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Pickling vs Canning | What’s the Difference?

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I’ve been a canner for more than 50 years now, and during those years, I’ve used all of the more familiar methods of food preservation. I preserve food by canning quite often which includes making jams and jellies, canning fruits and vegetables, and I even can beef stew from time to time. I grow herbs and peppers and dry them to make some of my own seasonings, I freeze a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and I often make pickles and pickled beets.

Common questions that I get: What is the difference between pickling and canning? Can you make pickles without canning? Just how are the two processes related?

Well, let’s answer them!

Both pickling and canning are methods of preserving food for use at a later time. 

  • Canning is the process by which you seal food in airtight containers, primarily jars, and use one of two different methods of canning, pressure canning and boiling water bath canning, to sterilize the jars and everything within those jars to kill naturally occurring bacteria so that the food remains safe for your family to eat at some time in the future.
  • Pickling is also a method of preserving food that uses brine (salt water) as the preservative, and this method can then be either canned to make it shelf stable for years or refrigerated for a shorter period of time.

This article will explain these processes in greater detail.

What Are Pickling and Canning and How Do They Work?

Pickled Vegetables In Jars

Pickling

According to Wikipedia, pickling is “The process of preserving or extending the shelf life of food by either anaerobic fermentation in brine or immersion in vinegar.” Both methods are considered pickling, but there are distinct differences in the processes used to make the pickled products.

Pickling By Anaerobic Fermentation 

Anaerobic fermentation is the process used in making things like sauerkraut. But just how does fermentation preserve food? To simplify this very complex process, vegetables are salted and put into a container that is oxygen-free. This salty, oxygen-free environment is conducive to the growth of lactic acid which is beneficial to humans. The bacteria that create lactic acid also prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms, and through this process preserves the food and renders it safe for a certain period of time.

Sauerkraut will stay good 4 to 6 months after opening if kept under refrigeration. However, canning fermented vegetables like sauerkraut will render them safe to eat for 3 to 5 years if stored properly.

The basic steps of the anaerobic fermentation process are found in this recipe for sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut Made by Anaerobic Fermentation

  1. Clean and cut up the cabbage by first removing the outer leaves, then rinse the cabbage well in cool or tap water, cut it into quarters, and remove the core. 
  2. Save a few of the outer leaves to use later in the process.
  3. Shred or slice the cabbage into ½ to ¾-inch slices.
  4. Add 3 tablespoons of salt for each gallon of vegetables and let set for 20-30 minutes (For small batches, use 2 teaspoons of salt per pound of vegetable.).
  5. Work the salt into the cabbage with clean hands until the salt starts drawing the juices from the cabbage.
  6. Put the shredded cabbage into suitable fermentation containers (Crockery jars, Mason canning jars, any food-grade containers). The containers should be large. Half-gallon containers will work, but gallon-size containers are ideal and will hold 5 pounds of vegetables.
  7. Fill the containers ¾ full to leave space in the container for the fermentation process to work.
  8. If the cabbage juices do not cover the cabbage, add boiled and cooled brine to cover. Make a brine by adding 1½ tablespoons of salt to each quart of water, bring it to a full rolling boil, and then cool it to room temperature before adding it to the containers of cabbage.
  9. Cut a piece of the saved outer leaves to fit the inside of the fermentation containers. Lay a cut piece of the cabbage leaves on top of the shredded cabbage in the containers and weigh the leaves down to keep the shredded cabbage covered with water. You can use fermentation weights, like these found on Amazon, which are plastic bags filled with brine, or small bowls or jars, anything heavy enough to hold the cabbage down in the water.
  10. Use plastic lids on the jars and store them at 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the fermentation process which will take 3 to 4 weeks at that temperature.
  11. If the cabbage is weighed down by using a plastic bag filled with brine, the container should not be disturbed until the fermentation has finished. If you use jars or other items as weights, check the containers two or three times per week and remove any scum that has formed.
  12. When the fermentation process has finished, the sauerkraut can be stored in tightly covered containers in the refrigerator for several months or it can be canned to last longer.

How Do I Can Sauerkraut?

Sauerkraut can be boiling water bath canned by using one of two methods, hot packed or cold packed.

  1. Hot pack by bringing the sauerkraut and juice to a boil and packing it hot in canning jars, leaving a ½-inch headspace. Process according to the information found in the table shown below.
  2. Cold pack by packing the sauerkraut and juice at room temperature into canning jars, leaving a ½-inch headspace. Process according to the information found in the table shown below.
Sauerkraut: Boiling Water Bath CanningJar SizeElevation1 – 1000 ft.Elevation1001 – 3000 ft.Elevation3001 – 6000 ft.ElevationAbove 6000 ft.
Hot PackPints10 minutes15 minutes15 minutes20 minutes
Hot PackQuarts15 minutes20 minutes20 minutes25 minutes
Cold PackPints20 minutes25 minutes30 minutes35 minutes
Cold PackQuarts25 minutes30 minutes35 minutes40 minutes

For detailed information on making sauerkraut, take a look at National Center for Home Food Preservation | How Do I? Ferment

Pickling By Immersion in Vinegar 

The pickling process that involves immersion in vinegar is the method used most often in making pickles from cucumbers and other foods. Vegetables are the foods most often pickled, but other food products such as eggs, herring, shellfish, bologna, and pigs feet are also preserved by pickling.

How Do You Make Pickles From Cucumbers By Immersion in Vinegar?

There are many different recipes and methods of making cucumber pickles, but here is my favorite recipe, which is the recipe found on the package of Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime. The pickles made by this recipe have the best taste and are the crispest of any recipe I have tried. The link above will take you straight to Mrs. Wages’ recipe, but I have also provided the recipe for you here for your convenience. If you prefer, I show detailed information on each step of this recipe in my YouTube video Learn to Make Crunchy Sweet Pickles – Canning Recipe (Full Process Step-by-Step).

Mrs. Wages Cucumber Pickles Using Vinegar

Ingredients:

  • 7 lbs Cucumbers
  • 1 cup Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime
  • 2 gals Water
  • 8 cups Vinegar
  • 8 cups Sugar
  • 1 T Canning & Pickling Salt
  • 1 T Pickling Spices

Directions:

Step 1:

  1. Wash cucumbers to remove all dirt & impurities, remove ends, & slice into ⅛” to ¼” slices.
  2. Mix Pickling Lime and Water; add cucumbers and allow to soak for 12 to 24 hours.

Step 2:

  1. Drain cucumbers and rinse 3 times in cool water.
  2. Pour cucumbers into lidded containers and cover with ice water.
  3. Place containers in the refrigerator for 3 hours.

Step 3:

  1. Drain cucumbers.
  2. Combine vinegar, sugar, & salt in a large non-reactive container, stirring until dissolved.
  3. Pour vinegar solution over drained cucumbers and return the cucumbers to the refrigerator for 5-6 hours or overnight.

Step 4:

  1. Drain vinegar solution into a large pot or Dutch oven and add pickling spices.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce heat, and simmer for 35 minutes.
  3. Pack cucumbers into sterilized jars, fill the jars with hot liquid leaving a ½-inch headspace.
  4. Add hot lids and rings.
  5. Place jars into a boiling water bath and process pints for 10 minutes or quarts for 15 minutes.
  6. Allow jars to sit undisturbed for 24 hours in a prepared area.

Step 5:

  1. After the 24-hour period, check jars to be sure the lids have sealed.
  2. Wash jars in warm, soapy water, rinse well, and dry.
  3. Label the jars with the contents and the date made.

Canning

Canning is the process of preserving food at home for use at a later time by using one of two processes, (1) pressure canning, and (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 USDA, “These practices remove oxygen; destroy enzymes; prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria, yeasts, and molds; and help form a high vacuum in jars. A good vacuum forms a tight seal which keeps liquid in and air and microorganisms out.”

Pressure Canned Turnips

Pressure Canning

Pressure canning is the method that is safe for and must be used when canning all low-acid foods with a pH of more than 4.6. This means that all vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood must be pressure canned to make them shelf stable and safe to eat. This is the only method that renders these foods safe and not in danger of containing the bacteria that cause botulism.

For more detailed information on the canning process and a more comprehensive list of foods that must be pressure canned, see my article entitled “List of Low and High Acid Foods For Canning (With Chart).” And, if you would like to see the step-by-step process of pressure canning, take a look at my video entitled “Pressure Canning Mustard Greens Step By Step From Garden to Jar.”

Water Bath Canning

Water Bath Canning

Water bath canning is the method used for canning foods with a pH of less than 4.6 which are known as high-acid foods. This process involves bringing the canning jar and the complete contents of the jar to the boiling point (212℉) and maintaining that temperature for a specific length of time in order to kill the bacteria that are found in these high-acid foods and to render the jars airtight, making the food shelf stable for several years when stored properly.

These foods include:

  • Fruits
  • Fruit Juices
  • Jams
  • Jellies
  • Pickles
  • Relishes
  • Salsas
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tomatoes

This YouTube video breaks down and explains each of the steps involved in boiling water bath canning.

But, How Are Pickling and Canning Related?

Pickling and canning are related because both are methods of preserving foods for use at a later time, but they are also related because, although foods are preserved by pickling and will last longer than the cucumbers and other vegetables and foods they are made from, they must be consumed more quickly than canned foods or either refrigerated so that they will last for a longer time. 

But, they can also be made shelf-stable so that they last for years by utilizing the canning process. In this way, we realize that while pickling and canning are different processes, they are related or at least intertwined because pickled foods must also be canned for long-term storage.

What Are Other Methods of Food Preservation?

Smoking Some Salmon

Since the beginning of time, man has been searching for ways to preserve the food that they have so they can use it to feed themselves and their families during times when food is scarce. Over time, many methods have been discovered, perfected, and used until the next best method was found.

There are eight main methods of food preservation: (1) Drying, (2) Pickling, (3) Canning, (4) Freezing, (5) Root Cellar storage, (6) Freeze Drying, (7) Salt Curing, (8) Smoking, plus several other lesser-known methods. This article mainly focuses on pickling and canning, but will mention some of the other ways to preserve food.

Drying

Research and knowledge of history tells us that the first humans used the only method of food preservation available to them which was drying. They used the sun to dry their foods so that they would last until the time when fresh food was no longer available and the dried food was needed to sustain them through the winter or at least until they found more food.

Evidence has shown that cultures in oriental and middle eastern countries as far back as 12,000 B.C. were drying their foods as a method of preservation. Sun-drying was used to dry foods until the Middle Ages when Europeans living in areas that are cooler and wetter with a limited number of sunny days started building what they called “stillhouses” that were the first dehydrators for drying foods. They hung the food in the buildings and built fires inside the buildings to dry it.

Sun-drying and drying with fire were used then until the mid-1800s when French inventors invented a process to dry vegetables by using hot air to heat the food to 105℉ and then pressing it into dried vegetable cakes. That doesn’t necessarily sound very tasty, but when you need to preserve food, you have to use any means available to you.

Since the 1960s, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in dried foods and efficient dehydrators were developed for commercial as well as home use. The latest rage in food preparation, the air fryer, can be used as a food dehydrator that is both efficient and easy to use.

Freezing

Freezing food as a preservation method has also been around for a long time. As a matter of fact, the Chinese used freezing as a method of preserving food as far back as 3,000 B.C. They built and used ice cellars to preserve their food through the winters. The Romans also had a method of freezing food to preserve it by building insulated cellars and storing their food in compressed snow.

But, to a person like me who grew up in the southern part of the United States which rarely sees snow, freezing is a more recent method of food preservation. As far back as I can remember, which is around 1950, we always had a refrigerator with a small freezer built in. However, at the time I was born, my family had an ice box and bought ice from the ice man who made his rounds every day to sell the ice needed to keep food cold, but not frozen.

Even though there were commercial freezers as early as 1861 in Sydney, Australia, refrigerators for the home with separate freezer units were not invented until the 1940s and were not a common thing until at least the 1950s. Separate self-contained freezers for home food storage were also invented in the 1940s and 1950s but were not as popular as the refrigerator. By the 1970s, home freezers were catching on and were becoming a more commonplace appliance, at least for families who could afford them.

I remember back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my sister rented a food locker at the local ice house where she could store some frozen food, but the locker was small and wouldn’t hold very much food. I personally did not own a home freezer until the 1970s.

Freezing foods, however, is now one of the easiest and fastest methods of preserving food because the process that you must follow to freeze vegetables, for example, is to blanch them, cool them down quickly, and put them into freezer bags or boxes and store them in the freezer. 

Fruits and berries are even easier because they do not require cooking and can be put into the freezer raw, as long as they are prepared in advance for the way they will be used. For example, if you are freezing peaches that will be used to make jam, they must be peeled, the cores removed, and cut into the size pieces you will need to make the jam. 

How Do You Blanch Vegetables For Freezing?

Blanching food for freezing is a simple process that involves these steps:

  1. Harvest the food to be frozen immediately before processing, if possible, to avoid loss of nutrients.
  2. Prepare the food by peeling, shelling, shucking, or anything required to get the food ready to eat.
  3. Wash the food thoroughly to remove all dirt, grit, and other foreign objects.
  4. Bring a large pot or Dutch oven of water to a boil over high heat.
  5. Pour the prepared vegetables into the boiling water and bring back to a full rolling boil as quickly as possible.
  6. Boil for 1 minute.
  7. Drain the water from the vegetables by pouring it through a colander or strainer.
  8. Pour the vegetables back into the pot or another pan (I use a dishpan.) and cover with tap water.
  9. Repeat this process to cool the vegetables as quickly as possible.
  10. When vegetables have been rinsed 3 to 4 times and have begun to cool, add ice to the pan containing the vegetables covered with water and cool completely, stirring frequently to speed up the cooling process.
  11. Make sure the vegetables are completely cool by placing your hand in the water. The vegetables are completely cool when you can feel no warmth in the water.
  12. Put the vegetables in freezer bags or boxes, cover with the cool water, add the lids that have been labeled with the contents and the date, and put them into the freezer as quickly as possible. 
  13. Avoid stacking all the unfrozen containers in one area of the freezer. Spread them out until frozen at which time they can be stacked and organized.

Final Thoughts

While freeze-drying, salt curing, and smoking may be methods of food preservation that are not as easy for us to do at home as canning, pickling, freezing, and drying, they are excellent methods of food preservation. While freeze-drying is commonly used in the biomedical and biological fields, many of the foods we buy are freeze-dried like coffee, herbs, fruit, and vegetables.

Salt curing and smoking are primarily used for meat and fish, including ham, salami, and summer sausage, and are both methods of food preservation that were used by our ancestors. When my parents were growing up in the early 1900s, their meat primarily consisted of fresh or canned meat during the summer and meat cured in their smokehouse during the winter.

Smokehouse door with a sign on it
A brick smokehouse

Whichever method or methods you prefer to utilize when preserving food for your family’s use, there are many methods available that will provide a variety of different kinds of food and that allow us to feed our family their favorite dishes all year round.

Thanks for stoppin’ by!

Jelly Grandma

For more, don’t miss Is Pickling and Fermentation the Same Thing?

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