Pickle making is just around the corner. With it comes lots of questions regarding pickle crispness, the essence of a good pickle. There are several factors that determine pickle crispness including variety, freshness, preparation techniques, ingredients, and processing method.
Variety. First and foremost, use true pickling cucumbers for pickling. Salad cucumbers were never intended for pickles as they are too large and contain a thick seed base compared to pickling cucumbers. Burpless cucumbers are not suitable for fermented pickles because their skins are often tougher and contain an enzyme which will soften pickles during fermentation. Look for slim, dark green cucumbers with prickly bumps on the skin no more than 2 inches in diameter.
Freshness. Start with just-picked cucumbers; it is best to prepare pickles within two hours of picking for best quality. When that isn’t possible, cucumbers should be refrigerated immediately and used as soon as possible as crispness is lost with time. Some pickle makers like to place cucumbers in an ice bath for 2 hrs before starting the pickling process to assure crispness. However, once crispness has been lost, it cannot be replaced.
Preparation Techniques. Proper acidity is needed to produce safe pickles. Use only researched-based recipes like those found with the USDA Complete Guide to Canning, the National Center for Home Preservation, and university extension publications. Begin by washing the cucumbers and removing at least 1/16th inch from the blossom end; the blossom end harbors enzymes that cause softening.
Use of Firming Agents. Depending upon the quality of the cucumbers, recipe, and pickle maker, firming agents may or may not be part of the process. Firming agents include alum, food grade lime (calcium hydroxide), grape leaves, or calcium chloride (Ball Pickle Crisp® or Mrs. Wages Xtra-Crunch®).
Alum – at one time alum was added for crispness; however it is no longer recommended by the FDA and most modern, science-based recipes no longer include it. Scientifically, alum has little effect on quick-process pickles but may add firmness to fermented pickles when used at a rate of ¼ teaspoon per pints. Using too much alum will actually decrease firmness.
Food Grade Lime – Lime or calcium hydroxide has been used for years for pickle crispness as it improves pickle firmness when cucumbers are soaked in a lime solution for 12 to 24 hrs prior to pickling. Besides the time for soaking, another draw back of lime is the need to remove excess lime prior to pickling with repeated soaking and rinsing in fresh water to render the cucumbers safe for pickling. The hydroxide component of lime lowers the acidity of the pickling brine; therefore, it must be thoroughly removed to make pickles safe to can.
Grape Leaves – Grape leaves have historically been used to add crispness. Grape leaves contain tannins that inhibit the enzyme that makes pickles soft. However, if the blossom end of the cucumber is removed, grape leaves really aren’t necessary as their function is eliminated.
Calcium Chloride – Calcium chloride is a generic firming agent that is used in the pickling and canning industry. In recent years calcium chloride has become available commercially as Pickle Crisp® by Ball or Xtra Crunch® by Mrs. Wages. These are both granular products found with the canning supplies; they offer fast results with the same great taste and crispness of lime. Calcium chloride does not have the hydroxide component of lime and therefore does not lower acidity of pickled food or pose a food safety risk. A small amount is added to each jar of pickles before sealing following the manufacturer’s directions. (It should not be added to the vat during brining or fermentation.) Calcium chloride is used by brewers and wine makers and has been found to improve the texture of canned apple slices, pears, and peaches. It has also been used with canning whole tomatoes to hold the tomatoes together. (I personally have used the Ball product and like it very much with pickled foods; I have not tried it with the fruits and tomatoes as suggested.) Calcium chloride may impart a bit of a salty taste but adds no sodium. These products have an indefinite shelf life but will clump and become hard when exposed to humidity so it is important to keep them in as dry of conditions as possible.
Ingredients. Use recommended ingredients—salt, 5% acidic vinegar, sugar, spices, water—in exact recipe proportions; there must be a sufficient level of acid to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.
Processing Method. Pack pickles to allow sufficient room for the pickling solution to surround each piece. Process all pickles in a boiling water bath or atmospheric steam canner to destroy harmful organisms and to obtain a strong vacuum seal on the jar.
Here’s to crisp pickles in 2020! For additional help with pickles see Avoid Getting into “a Pickle” with Pickling Projects or download (free) Preserve the Taste of Summer: Canning Pickles from the Iowa State Extension and Outreach Store.