Even though I grew up in the South with a mother that liked to cook, she was a modern woman who worked full time. She did not have a lot of extra time to can fruits & vegetables or put up preserves. But one thing she did do was keep cut pickles in the refrigerator during the summer. Her version of a “quick pickle” was to slice the cucumbers (often from my dad’s garden) and put them into a bowl with water and a bit of salt. The salt water kept the cucumbers crisp and the fridge kept the slices nice and cold. Those pickles were meant to be eaten in a day or two. It was an easy thing to do in the morning before heading to work. Then, when she got home from work and had to pull together dinner, it was easy to pull out those cold, salty cucumber slices to serve with sliced tomatoes and green onions from the garden. That and some beans and cornbread were dinner.
That salt brine has to be the simplest way ever to make a refrigerator pickle. I’ve used it many times myself. But in the last few years, I’ve been wanting to play around with making “real” pickles. There are two different ways to pickle cucumbers – refrigerator (or quick) method and the canning process method. I felt intimidated by the whole canning process, so I opted to try the quick refrigerator pickle.
What is the difference between a refrigerator pickle and a processed pickle?
Pickling is preserving vegetables with an acidic, salty brine. The main difference between a refrigerator, or quick pickle and a traditionally canned pickle is heat processing.
Heat Processing Pickles
The traditional canning method involves putting fruit or vegetables into sterilized canning jars, covering them in an acidic salt brine and then heat-processing the closed jars in a boiling water canner. The filled and sealed jars need to be completely immersed in boiling water for a set processing time (around 30 minutes for cucumber pickles). Heat processing kills enzymes, bacteria, yeasts and molds that can spoil the food. It also creates an air-tight seal. It is heat processing that allows you to leave your canned food on a pantry shelf, at room temperature, indefinitely.
Quick Refrigerator Pickles
Refrigerator pickles are NOT heat processed, which means that they are not shelf stable. They are meant to be stored cold in the refrigerator for a short period of time, around 2-3 months.
Food Safety and Home Pickling
If you are new to pickles or home food preserving, one thing you should be aware of and concerned about is food safety. Storing pickles in the fridge will slow down bacteria growth, but it will not stop it. I don’t want to scare anyone from making pickles at home, because it is generally very safe and easy. Just using basic safe food handling will go a long way to keep your pickles safe.
There are three things you can do to keep your refrigerator pickles safe:
- Use a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water, erring on the side of more vinegar. You want to keep your brine acidic to kill off the harmful bacteria and yeast.
- Keep your pickles in a refrigerator that is kept in the mid-30 degree F range.
- Do not store your pickles more than 3 months. Longer time in the fridge gives microorganisms more time to form.
Some recipes for quick pickles say to leave the filled pickle jars at room temperature for a few days before refrigerating. DO NOT DO THIS. Pickles should be refrigerated immediately to discourage bacterial growth.
One thing I learned as a former 4-H’er, you can always turn to the Agriculture Extension Service for great information about pickling and canning. Here is a FREE pdf you can download that gives you detailed info on home pickling from the Iowa State University Extension Service, Canning:Pickles. There is also a great website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation, that contains a lot of technical information about food safety and canning techniques.
Having said all that, give these a try. They really are easy and they will be eaten quickly!
Easy Garlic Refrigerator Pickles
1 lb. pickling cucumbers (no waxy cucumbers!!!) I use the long European variety.
4 tablespoons kosher or canning salt
2 tablespoons pickling spices (see below)
3-4 whole cloves garlic (peeled and slightly crushed)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon table sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon whole juniper berries
1 bay leaf
Makes 1 quart jar of pickles
Before you begin, make sure you have either one quart canning jar or two pint canning jars ready to go. They do not have to be sterilized, but clean and dry is good.
Wash your cucumbers. Remember that most cucumbers from the grocery store have been waxed and that is NOT what you want. Only use pickling cucumbers, those long European cucumbers or something you know comes from a garden directly to you without the waxy coating.
Slice your cucumber into medium-thick slices. I use a mandolin to hand slice mine. I have used a food processor, and even just a knife and cutting board to make my slices. Some people like to cut them into “spears” by doing a long, wedge cut.
Put your cucumber slices into a colander over a sink and toss with a couple of tablespoons of kosher salt. The salt will draw out some of the moisture, making the cucumbers slices “crispier”. Let the colander drain in the sink for about an hour, then rinse and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Place the dry cucumbers into the canning jar(s).
Combine the coriander seeds, mustard seeds, peppercorns, allspice, red pepper flakes and juniper berries to use as your pickling spices. You can use lots of different spices and they are a lot of fun to experiment with different combinations. Dill seed is a classic pickle spice, but you can also use cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seeds, celery seeds, fresh herbs and peppers.
In the meantime, put the pickling spices, garlic, pepper flakes, vinegar, two tablespoons of the kosher salt and sugar into a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer until the sugar and salt have dissolved, about 5 minutes.
When the brine is ready, pour the hot brine over the cucumbers packed in the jar. Make sure a good bit of the pickling spices end up in the jar, especially the whole garlic cloves. If the brine does not reach all the way to the top, you can top off the jar with extra vinegar.
Let the pickles cool to room temperature, then put the closed jar into refrigerator. The refrigerator pickles will be ready to eat the next day!
Again, because these pickles are not heat-processed like in a traditional canning method, they cannot be stored in the pantry or at room temperature. They have to be kept in the fridge and should last up to 6 months there. But, at my house, they rarely last more than 6 weeks. Enjoy!