By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension
Over the last year, I have had a major change in taste preferences. Foods I never thought I would like have suddenly become cravings. I guess you could say my tastebuds have matured! At the top of the list of new foods I’m enjoying are those tangy, acidic foods like pickled banana peppers, pickled okra, and all things with vinegar. Over the last year, I’ve also become aware of how much better locally grown produce tastes and how plentiful it is here in Johnston County.
To my surprise, I recently saw a statistic from the USDA stating that about 30% of food in America is wasted with half of food waste occurring in the homes of consumers. Pickling is one of the easiest, most delicious ways to extend the life of fresh produce and help cut down on food wasted. After all, food wasted is money wasted!
Fermenting vs. Pickling
Fermenting is a curative process that takes several weeks. During this time, food is held underneath a brine at a specific temperature to select for good bacteria and kill off bacteria that could lead to foodborne illness. During the fermentation process, there is a change in the pH, or how acidic the food is, and a change in texture and flavor.
Sauerkraut and fermented dill pickles are examples of foods that are typically fermented. The process can be tricky and is extremely scientific. When fermenting, it is very important follow tested procedures and recipes exactly. You can find fermenting recipes on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.
Pickling typically consists of brining a food, then covering it in vinegar and spices. The addition of vinegar helps to slow the growth of bacteria that leads to spoilage, thus extending the shelf-life of the food. Fruit pickles, however, are usually prepared by heating fruit in a seasoned syrup that has been acidified with either lemon juice or vinegar.
It is critical not to adjust the vinegar in recipes; do not select vinegar with less acidity and do not use less than recipes recommend, especially if you plan to home-can the product. Many pickled products can be made and stored in the refrigerator with ease. The rest of this article will focus on pickling cucumbers, specifically.
Does the Salt I use matter?
YES! Canning and Pickling Salt is available for good reason. Salt adds flavor and aids in preserving the food by binding water, making it unavailable for bacteria to use- think about cured county ham. Salt also helps to draw water out of the food to provide a crunch and help you to avoid a soggy texture. Regular table salt has an anti-caking agent (safe to consume) added to prevent salt granules from sticking together.
While this is safe, it is not recommended for canning or pickling because it can make brines appear cloudy. Flake salt, such as sea salt and Himalayan salt, varies in density which can throw off your measurements and the safety and quality of the recipe.
My Grandmother used to use firming agents. Is that okay?
Just like with medicine, we continue to learn more and do better over time. Pickling lime and products such as “alum” are not used very often anymore. When used incorrectly, pickling lime can be toxic. While the pickling lime can be used safely, you must remove the excess lime by draining the lime-water solution, rinsing, and then resoaking the cucumbers in fresh water for 1 hour, then repeat the rinsing and soaking steps two more times.
That’s a lot of work!
It is important to note that pickling lime will increase the pH of the cucumbers, indicating even less acid in the food. A safer, simpler solution would be to soak the cucumbers in ice water for 4-5 hours before pickling. In terms of alum, which is a product used more commonly in fermenting, is safe to use, however, it is no longer listed in tested, updated recipes for quick pickles because it does not actually firm the final product of quick-process pickles; it only works for fermented pickles- which will be a totally different recipe.
Slicing vs. Pickling Cucumbers, Removing the End
Many times, recipes indicate using ‘unwaxed varieties of cucumbers.’ Mature varieties of cucumbers, such as those we typically slice for salads, typically have a waxy appearance. Wax existing on cucumbers seals off good bacteria, making slicing cucumbers unacceptable and impossible to ferment. Pickling cucumbers are a smaller variety and do not produce or have added wax.
In addition to their unwaxed skins, pickling cucumbers fit nicely in the jars. If choosing to ferment pickling cucumbers, be sure to leave the skins on and cut them lengthwise. Slicing cucumbers into coins diminishes the surface area needed for fermentation.
Recipes will also instruct you to remove 1/16th of an inch off the “blossom” end of cucumbers. This end of the cucumber has a lighter colored, flower-shaped marking. Blossom ends of cucumbers may contain an enzyme that leads to softening of cucumbers, which is not ideal for pickles. If you are in doubt, just remove both ends.
For all of your food preservation and food safety questions, please contact the Johnston County Extension office at 919-989-5380. We offer classes throughout the summer on food preservation. If you are interested in safe, tested recipes, please visit https://nchfp.uga.edu/.
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