Traditionally made from pickling cucumbers, vinegar, water, salt, sugar and a combination of spices and herbs, pickles are a good way to enjoy summer's bounty throughout the year. Many other vegetables are suitable for pickling, including beets and sweet or hot peppers. According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, properly canned pickles retain freshness and quality for up to one year.
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While it may be tempting to reuse mayonnaise or pasta sauce jars, commercial jars are not designed to fit two-piece lids needed for safe canning. Similarly, the jars are not tempered to withstand high temperatures and often break during processing. Always use standard home canning jars with two-piece lids. Place the lids on the jars and begin processing as soon as the jars are filled because any bacteria that enters the jar multiplies rapidly during processing. Don't pack the jars too tightly because the pickles and brine in the center of the jar may deteriorate quickly if they do not reach the high temperatures required for safe canning.
Cucumbers are low-acid vegetables that require an increased level of acidity to prevent growth of dangerous bacteria. Use a high-quality commercial vinegar, and read the label before making pickles to be sure the vinegar has an acid content of at least 5 percent. Although recipes may vary, most call for 1 part vinegar and 1 part water. Follow the recipe exactly and never dilute the vinegar beyond the recommended level because recipes are tested to ensure safe preservation. Never use homemade vinegar because the acid content may not be high enough, causing the pickles to soften and spoil.
Use stainless steel, glass or enamel implements and containers when making pickles. Avoid galvanized pots and utensils because pickling salt and vinegar may react and become toxic when they come in contact with galvanized metal, affecting the long-term quality and safety of the pickles.
Salt adds flavor and keeps pickles firm. More importantly, salt works as a preservative, inhibiting growth of dangerous bacteria and extending the storage life of the pickles. Although table salt is safe for making pickles, the iodine in table salt often causes dark pickles and cloudy brine. Pickling or canning salt, which contains no iodine, is better for canning. Avoid rock salt, reduced-sodium salt and salt substitute. Measure carefully and use the exact amount of salt called for in the recipe.
Before storing pickles, remove the metal bands from the jars and wipe the jars with a damp cloth. Label the jars clearly, including the contents and date. Pickles are more likely to keep when stored in a cool, dry storage space. Don't store pickles where the temperature drops below freezing. Similarly, temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit may cause the food to spoil. Pickles are best used within 12 months. If stored too long, the acid in the vinegar may eat at the lid and create tiny holes that allow bacteria to enter. Examine the pickles carefully when you open the jars and discard them if you notice rust, mold, an unusual color, bad smell or slippery texture.