Pickling is one of the processes along with canning, drying, and freezing that were developed many years ago as methods of preserving food when it is plentiful for use at some time in the future when food is scarce, or to preserve types of food that are family favorites and not available at all times of the year. And while vinegar and sugar render pickled food safe to eat without refrigeration, this is still a common question.
Pickled foods that have been canned properly are rendered shelf stable and safe to eat unrefrigerated, even after opening. Unpasteurized pickles or pickles that have not been processed by using a USDA-approved canning method, must be refrigerated immediately after they have been made.
Note: Pickled foods canned using the water bath or pressure canning method will last even longer when they are refrigerated after opening.
What Happens To Pickles If You Don’t Refrigerate Them After Opening?
Pickles that have also been canned will remain good for quite some time after opening even if you don’t refrigerate them, but a couple of things happen relatively quickly:
- If the pickles in the jar are not all covered by the vinegar, they will go bad faster.
- Unrefrigerated pickles will not be as crunchy as those that have been refrigerated.
According to the USDA (The United States Department of Agriculture), pickles that have been opened and left unrefrigerated for 2 hours or more, or overnight, should be discarded immediately. But, due to acidic brine, they are less likely to cause food poisoning than other non-acidic foods.
Why Should Pickles Be Refrigerated After Opening?
The canning process renders food safe by destroying the bacteria that is naturally occurring in all vegetables. But, after the pickles are opened, they become exposed to the bacteria and fungi in the air, and the process of aging and spoiling is accelerated.
To extend the life of the jar of pickles as long as possible, after the jar is opened, make sure the lid is secure at all times, and the jar is stored in the refrigerator except when they are being served.
How Long Can Pickles Last?
If you are wondering how long pickles last, then this information is for you.
- Home Canned: If unopened, they will last from 2 to 5 years if stored properly.
- Commercially Prepared: If unopened, 2 years after pickling, or a year past the best-by date on the label.
- Opened: Once the jar has been opened, the taste will be best if used within 2 to 4 months.
- Pickles Purchased In Bulk From A Barrel: Should be used within a week.
How Can You Tell If Pickles Are Bad?
There are several ways to tell if a jar of pickles has gone bad:
- They will smell bad.
- They will taste sour and unpleasant.
- They will no longer be a vibrant color.
- There could be mold growing on the pickles.
- The container or lid could have a bulge.
- The brine could be foamy or fizzing, which is known as unstable fermentation.
Is It Dangerous To Eat Pickles That Are Past Their Best By Date?
Yes, if a jar of pickles shows any of the obvious signs mentioned above that it has gone bad, if a jar of home-canned pickles is more than 5 years old, or if a jar of commercially produced pickles is more than a year past its best by date, then it would be best to discard the pickles immediately as there could be some serious health issues and digestive problems resulting from eating pickles that have gone bad.
But, if the jar of pickles that is past its best by date but looks and smells fine and shows no obvious signs of spoilage, then it is safe to use them quickly.
Should Quick Or Unpasteurized Pickles Be Refrigerated After Opening?
Pickles that are known as quick pickles or unpasteurized pickles are processed by using a method known as fermentation. The fermentation process allows natural microorganisms to break down carbohydrates, sugars, and starches, making the food healthier and preserving it to allow for long-term storage.
But, all commercially produced unpasteurized pickles are kept in the refrigerator section at the supermarket because the natural fermentation process continues to work, making the food continue to become sourer and sourer as time passes, so keeping it in the refrigerator slows down that fermentation process allowing the food to stay good longer.
Can Kosher Pickles Be Left Unrefrigerated?
Kosher pickles can be left unrefrigerated, but they are made by the fermentation process, which will continue to work, making the pickles sourer. So, to slow down that process and to keep the kosher pickles from becoming too sour, they should be refrigerated.
Not only will being refrigerated make the kosher pickles crisper but it will make them last much longer.
How Do The Pickling And Canning Processes Keep Homemade Pickles Good For Up To 5 Years?
The pickling process and the canning process are both methods of preserving food that can be stored long term and used at some time in the future.
Pickling uses salt water, called brine, as a preservative. The pickled food can then be either refrigerated to use in the immediate future, or it can be canned to make the food shelf stable for many years, depending on the food that is canned, the method used for canning, and the storage method employed.
How Can I Make Homemade Pickles?
The recipe listed on the Mrs. Wages pickling lime package is by far the best recipe for homemade sweet pickles that I have ever found. I am including this recipe here for your convenience in case you want to try it.
Please note, in case you have seen an earlier version of this recipe, that in Step 4, the cucumbers are not cooked until they are put into the jars and processed in the boiling water bath. The earlier version directed us to simmer the cucumbers in the sugar and vinegar solution for 35 minutes. Cooking the cucumbers before they are put into the boiling water bath will result in pickles that are not as crisp as the ones that are not cooked in step 4.
Mrs. Wages Cucumber Pickles Using Vinegar
- 7 lbs Cucumbers
- 1 cup Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime
- 2 gals Water
- 8 cups Vinegar
- 8 cups Sugar
- 1 tablespoon Canning & Pickling Salt
- 1 tablespoon Pickling Spices
- Wash the cucumbers thoroughly to remove all dirt and impurities and remove the ends.
- Slice the cucumbers into ⅛” to ¼” slices.
- Mix the Pickling Lime and Water, add the cucumber slices, and allow them to soak for 12 to 24 hours.
- Drain the cucumbers and rinse them 3 times in cool water.
- Pour the cucumbers into lidded containers and cover them with ice water.
- Place the containers of cucumbers and ice water in the refrigerator for 3 hours.
- Drain the cucumbers.
- Combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a large non-reactive container (do not use aluminum), stirring until dissolved.
- Pour the vinegar solution over the drained cucumbers, and return the cucumbers to the refrigerator for 5 to 6 hours or overnight.
- Drain the vinegar solution into a large pot or Dutch oven and add the pickling spices.
- Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and let simmer for 35 minutes.
- Pack the cucumbers into sterilized jars and fill the jars with hot vinegar liquid leaving a ½-inch headspace.
- Affix the hot lids and rings.
- Place the filled jars into a boiling water bath and process pints for 10 minutes or quarts for 15 minutes.
- Remove the jars from the boiling water bath and allow the jars to sit undisturbed for 24 hours in a prepared area.
- After 24 hours, check the jar lids for a good seal.
- Wash the jars in warm, soapy water, rinse them well, and dry.
- Label the jars with the contents and the date made and place them in your pantry or storage area. Once they are in their storage area, the rings can be removed from the jars.
How Do I Can Pickles To Make Them Shelf Stable?
Canning is the process of preserving food at home for use at a later time by using one of two processes, (1) pressure canning, or (2) water bath canning. The type of canning that is needed depends on the foods you are canning. Both methods are described below.
But, how do these methods work? According to the West Virginia Extension, “The high heat destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes to preserve the safety and quality of the food.”
All vegetables which are low-acid foods with a pH of 4.6 or higher must be pressure canned to make them shelf stable and safe to eat for long-term storage. Water bath canning does not reach the temperature necessary to render these foods safe with no danger of causing botulism.
See my article entitled “List of Low and High Acid Foods For Canning (With Chart)” for more information on canning foods by the pressure canning method. And, my video entitled “Pressure Canning Mustard Greens Step By Step From Garden to Jar” shows the detailed process of pressure canning.
Water Bath Canning
Foods with a pH of less than 4.6 are safely canned by the water bath canning method. This process brings the canning jar and the entire contents of each jar to 212℉, which is the boiling point, and then maintains that temperature for a specific length of time, determined by the specific kind of food being canned. This method kills the bacteria in these high-acid foods in order to form a vacuum in the jars and make the food shelf stable for long-term storage.
The food safely canned by the water bath method include:
- Fruits and Fruit Juices
- Jams and Jellies
- Pickles and Relishes
This YouTube video breaks down and explains each of the steps involved in boiling water bath canning:
What Is The Best Way To Store Pickles?
There are certain conditions under which all home-canned or commercially-produced foods will remain good for the maximum length of time. Those conditions include:
- A cool space in which a temperature between 50℉ and 70℉ should be maintained at all times.
- The space should not be near nor share a wall with any appliance that generates heat such as a hot water heater, stove, refrigerator, or heating unit.
- The storage space should be dark and never exposed to direct or indirect sunlight or bright light of any kind.
- The pantry or storage area should be dry and as free from high humidity as possible.
The best areas for food storage include:
- An unheated basement,
- A root cellar, or
- An interior pantry away from all kitchen appliances.
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For more, don’t miss Pickling vs Canning | What’s the Difference?
Hi, I’m Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I have over 50 years of experience as a Southern cook and am a retired librarian. I love sharing what I have learned. You can find me on YouTube as well! Just click the link at the bottom of your page.
I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.