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August 4, 2005

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Prairie Fare: Pondering the Safety of Pickled Products

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist
NDSU Extension Service

I get many questions daily in my job as a food and nutrition specialist. A pickling question that arrived by e-mail yesterday got me thinking about the safety of pickling recipes widely circulated via the Internet, in cookbooks and among well-intentioned friends and relatives.

The trouble is that most of these recipes haven’t been tested for safety.

Here’s an e-mail question from a woman. “I have a recipe for canning dilly beans. It calls for fresh green beans, dill, garlic, cayenne pepper, water, salt and vinegar. It’s tasty (especially in bloody Marys). The recipe calls for processing in a hot-water bath. I’m worried the beans will spoil. All the other recipes for beans call for pressure canning, but I’m afraid of the pressure canner.”

She was right to be concerned. Without knowing the formula she was using, however, it was impossible to say for sure that her recipe was “safe.” The alcohol in the bloody Mary she mentioned wouldn’t make it safe, either!

Canning is a science, while “cooking” is an art. There’s not a lot of room for creativity when canning. Altering ingredients and proportions can result in a deadly mixture.

Improperly home-canned vegetables have led to cases of botulism, a potentially deadly foodborne illness. Listeria bacteria have raised concern in some unprocessed refrigerator pickle recipes.

Wide varieties of tested pickling recipes are available. With the right recipe and procedure, you safely can pickle beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, beets and many other vegetables.

With untested formulations, you could have a “recipe for disaster.”

USDA recipes undergo continual review. Sometimes recipes are removed for public safety reasons. For example, recipes for “refrigerator dill pickles” were removed from USDA materials when it was discovered that Listeria monocytogenes bacteria could survive in home-fermented refrigerator dill pickles.

Listeria is a particularly problematic type of bacteria. It’s often found in raw milk, soft-ripened cheese, raw vegetables, raw meat, poultry and fermented raw-meat sausage. It grows at refrigerator temperatures and can survive in acidic conditions.

Listeriosis, the condition associated with Listeria, is particularly risky for children, the elderly, immune-compromised and pregnant women. It can cause a miscarriage among pregnant women. When you consider that pregnant women often crave dill pickles, you can see the issue.

Here are some rules for safe pickling at home from USDA:

  • Do not alter vinegar, food or water proportions in a recipe or use vinegar with unknown acidity. Vinegar should have 5 percent (50 grain) acidity.
  • Measure or weigh ingredients carefully.
  • Use canning or pickling salt because other salts could result in a cloudy product.
  • Use only recipes with tested proportions of ingredients.
  • Process pickled products in a water bath to prevent spoilage from yeasts, molds and enzymes that could affect flavor, color and texture. Pickled products made at home aren’t pressure canned because the process would leave them with an undesirably soft texture.
  • Use standard canning jars and self-sealing lids.
  • Store in a cool, dark place. For best quality, use within two years.

Here’s an example of the research-tested recipes you’ll find online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

Food preservation information also is available on the NDSU Extension Service Web site at

Sweet Cucumber Pickles

3 lb. cucumbers, medium-sized
1 qt. vinegar
2 tsp. salt
5 c. sugar

Wash cucumbers. Slice one-sixteenth inch off blossom ends and discard. Pour boiling water over the cucumbers and let stand five to 10 minutes. Drain the hot water and pour cold water over the cucumbers. Use running water or change water until cucumbers are cooled. Mix vinegar, salt and sugar. Bring to a boil and place cucumbers in the boiling liquid. Return to a boil. Pack hot pickles into hot canning jars, leaving a half-inch headspace. Fill jars to a half inch from top with boiling liquid. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

A 1-ounce sweet pickle has about 40 calories, no fat and 10 grams of carbohydrate.


Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor: Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,



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