Welcome to the wonderful world of vinegar pickling. Homemade pickles are delicious (MUCH more delicious than any pickle you can buy), and incredibly cost effective. And, pickling at home means you can choose your own flavor adventure! Perhaps even better than that, pickling can allow you to preserve produce that may have otherwise been thrown out or that you grew yourself. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about making homemade pickles with vinegar (and then some!) Scroll to the bottom for brine recipes and methods for both canned pickles and quick pickles (aka refrigerator pickles.)
✌️The Two Basic Forms of Pickling:
Vinegar pickling uses the acid in vinegar to kill all bacteria, keeping foods protected and preserved (for example, dill pickles and pepperoncinis).
〰️In this article, we are talking about vinegar pickling only. 〰️
The other kind of pickling is fermentation pickling. It’s fabulous too, but it’s an entirely different method from vinegar pickling. Fermentation pickling preserves foods with salt, and actually grows good bacteria to fight off bad bacteria (for example, kimchi and sauerkraut.) There is no brine to make, instead the food creates its own brine with the liquid pulled out by the salt.
⭐️There are also “half sour” pickles, which are pickles made in a very salty brine with no vinegar that ferment. I would put this in the category of fermentation pickling, but in a way it’s kind of a mixture of both!
💃🏽 To Can or Not To Can?
Vinegar pickles can be canned, but they don’t have to be!
Vinegar pickles that aren’t canned are usually known as quick pickles or refrigerator pickles, but the process of making canned or uncanned vinegar pickles is more-or-less the same.
➕Notes on Quick Pickles:
- Rather than being canned, quick pickles are stored in air-tight containers in the refrigerator.
- Can be stored up to 6 weeks in the fridge.
- Quick pickles offer flexibility because they can be made in small batches.
- Often, brines for quick pickles will vary slightly from brines of canned vinegar pickles, containing more vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices to pack a bigger punch. Why? Because where canned vinegar pickles are at their prime 4-6 weeks after canning (essentially marinating in their brine), quick pickles are usually intended to be eaten right away or within a week or two. The flavor needs to get into the produce asap!
- Common quick pickle varieties are: red onions, jalapeños, carrots + daikon radish (aka do chua), and cucumbers (more on cucumbers later!)
- Quick pickles can be made with either a hot brine or a cold brine, and both methods are covered in the recipe below. I prefer the hot brine method because hot liquid penetrates produce better, infusing with flavor more easily. Hot liquid also absorbs salt and sugar more readily, and softens produce ever-so-slightly for what I feel is a more pickle-like texture.
- See a few of my favorite quick pickle recipes here, and quick pickled red onion and jalapeño here.
🚨 Is Vinegar Pickling at Home Safe?
Pickling fruits and vegetables at home is very safe.
A vinegar brine is highly acidic, killing nearly all bacteria.
Always use clean containers for quick pickle storage and sterilized jars for canning pickles.
Along with the vinegar which is already killing most bacteria, a cold refrigerator keeps bacteria from growing for quick pickles, and water bath canning kills any lurking microorganisms with boiling water for canning. (See more on water bath canning safety here!)
🥒 What Foods can be Vinegar Pickled?
Almost all veggies and fruits can be pickled with vinegar! Try green beans, carrots, onions, garlic, cauliflower, or blueberries. You can combine veggies in the same jar too!
I’d say stay away from pickling and canning meats– I don’t have any experience with this, so I can’t speak to it! If you want to pickle eggs, I’d suggest refrigerator pickling rather than canning.
➕Notes on Pickling The Most Famous Pickle: Cucumbers
- Pickling cucumbers for canning at home can be tricky because cucumbers are delicate and porous. Commercially pickled cucumbers contain additives to keep pickled cucumbers fresh and crunchy.
- In my opinion, cucumbers are better suited for quick pickling at home, since quick pickles are eaten within 6 weeks– a good time frame for maintaining flavor and texture nicely. However, I do can pickled cucumbers from time to time!
If you want to try canning pickled cucumbers for yourself, here are some tips:
- Use very fresh pickling cucumbers (such as kirby) with as little damage or bruising as possible.
- If you can, buy them direct (like from the farmer’s market) so they aren’t coated in wax.
- Be sure to cut off the blossom end of the cucumber (the end with the stem) before pickling– it contains an enzyme that causes the cucumber to soften. • For best results, keep the cucumbers whole for canning for maximum crunch!
- Eat within 3 months for best flavor and texture
🍷 What Kinds of Vinegars can be used?
For pickles that will be canned, use white vinegar only. White vinegar is very high in acid (higher than other vinegars), which will keep your pickles safely preserved.
For Quick/Refrigerator pickles that will not be canned, any kind of vinegar can be used since the pickles will be preserved not only from the vinegar, but also from the cold of the refrigerator. Apple cider vinegar is fantastic, and so is rice vinegar. You can also combine more than one kind of vinegar.
🧂 The Role of Salt + Sugar in Pickles
Salt and sugar are a part of the vinegar pickling method because they act as preservatives of color, texture, and flavor.
For canning pickles, use pickling salt because it doesn’t contain anti-caking agents (which can make the brine cloudy.) Some kosher salts are also ok! Table salt is not recommended because it contains iodine, which can discolor the brine. For quick pickling, use any kind of salt (it doesn’t matter so much what it looks like in my opinion.)
If you want to adjust the amount of salt or sugar in the brine, you can do so safely, as salt and sugar do not have anything to do with the major safety of at-home pickling. Salt does have antibacterial properties, but the major safety of vinegar pickles is in the percentage of acidity in the brine, so the percentage of acidity/vinegar in the brine should never be reduced.
You can even omit the salt and/or sugar altogether if you like, but the ratio of vinegar to water should be at least 1:1, or even more vinegar than water for insurance.
Without salt or sugar, the texture, flavor, and color of the food will be compromised. If you choose to omit the salt or sugar altogether, use high-density produce (such as carrots) that will maintain its crunch well, or eat your pickles within 3 months. Or, make a quick pickle instead.
🌱 Spices + Herbs
Spices and herbs build the overall flavor of your pickles along with the natural flavor of the veggies/fruits and the brine. Always use whole spices and whole herbs for premium flavor and aesthetics.
- Be sure to use fresh (under a year old), whole spices when you pickle for optimum flavor. Avoid using powdered spices, as they will cloud and discolor your brine. Peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and celery seeds are common pickling spices, but you can use any whole spice your heart desires.
- Minced, sliced, smashed, or whole garlic cloves can be added for flavor and/or for eating. I also like to add sliced chiles to my pickles to make them spicy!
- Use about 1 tsp whole spices per 16oz pint jar of pickles (use your best judgement, some spices are stronger than others– but better to have more flavor than less!)
- Nearly any kind of herb can be used in pickles. Try thyme, dill, rosemary, or bay leaves. Use whole, fresh herbs.
Use 2-5 sprigs of whole herbs per 16oz pint jar of pickles.
- Distribute spices and herbs into jars/containers rather than directly into the brine. Divying them up into the jars will ensure balanced flavor.
- Add spices and herbs to your canning jars FIRST, as adding them last will keep them floating on the top of the jar. Even if they appear squished under your fruits and veggies, they will distribute themselves when the brine is added and during processing.
⭐️ Brine Recipes + Methods: ⭐️
Basic Pickle Canning Brine
- 6 cups water
- 3 cups vinegar
- 1/2 cup pickling salt
- 6 tbsp sugar
- Combine all ingredients in a medium pot and bring to a simmer. Stir until all of the salt and sugar has dissolved, then ladle into jars over veggies or fruit while warm.
Pickle Canning Method:
See the full water bath canning guide for more details on canning.
- Sanitize jars in boiling water for 10 minutes and keep warm until ready to pack.
- Add desired herbs and 1-ish tsp of whole spices to each jar.
- Then, pack as much produce into your jar as you can, leaving 1/2” headspace at the top of the jar. (When the jars process, the veggies/fruits will condense. If your jar isn’t packed enough, the jar will look kinda empty after processing! Also, if your jars aren’t packed enough, you may not have enough brine for all 12 pints. Pack as well as you can!)
- Ladle warm brine over the produce into the jars, covering the produce and leaving 1/4” headspace at the top of the jar.
- Wipe all jar rims clean of any stray brine.
- Top each jar with new lids, then screw on the bands using only the thumb and ring finger to fingertip tight.
- Process the jars in boiling water for a full 10 minutes.
- Remove the jars from the boiling water and place on a towel (cold surfaces can crack jars!)
- Leave the jars to seal. They should seal within an hour, but can take up to 24 hours.
- After a full 24 hours, check the seals: when the center of the lid is pressed, it should not move/bounce back. If it does not move, your seal has been successful and your pickles are shelf-stable. If it does move, transfer the jar to the refrigerator because the pickles are not shelf-stable. If you want to go a step further, unscrew the band and use your fingertips to lightly lift the lid. If the lid does not lift, your vacuum seal has been successful.
- Store your pickles in a cool place out of direct sunlight for up to 1 year and possibly longer. Pickles will reach their prime flavor after 4-6 weeks of storage. Refrigerate pickles after opening, and eat within 6 weeks.
Basic Brine For Quick Pickles
- 1 cup vinegar of your choice
- 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp salt
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1-2 tsp whole spices
- 2-3 sprigs whole herbs
- Hot brine method (my preferred method): Combine water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat and stir until all of the salt has dissolved. At this point you can place your produce and herbs in a heat-proof bowl or container and pour the hot brine over it (my preferred method), or, place your produce and herbs directly in the pot of hot brine and simmer for 1 minute for a more tender, cooked pickle. Cool to room temperature, and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 6 weeks.
- Cold brine method: Combine all ingredients in a bowl or container. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 6 weeks.