Troubleshooting Pickling Problems

What’s a cook to do when the pickles turn out less than perfect? This list includes common problems and their solutions.

  • Bitter pickles indicate too much vinegar; check the recipe. Note: This can also be caused by using salt substitutes.

  • Cloudy pickles are a warning that your pickles may have spoiled— especially if they were fresh packed. The introduction of an airborne yeast, using metal pans, adding table salt, and using hard water during production can also have this effect. If the pickled item seems greasy or smells funny, throw it out.

  • Discolored pickles are usually the fault of the pan or hard water, but strong spices can also bleed over into pickles, giving them a different hue.

  • Green-or blue-tinted garlic isn’t cause for concern. It just means that the garlic absorbed the metals in your cooking utensils or the garlic you used was young. It’s still perfectly safe to eat.

  • Hollow cucumbers are safe to eat. The cucumber may have been too big or may have been hollow when canning. If a cucumber floats in water, it’s not a good pickling cucumber. The brine may also have been too weak or too strong.

  • Pale coloring may mean your produce was exposed to light or was of poor quality.

  • Dark coloring may result from minerals in the water, the use of different vinegar (like malt vinegar), overcooking, or the use of iodized salt in processing. If you didn’t change any components, darkening may indicate spoilage. When in doubt, throw it out!

  • Bubbly brine is a sign that your food has begun to spoil. Throw these pickles out.

  • Pink pickles may result if you use overly ripe dill in your pickle blend. The introduction of yeast is another possible reason. If the pickles are soft, the liquid cloudy, or the food feels slimy, it’s likely a yeast problem and the pickles should be discarded.

  • Slimy pickles can be the result of a variety of causes. The amount of salt or vinegar used in the mix may not have been sufficient, the pickles may not have been totally covered by brine, the canning process may not have been followed correctly, yeast may have been introduced, moldy spices may have been used, jars may have been improperly sealed, or the pickles may have been kept in too hot an area (70°F is the best temperature to encourage proper pickling). These are not safe to eat.

  • Bland pickles may result from use of cucumbers that were not meant for pickling. Store-bought cucumbers often have a waxy coating. The brine can’t penetrate this; pickles are less flavorful. If you must use this type of cucumber, slice and salt it for about 1 hour, then rinse and pickle. This will open the pores, letting the brine in.

  • Shriveled pickles may mean the vinegar is too strong, the salt concentration too high, or the pickles overprocessed. Measure carefully and watch the clock!

  • Mixed flavors usually mean the size of the vegetables wasn’t even. The larger the cut, the more time a vegetable takes to accept flavor.

  • Mushy pickles can result from using the wrong type of cucumber or overprocessing. If you have a choice of what to buy or grow, look for lemon cucumbers, little leafs, saladin, and Edmonson. You can use food-grade alum or grape leaves in the bottom of the jar to improve crispness.

  • Mold or dirt on a jar often indicates it wasn’t properly sealed; some of the brine has gotten out onto the rim, meaning that bacteria can also get into the jar. Don’t eat these. Whenever you’re confronted with a jar you don’t feel quite right about, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and throw it out.

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