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Jan 7, 2013 11:50 AM


Recently got a book on pickling. The book, similarly to other places on the internet, warn not to alter the recipe do to risk of reducing acidity resulting in botulism. What it didn't bother to say is what the minimum level of acidity was necessary (or whether that varied by what was being pickled). It does mention that vinegar used should have a minimum acidity of 5.0.

In any case, I do not want to do long term pickling (i.e. fermentation type pickling). I only wish to be able to pickle items/make chutneys to keep for a few days if not to serve immediately. Thus it seems to me that acidity is not relevant unless there is a risk of botulism related to submerging vegetables in liquid even after a few days.

I am hoping someone can give me guidelines to creating pickling recipes i.e. minimum acidity (and whether or not this varies per vegetable used), proportions of sugar to vinegar, if that varies depending on the type of vinegar, a base set of spices, how long I can keep something in liquid without fearing botulism. Thanks.


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  1. I do lots of pickling and mostly follow the recipe, but I've been doing this for 20 years. I especially follow the recipe if I plan on a long storage time or use low acid ingredients. Generally low acid means anything not a fruit, like beans, cucumbers, corn, carrots, garlic, etc. It's always better to be safe than sorry and a botulism risk exists no matter how long you plan on keeping the pickle, especially if you adjust the acidity.

    That said - why do you want to reduce the acidity? Seems that the whole point of pickling is that tarty taste. You may experience a disappointing taste change.

    If you're concerned about using so much vinegar, you can halve the recipe as long as you halve ALL the ingredients.

    5 Replies
    1. re: hippioflov

      Hey, thanks for the input. Part of it is I just am the kind of person how things work. I had pickled some carrots in vinegar and sugar which I heated over the stove and served later that day. It turned out well for me but was a bit strong for my girlfriend. I got a book on pickling, and it had a recipe for carrots that actually had a half cup of water in it, while I noticed that this was not true for other recipes for other foods in the book. I was trying to understand why it was ok in this case but not in another. After all as you say, carrots are a low acidity food.

      I just like to be able to do things without cookbooks because it allows me a lot more flexibility and since I am not really planning to store the food, so much as impart flavor, I figured it shouldn't matter. Since the cookbook is trying to prevent people from getting botulism (and from liability issues) it didn't really give good information in terms of designing recipes.

      1. re: mistiven

        When making pickles, one should use a recipe. Do you have the Ball canning book? Also, making refrigerator pickles is different from canning pickles. But winging it for canning/pickling is not recommended. I hardly ever use recipes in my cooking, except for baking, pickling, canning. Baking has a bit more leeway, but although I've been making pickles and jam, and canned tomatoes and fruits, I always use a recommended recipe. One can certainly adjust seasonings, but when it comes to the vinegar/sugar/whatever ratios, I don't mess with it.

        1. re: mistiven

          The answer to your original question is in your last paragraph here: "...I am not really planning to store the good, so much as impoart shouldn't matter." For what you want out of a quick pickle, it doesn't matter. Quick pickles, intended for immediate consumption, can be made however you like. The acidity level is immaterial, as the risk of botulism is nil, as long as these quick pickles are stored for no more than a day or two. The book you received as a gift is about making food to preserve it for long term storage.

          Think of it like this: just about any food we eat can theoretically be canned, as well as cooked for immediate consumption and perhaps short term storage. One doesn't worry about botulism or specific toxins when cooking for immediate consumption other than to follow good kitchen hygiene and cooking practices to ensure the quality and wholesomeness of food, and uses common sense or rules about short term storage and food quality to know how long to cook and keep something. Practices for food preservation (pickling, canning, drying) need not be followed for every day cooking.

          Make your quick pickles, refrigerator pickles and the like to your specific taste and don't worry about the issues that food preservationists face for long term food storage.

          1. re: janniecooks

            Janniecooks, that is a great explanation. I think the OP has been confused by the use of the word "pickled". I think what the OP wants to do is more of a marinated salad/vegetable kind of thing. Certain vegetables will keep well in the frig for a few days and will get a pickled flavor due to the liquid used but really won't be a long term pickle.
            I think what's important here is not to cut the vegetables with the same knife and cutting board that you just used to cut chicken. Have a clean work area and don't keep the vegetable and vinegar and whatever dish in the frig for more than a couple of days.

            1. re: dfrostnh

              ...or confusing heat and/or pressure CANNING with pickling, which is a confusing term in and of itself due to being used to describe foods preserved with vinegar and salt AND foods that contain no vinegar but are lacto-fermented.

              If you're preparing and holding it in the fridge and it falls within your standard timeline for safe consumption of refrigerated foods, you'll be fine. If it's in a vinegar brine and has been fridge kept, in my house it's good until or unless it looks otherwise.
              Also, even if it's been heat processed (canned), once that seal has been breached the timeline is roughly the same as if it hadn't been.

              For the record, growth of the toxin-producing spores of botulism are specific to OXYGEN FREE, LOW ACID environments. These two variables are rarely produced concurrently in the home kitchen. Specifically, unless you are preservation canning low acid foods, curing meats or feeding unpasteurized honey to infants or the immunocompromised, botulism is not an issue.

      2. You can always rinse off the pickles before using them. We had batch of sauerkraut that was way too salty, so I just rinsed it in cool water before using it.

        It's not unusual to have water mixed with the vinegar. I'd check out similar recipes and see if they have water. There are tons of pickling recipes out there.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hippioflov

          Thank you for the suggestion on that.

        2. Thank you to the people who have replied so far. My concern was not related to confusion as to what was meant by pickling but due to concerns about what happens after a jar is sealed creating an anaerobic environment in which botulism can propagate. Here is what my research has found:

          Rate of Botulism Growth
          This article points out that no exact period minimum period of time for botulism could be identified at 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 Fahrenheit), however, that packaging with the following packaging standards results in an exrodinary low rate of botulism within the UK Food Industry. These are the food standards for vacume packaged foods (i.e. not in the acid enviormet, and more conservative than would be true for something stored in a viniger solution.)

          UK Standard
          Storage at ≤5°C and a shelf-life of ≤10 days, or storage at 5°-8°C and a shelf-life of days.

          This would suggest that conservatively food in sealed containers in a vinegar solution should be safe for at least 5 days. This suggests that pickling recipes could be safely alter so long as the food were not kept for more than 5 days.


          3 Replies
          1. re: mistiven

            FWIW, the presence of vinegar changes things to the extent that the information you've outlined above is basically moot.
            Even if your brine is so weak that it only contains a few tablespoons of vinegar per liter you are well within the definition of "acid environment"

            Foods with a pH value of 1 to 4.6 are
            considered ‘high acid,’ those with a pH value between 4.6 and 7.0 are considered ‘low acid’ foods.

            If you remember your college chemistry math you can easily figure out the level of dilution that would put you above a pH of 4.6. Straight commercial white vinegar has (a ph of about 2.4) It's 5% acidity, so 50 grams of acetic acid per liter of water.

            1. re: splatgirl

              Yea. I am totally with you. My point was that even being extraordinarily conservative (i.e. a non acidic environment) the food should last 5 days without risk of botulism. It should actually last a good bit longer in an acidic enviorment, but since I didn't have any data on that I didn't say anything about that likelihood.

              Now that we have cleared the hurtle of fears of botulism, perhaps some people can give input on sugar to vinegar ratios (I pretty much use 50/50 for a gastrique which to me is essentially what pickling liquid seems to be) . I wonder if more or less sugar would be appropriate for different types of vinegar.

              I also wonder a bit about what spices go best with what vinegars. In any case, I know that I can add water to the mix if I am going to store things for less than 5 days so that should make my girlfriend happy in terms of reducing the acidity (I am aware I could also just add sugar, which I may do, but it is nice to know what the options are).

              1. re: mistiven

                Are there no ratios in your book on pickling, or ingredient lists? Start there, and tweak seasonings according to taste.

          2. Also, although my interest is not in altering canning recipies, I do like to know the whys of things. One of the websites I researched sums up the problem of creating ones own canning recipies as follows, which I think is informative.

            Conditions Botulism is Grows
            Botulism comes from spores found in soil.

            Spores are activated in anaerobic environments (Specifically those with less that 2% oxygen.)

            Botulism flurishes temperatures between above 38 Degrees Ferinheight

            In addition to the acidity of the food and the heat resistance of the microorganism, the time required for sufficient heat to penetrate all parts of the food in the jar must be considered. Heat is transferred from the outside of the jar through the food and thus is affected by:

            The size and shape of the container. Smaller jars heat faster than wider or taller jars. The USDA no longer recommends jars larger than a half gallon, and typically jars must be 1 quart or smaller.

            Amount of liquid. Food containing a large amount of free liquid heats much more quickly than a more solid product.

            Piece size. Smaller pieces of food (corn, peas) heat much more quickly than large chunks.

            Amount of fat. Fat insulates the food and slows heat transfer. Most canning recipes require little or no added fats or oils.

            The type of heating medium being used. Wet steam heats faster than dry air.

            The many factors involved make it impossible to estimate the correct processing conditions for any food product. This is especially true for items which are mixtures of food with differing water content, piece size, fat content, or acidity as well as types and numbers of microorganisms present. The establishment of a correct, safe process requires laboratory research by trained scientists.


            1. All of this does make me wonder if when doing quick pickling (where the results are not intended to be canned or preserved) it would be better to store them in non-anarobic environments. Would a plastic container with space in the top/and or holes in the the lid be such an environment? I don't really know, just wondering aloud.

              3 Replies
              1. re: mistiven

                If you are just doing a refrigerated pickle, intend to eat it within the allotted time, I don't see a big problem with it. If you are using the right vinegar, and/or salt ratios, I would just put it in a glass jar, with a lid, and not worry about it.

                1. re: wyogal

                  I think the point is that if you are quick pickling, you don't have to worry about the container. Treat it the same way you would any leftover vegetable. It could go in a plastic bag. As long as it's refrigerated and eaten within a few days, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. I like to recycle glass jars. I have lots of canning jars leftover from the days when I did a lot of canning. You can buy nice plastic lids for them that are also re-usable for storage. This also prevents you having a nasty looking metal lid with pickled items that have been in the frig maybe too long but you're going to eat them anyway. (I figure my Zuni Cafe zucchini pickles will last the winter.) Also vinegar reacts with some plastics. Anything you use should be food grade plastic. Don't use a pretty storage jar you bought at the craft store.

                  1. re: dfrostnh

                    I don't have any issues with containers. I prefer glass. I don't use pretty storage jars for a craft store. I have no problems with lids on glass jars. I don't worry about eating refrigerated pickles.
                    Maybe you meant to reply to the OP?