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Do you have tips on pickling vegetables?

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Crispness is the hallmark of a good pickled vegetable. Crispness comes from the vegetable’s natural pectin — the same pectin we extract from apples and citrus to make jams and jellies. Consider these tips for pickling crisp vegetables.

Use only just-picked vegetables for pickling. The most important factor in getting crisp pickled vegetables is to start with fresh, just-picked vegetables. Vegetables become soft as the pectin structure changes due to microbial activity, excess heat or improper handling. As each day passes, vegetables lose crispness. Once a vegetable is soft, it cannot be made firm again.

Use only top quality vegetables for pickling. For cucumber pickles, use cucumbers intended for pickling that are no more then two inches in diameter. Remove the blossom end, since the blossom harbors microbes that can cause softening. Start with crisp, raw vegetable varieties.

Use only safe, research-based recipes to pickle foods. It is important to have the proper acidity level to produce a safe product. Consider research-based recipes found in the USDA Complete Guide to Canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation Web site at www.homefoodsafety.com or through Utah State University Extension.

Use low-temperature pasteurization. Cucumber pickles may be processed for 30 minutes at 180-185 F. Use a thermometer to be certain the water temperature remains above 180 F the entire 30 minutes. Keep the temperature below 185 F to avoid breaking down the pectin, which causes softening of the pickle.

Reconsider refrigerator pickles. Instead of heat treating pickled foods, some recipes call for keeping them at refrigeration temperatures. For many years this method was thought to be safe. However, recent evidence that Listeria monocytogenes can survive in these foods has led to a recommendation against this method until further studies are performed on its safety. Until further studies are completed, it is recommended to use the low-temperature pasteurization method above, even if the foods are placed in the refrigerator.

Consider these methods to firm pickles meant for canning:

Use of alum. If high quality ingredients are used and up-to-date methods are followed, firming agents are not needed for crisp pickles. If you choose to use firming agents, alum (aluminum potassium sulfate) may be used to firm fermented canned pickles, but has little crispness effect on quick-process canned pickles. Alum will increase firmness of canned fermented pickles when used at levels up to 1/4 teaspoon per pint. Addition of greater than 1/4 teaspoon alum per pint decreases firmness.

Use of calcium to firm pickles. Lime (calcium hydroxide) can improve pickle firmness. Food-grade lime can be used as a lime-water solution for soaking fresh cucumbers 12 to 24 hours before pickling them. Excess lime absorbed by the cucumbers must be removed to make safe pickles. To remove excess lime, drain the lime-water solution, rinse and re-soak the cucumbers in fresh water for one hour. Drain and rinse again.

Use of Ball Calcium Chloride Pickle Crisp. This product is a food grade calcium chloride salt. It provides the calcium to help firm pectin, but does not have the hydroxide component that can lower the acidity of pickled foods. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Use of ice to firm pickles. Soak cucumbers or other vegetables in ice water for four to five hours before pickling.

Use of grape leaves to firm pickles. Historically, grape leaves are sometimes added to pickle products. The tannins in grape leaves inhibit the pectinase enzyme (a chemical that breaks down and softens the pectin structure). However, this enzyme is located at the blossom end of the cucumber and if it is removed, this process is redundant.

Canned pickled vegetables will retain their quality for one year and will begin to lose quality and nutrition over the second year. After the second year — if the seal is intact — the food is safe, but the food will be of low quality and low nutritional value. When pickling low acid foods, it can’t be emphasized enough that research-tested recipes and processes should be followed. Incorrect acidification can result in botulism food poisoning.

Posted on 23 Sep 2005

Brian Nummer
Food Safety Specialist

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