packing one jar at a time. Be sure the liquid solution covers the cucumbers. Seal each jar at once.

    A note of warning:

    There was a young lady named Perkins,

    Who was hooked on the habit of gherkins.

    One day on a spree

    She ate 93

    And pickled her internal workin’s.


    Pickle Problems

    Soft or Slippery Pickles

    1. Using too weak brine or vinegar solutions

    2. Not removing scum on surface of brine

    3. Not keeping cucumbers covered with brine

    4. Storing pickles in a storage area that is too warm

    5. Using hard water

    6. Using cucumbers with blossom attached

    7. Insufficient heat treatment

    8. Moldy garlic or spices

    9. A seal that isn’t airtight


    1. Allowing too much time to elapse between gathering and pickling

    2. Placing cucumbers in too strong pickling solution at beginning of curing

    3. Using too strong brine or vinegar solution

    4. Using too heavy syrup—too sweet pickling solution

    5. Cucumbers cooked too quickly and not allowed to plump up

    6. Overcooking or overprocessing

    Hollow Pickles

    1. Faulty growth

    2. Improper curing

    3. Cucumbers standing too long (24 hours) before being processed

    Dark Pickles

    1. Minerals in water—especially iron

    2. Iron cooking utensils

    3. Ground seasonings

    4. Too much seasoning

    5. Overcooking

    6. Low nitrogen content of cucumbers

    7. Using iodized salt

    Dull or Faded Color

    1. Poor quality of cucumber

    2. Sunburned

    3. Over mature

    4. Grown under unfavorable conditions

    5. Not curing pickles

    White Sediment in Bottom of Jar

    1. Not using pure pickling or canning salt

    2. Due to bacteria that causes fermentation

    3. Temperature not controlled

    Causes of Spoilage

    1. Nonpasteurization

    2. Using ingredients that have deteriorated

    3. Not using standard jars and new lids

    4. Using too weak vinegar or brine solution

    Reasons for lids not sealing or releasing seal

    1. Using recipe that does not require heat

    2. Using off-standard jars

    3. Filling cold jars with large, cold cucumbers and pouring hot pickling solution over several jars at a time. Jars cool too rapidly and all the air is not expelled out of the cucumbers and the jar; thus the vacuum cannot form or will release in a few days

    4. Several jars filled before lids are placed on jars and bands screwed tight. Fill and cap only one jar at a time.

    Illustrated by James Christensen