How to Pickle Food: A Beginner’s Guide

August 17, 2021

Pickling JarsIn this blog, I’m going to give you the ultimate crash course in pickling.  It is likely you’ll never buy a store-bought lifeless can of sliced jalapenos or a limp dill pickle again after watching this.  I will also share with you my recipe for Prepper Pickled Pepper Purslane.  In just a few minutes, you’ll know what you need to do for your first pickling project.  I went a little pickling crazy and pickled Jalapenos, Classic Dill slices and spears, Green Tomatoes, Bird Peppers, and garlic and onions, which are amazing in Bloody Mary’s, cocktails, or just for cooking.  I wanted to give you a broad range of examples.  I even use Purslane and Broadleaf Plantain I foraged from my yard.  I’ll give you the simple formula upfront, go into a little more detail of what you need to know to be successful, then I’ll tell you what can go wrong, how to fix it or when to toss it, and what to look for when you’ve got it right.  Links to calculators and the items mentioned here are at the bottom.  Also, you’ll find the recipe and brine chart down there.

WHAT YOU NEED

Of course, you’re going to need the vegetable you plan to pickle, a jar to hold it in, a weight, smooth rock or pieces of carrot and celery, which I’ll show you how to use, salt and water to make a brine, and a lid for that jar.  That’s it.  I highly recommend some pickling spice, grape leaves if you have them, fermentation weights, maybe some cheesecloth, and maybe airlocks, but you don’t need these to learn how to pickle.  You might want to get some basic pH strips too.  I’ll put a link to some inexpensive ones at the bottom of this page if you think you’ll be doing several more pickling projects.  If you’re not ready to spend the money now, but you want to give it a try, this is the page and video for you.  Hopefully, you already have some of these basics on hand.

THE FORMULA

  1. Pick a vegetable (hot peppers, sweet peppers, red onions, carrots, celery, cucumbers, daikon radish, jicama, or whatever).  It doesn’t matter.
  2. Make the appropriate brine for the vegetable you are pickling. Here is the brine calculator I use, and you can google the brine chart and the name of your vegetable to see the suggested brine strength percentage.  I will put a brine strength percentage chart for some common vegetables at the bottom of this page.
  3. Rinse the vegetable.  Don’t worry. You won’t be able to rinse the helpful Lactobacillus bacteria off of your vegetables. Still, you want to reduce the number of other bacteria and yeasts naturally found on the vegetables.
  4. Cut the vegetables as desired, either slices, spears, or chunks.
  5. Add to a jar any spices you plan on infusing into your food.  A little goes a long way, so err to the lighter side to not overpower your food.  I use one jar to measure all my contents and then fill another in this order, so I’m not simply guessing the amounts.
  6. Put the vegetables in your jar along with any herbs.
  7. Place your weight or celery or carrots in a criss-cross fashion to hold your vegetables below the brine.  
  8. Pour in your brine to about an inch below the top of your jar.  It is critically important that all your vegetables are submerged in the brine.
  9. Affix your lid loosely, your fermentation lock, or your burping lid.  Just the oxygen in there is what we want.  The lactobacillus will expel C02 and create an environment that hopefully only it can thrive.
  10. Set it on your kitchen counter and wait.  Depending upon the vegetable, your ferment will take at least five days and maybe longer.  A pickle is created in an average of five days.  I know some people who have forgotten about their fermented hot sauce and found it a year or more later.  Later on, I will tell you what to look for to determine if it’s still safe to eat.  Generally, though, your fermentation is done within one week.  I have garlic, nopalitos, a fermented hot sauce, and some fermenting bird peppers on my counter right now that have been there for almost a month.  Some ferments go even longer and create a shelf-stable environment.  Eventually, the fermentation process stalls out, and you are left with just a shelf-stable preserved product.  Have you ever heard of a pickle barrel?  It was literally a barrel of pickles that were often transported across the country and would sit in a general store somewhere until empty for maybe years.

That’s it.  I told you this was easy, and it is.  It’s going to be just your sliced vegetable, water, and salt.  Mother Nature is going to do the rest.  There are recipes that use vinegar, but many areSalts used for pickling shortcuts to give you the basic, acidic pickled flavor.  Other recipes add a little vinegar at the end of the process to lower the pH and create a more shelf-stable product that does not require refrigeration.  Lactic fermentation is a process that involves anaerobic bacteria consuming carbohydrates in the form of sugars and converting it to lactic acid, ethanol, and creating more bacteria.

You can tell when your pickling is done simply by tasting your product.  Trust your eyes, your nose, and your tastebuds.  If it tastes good to you, it’s done.  Suppose you want a more shelf-stable product that will not require refrigeration. In that case, you will need to take a starting pH reading and an ending pH reading or acidify it with the addition of vinegar or pasteurize it at the end for the same effect.  

Not to get too technical, but pH is vital to understand, even though we won’t be covering it with this project.  The lactobacillus will acidify your brine to create a preserved product.  A  pH between 2.1 and 4.5 is what you’re shooting for. If the pH is above 4.5, the pickles will still spoil, below 2.1, which is pH Strips for fermented vegetablesfar too acidic.  In case you were curious, average tap water is in a range of 6.5 to 9.5 pH.  So, the lactobacillus is consuming the sugars in your vegetables and creating acid, which is lowering your pH and preserving the food.  But, forget all that, because I want to keep this simple.  Lactobacillus can’t survive well in an environment with a pH of less than 2.5.  Yeast, which I’ll cover later in this video, grows in a pH range of 4 to 4.5, and molds can grow from pH 2 to 8.5 but favor an acid pH.  So your ferment from yeast or bacteria will stall out, and your food is preserved between a pH of 4 and 2.  Mold can still grow, and I’ll tell you what to look for about that later on in this video.  We’ll give our finished product the smell, taste, and visual assessment to determine when it is done to our liking.  Because we aren’t going that extra level of assurance with the pH test, we will want to put our finished product in the refrigerator.

What we’re using are time and natural lactobacillus fermentation.  That’s the way our grandparents did it. That’s how you get the deeper flavors and not just an acid bite.  After this video, you will want to see the video on Sauerkraut.  I go into greater detail about the mechanics and science of what is going on, and that’s a nice easy one to explore pickling.  However, not everyone likes sauerkraut, but most people love a good pickle.

CUT THE VEGETABLE

Cucumber sliced for pickles

Cut the vegetables how you like or how you have seen them machine cut in pickled products in the store.  Here I am making the classic pickle spear and pickle slices out of my cucumber.  If you want whole cucumber pickles, you will still want to cut off the blossom end, that’s the end opposite the stem, and poke a series of holes throughout the cucumber with a fork.  You want the water to be able to seep out of the cucumber, and you want the brine to be able to seep out.

I processed the jalapenos into classic chip slices and spears.  If you like the taste of jalapenos but not so much the heat, you will want to remove the Jalapenos cut for picklingwhite pith and seeds.  In hot peppers, most of the capsicum, which is the chemical that burns your mouth and other parts, is stored in the pith and seeds.  You may even want to use some kitchen gloves during this process.

The green tomatoes I simply sliced with a serrated knife into about ¼ inch pieces.  Green tomatoes make excellent pickles.  I don’t pick them when they’re green. They are usually the fruit that falls off or gets knocked off while I am working the plant.  I just put them in a bowl, and when I have enough, I fry them or pickle them.

For the garlic and pearl onions, I just remove the skins and cut the ends.  I will pickle them together, knowing that their flavors will blend.  You can pickle different things together to blend flavors, but you typically want to pickle things individually.  In a fermented hot sauce, you might add all theGarlic and pearl onions pickling ingredients and pickle them together.  For my dill pickles, I add a garlic clove and at least one pearl onion.  

For the tiny bird peppers, they are already open on the stem end when I pick them, so I don’t really need to do anything to them.  Some people do mash them up a bit, and I have done that.  When fermenting something so small, you may get many pieces floating on the surface.  I did even with a weight.  Anything floating on the surface of your ferment is an invitation to yeast and mold.  Yeast is fine, but there’s only one thing to do with mold, and that is to throw out the entire batch. The best solution I have found is to put the fermentable in a cheesecloth, then use a weight and brine.  

You can use sprigs of dill for traditional dill pickles or fennel.  I harvested up some purslane that was growing wild in my garden for my jalapenos.  I also pulled some broadleaf plantain out of my lawn and some grape leaves.  The leaves serve two functions.  First, they help to keep your food below the brine level.  Second, they release a compound called tannins.  These enhance the flavors of food and help to keep your veggies crisp and not mushy.  It’s for this reason, I also add a bay leaf to my pickles.  One cautionary note about grape leaves, though.  Yeast love grapes which is why we have wine.  There are millions of yeast living on grape leaves.  You won’t be able to rinse them off.  I have found that the chances of developing Kahm yeast on the surface of your pickling container increase when using them.  You can give your grape leaves a light vinegar and water bath before using them to discourage developing kahm yeast in your container.  Also, make tiny random slices in the leaves to allow C02 to escape, or your vegetable will rise up above the brine line.  In sauerkraut making, typically, a person uses a whole cabbage leaf to keep their ferment down.  In general pickling, a piece of a halved onion, just the outer part, is almost the perfect size for a standard mason jar.  Just remember to pierce it so the C02 can escape.

MAKE YOUR BRINE

SaltThere’s much discussion about the perfect brine and the perfect salt to use.  I use a natural salt with no cacking agents or additives like a sea salt or Himalayan salt.  Kosher salt or specific pickling salts can be used, as well.  Depending upon the salt, you may get cloudiness in your brine.  That’s okay.  It doesn’t change your pickled product.  If you want to see a debate more passionate than the ones you see on political forums, ask the question of what salts to use on a pickling or canning group. You’ll get answers that range from “just use table salt because it doesn’t matter” to “use sea salt” or “use kosher salt” or “only use canning and pickling salt.” As simple as I can explain, you want to use pure salt without additives like iodine or anti-caking agents. Could you use table salt if that is all you had? Sure, but it may leave some cloudiness in your ferment.

The main thing with salt is to weigh it if you aren’t using granules about equivalent to table salt.  Most of the measurements out there assume you are using that fine granular size.  Pickled vegetables like different brine strengths.  An olive requires 10% brine, garlic 3%, cucumbers between 3.5 and 5%, cabbage around 2%, onions and peppers 5%.  A weaker brine does not suppress as much microbial activity.  A stronger brine may leave the food too salty and may require you to give it a rinse before consuming.  Too weak, and your chances of spoilage go up.  Too strong, and it cannot ferment because the environment won’t allow lactobacillus to live.  Less salt, and your vegetables will pickle to a softer consistency.  The salt strengthens cell walls, so vegetables in a strong brine typically stay crisper.

I’m pickling everything with a 3-4% brine and then just adding an extra tablespoon of salt to the brine for the jalapenos to kick up the percentage on just those.

Consult the chart I put below or find a proper brine ratio for what you are pickling, and then use the calculator to mix up in one big batch enough to fill each jar you will be using.  Some people warm the brine with pickling spices, but this isn’t necessary, and using heated brine will soften your veggies and harm the helpful bacteria.  You will have extra brine because, logically, your vegetables will displace the available space in your jars, but it’s better to have too much brine than to have to mix another batch.

Finally, you want to use good water.  Tap water is fine if you expose it to air and let the chlorine gas off.  Well water is excellent.  Springwater is fantastic.  The mineral content does provide good minerals to the food and the bacteria, and I think this gives the finished product a much better flavor.

LOAD YOUR JARS

Put in your pickling spices first.  The vegetables will help to keep them down.  Pack the jars tightly with your vegetables because you will have shrinkage, but don’t pack them so much the brineMaking pickles can’t get in there when you pour it over the top.  Leave at least one to one and a ½ inch headspace.  I like to use 1 to 2 inches of headspace, so I can be sure to get a solid one inch of brine over my vegetables.  Some people make what is called a salt cap, but I’m not going to cover that here.

When your vegetables are tightly packed, put in your leaf or inverted onion piece.  A common practice is to slice carrots and place them in a criss-cross pattern in the jar to hold the vegetables down.  I have used carrots and celery in this manner.  I think the celery works best.  It has more pliability to it and doesn’t break as easily.

When your jars are packed, and your vegetables are weighted down, add your brine to one inch or a half-inch from the top of the jar.  You want a solid inch or more of brine over the top of your vegetables.  Then put on your airlock, burping lid, or a slightly loose jar lid.  You want to keep as much oxygen out as possible.  When the fermentation is very active, it will be bubbling like soda.  That’s great, and that will force oxygen out of a loose lid.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR AND WHAT CAN GO WRONG

Kahm Yest on pickles. Are they safe to eat?After a day or two, you should see bubbles forming amongst your vegetables.  They’ll trickle up the sides and pop or linger slightly on the surface.  Many people advise against checking the surface and encourage you to leave the lid on, but I’m not one of those people.  Their thinking is that you expose the contents to oxygen, and this is true.  But, checking the surface will allow you to catch Kahm yeast early, remove floaties that might mold, and make sure your very brief fermentation process is going along as intended.  I check them on days 3 and 5.  On day 5, I decide how much longer I want to ferment them or if they are done and ready for my fridge.

You are looking for a clear surface and the active bubbling to have mostly stopped.  You may see an oily film on the surface, and that’s likely just from your vegetables.  That’s fine.  You will probably see kahm yeast beginning to form.  That looks like a white powder on the surface.  Sometimes it’s slightly cream or slightly yellow.  Here you see I have some on the surface,  I also had a number of floaties on the surface, so I had to use cheesecloth with the bird peppers.

To clear the kahm yeast off the surface, just use a spoon and a paper towel.  Give your weight a vinegar rinse.  I even clean my workspace once I find it because you don’t want to expose other batches to the yeast.  You might have to mix a little more brine to top things off.  Whenever I have a kahm yeast, I go down to the level of the food and take a look to make sure I don’t have anything growing there.  If it looks good, I smell it and taste it.  If it passes all those tests, I top it off with brine and refrigerate it if the ferment is done, or give it another day or two and then refrigerate it.

Kahm yeast is powdery looking and floats on the surface.  It’s harmless, though it can look pretty bad, and you can expect it at some point because yeasts and bacterias are both abundantly prevalent in the air we breathe and on every single surface.  That’s also why I wash my jars and equipment well and give my weights a vinegar soak before packing them away.  Like I said, kahm yeast, at some point, is to be expected.  Don’t reuse a brine where it has developed, or you will just encourage it in your next pickling batch.

What will harm you is mold.  Mold is a type of fungi and is as prevalent in nature as bacteria and yeast.  You literally breathe some fungi in with every breathe you take.  Mold is not good for you, and some can even kill you.  Fortunately for us, it is distinctive in appearance.  If you’ve seen fuzzy mold on bread, you know what you are looking for.  If you see spots on the surface that aren’t white but are blue, green, or black, it’s mold.  If it’s fuzzy and colored, it is definitely molded.  There is only one thing to do with mold…throw it out.  Dump the batch.  Clean and sanitize all your equipment, make a slightly stronger brine next time and try again.  Don’t take the chance.

On that note, the thing that prevents most people from learning to can or pickle is dreaded botulism.  Botulism is food poisoning caused by a bacterium (botulinum) growing on improperly sterilized and preserved foods.  I will tell you this, botulism is rare.  About 14 people die of botulism annually.  Twenty-four people die from getting hit by a champagne cork, to help you put that in perspective.  Globally, there are approximately 1,000 cases of botulism reported per year.  The mortality rate is 5-10%, so in the whole world, less than 100 people out of 7.6 billion people die from botulism.

Among the 15 toxin type A foodborne botulism cases reported in California one year, ten were from an outbreak linked to nacho cheese at a convenience store, two were from an outbreak linked to an herbal deer antler tea, one was from a suspected soup with a bulging lid but was not available testing, and two were not linked to a known food source.  The lesson here is not to eat convenience store nacho cheese or drink deer antler tea.  What is that, anyway?  Since you are encouraging the anaerobic activity of the lactobacillus and refrigerating your final product, you don’t have to worry about botulism developing in the short period of your product.

Could you give yourself food poisoning?  Sure.  But if you practice good sanitization of your equipment, create a proper brine and prevent and discard molds, the chances are super slim.  It’s notLactobacillus likely.  You may experience some gas from your fermented products since they are quite rich in probiotics.  Friendly lactobacillus comes in many types: acidophilus, reuteri, rhamnosus, plantarum, gasseri, and casei shirota.  That’s as technical as I’ll get here.

SHELF-LIFE

If you get your pH to 2.0 or lower, it is considered shelf-stable and won’t require refrigeration.  I just put mine in the fridge and eat them up.  If you want long-term preservation, you can add an ounce per jar of vinegar to increase the acid level.  You can also pasteurize them and water bath can them.  These details are too great for me to go into on this simple video, so I will leave you to research that further on your own.  For now, just know that if you follow the process I have outlined here, your refrigerated product will be good for at least three months and as long as six months.  Maybe longer.  Continue to monitor it when you take some out for any mold.  If you see mold, don’t eat it.  Dump it.

CONCLUSION

Sauerkraut recipeFor a more in-depth look at lactobacillus fermentation, go view my sauerkraut video.  Here I have provided you everything you need to make your first batch of pickles.  I suggest you start with something familiar like cucumber pickles, so you can understand if you are getting the science right by the taste of your finished product.  My mother tells me my pickles taste the same as the ones she used to get as a kid, so I think that’s spot on the way they must have done it traditionally.  I will post the Prepper Pickled Pepper Purslane recipe and my basic pickle recipe at cityprepping.com/pickle along with a chart for the brine solutions, the links mentioned here, and a transcript of this video.  Remember, the only way I know if you like this video or what you want to see next is to click that like button, leave a comment, and subscribe to this channel.  Plan your first batch today and get pickled.  And, keep your prepper pantry stocked.


RECIPES, CHARTS, ITEMS MENTIONED

Here is the Brine Calculator I use.  It’s the one most people use:
https://myfermentedfoods.com/tools/brine-calculator/

Suggested Brine Strength for Vegetables

Cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, horseradish, green beans, Kimchi, Beet kvass, tomatoes, potatoes 2%
Onions, garlic 3%
Cucumbers 3-3.5%
Peppers >5%
Pepper mash >8.5%

Links:

pH Test Strips: https://amzn.to/3AwV3V8 

Pickling Jars: https://amzn.to/3jZmMr0

Pickling Spice: https://amzn.to/3g5tCdb

Fermentation Weights: https://amzn.to/3lZdBcr

Fermentation Jar Airlocks: https://amzn.to/3yRbv1Z

Recipes:

Prepper Pickled Purslane Pickles

Jalapeno Peppers cut into chip slices 1/4 inch

Purslane up to 1/3 cup per quart

Mix a 3% brine

Place all ingredients in a 1-quart jar.  Use carrots or celery in a criss-cross pattern to weigh down the contents and keep it all below the brine level.  Brine level should allow 1 inch of headspace from the top of the jar, and all vegetable content should have one inch of brine over it.  Add fermentation weight or smooth rock that has been boiled to hold all ingredients below the brine level.  Seal with a fermentation lid or a loosely fitted jar lid.

Set on the kitchen counter.  Peppers will be ready between 3 and 5 days.
Remove fermentation weight, seal lid, shake gently then refrigerate.

 

Prepper Pickled Purslane Peppers

Classic Dill Pickle Recipe

Cut enough cucumbers to fill your pickling jar or crock in either slices, spears, or chunks.  If using whole cucumbers cut off the blossom end and poke several times with a fork.

Put 1 tsp pickling spice in the bottom of the jar.

Load jar along with 1 split clove garlic, 1 pearl onion, and one sprig dill or fennel or both, and one bay leaf.

Mix a 3% brine

Place all ingredients in a 1-quart jar.  Use a grape leaf to hold down the contents and keep it all below the brine level.  Brine level should allow 1 inch of headspace from the top of the jar, and all vegetable content should have one inch of brine over it.  Add fermentation weight or smooth rock that has been boiled to hold all ingredients below the brine level.  Seal with a fermentation lid or a loosely fitted jar lid.

Set on the kitchen counter.  Pickles will be ready in 5 days.
Remove fermentation weight, seal lid, shake gently then refrigerate.

 

Classic pickles

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Richard Booth
Richard Booth
3 months ago

Hey, I loved this episode on pickling! And love all your YouTube channel episodes. I am going to try pickling a harvest of jalapeño peppers soon. I used your amazon links to the products for fermentation, but found that they were from China, which I will not buy from if I can help it. (use the Cultivate browser extension https://www.wecultivate.us/install/extension to display product origins, if you want to avoid buying from China). However, a simple search of lactobacilli fermentation yields a huge number of USA origin sites for buying equipment, with recipe blogs with some incredible ideas. Thanks again for… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Richard Booth

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