The vinegar to water ratio for pickling is a common question that people ask. Humans have been preserving food for thousands of years, and methods have included controlling climate, drying meat with salt, and submerging food in an acidic solution. All these methods have one goal in mind: limiting bacterial growth, which will spoil the food. While cooling and salting food is hard to do incorrectly, pickling with an acidic solution properly can be challenging.
So, what is the vinegar to water ratio for pickling? Although some recipes will have slightly different water to vinegar ratios, generally, if you make a brine with at least 50% of 5% (or higher) vinegar, you will achieve safe levels of acidity, which is pH 4.6 or lower.
The word pickle comes from a Dutch and North German word, which means salt and brine, two critical components when pickling. Pickling foods for preservation is an ancient technique that is as popular today as it was when it was invented. By getting the vinegar to water ratio right, choosing the right vinegar as your base, and by following a few simple steps, you will be pickling anything you desire in no time.
Vinegar to Water Ratios Used In Pickling
To ensure you have enough acid in your pickling mix, known as the brine, you want to ensure that you observe the 50:50 rule. That is maintaining at least a 50:50 vinegar to water ratio. The vinegar used must be at least 5% for that ratio to work. Remember, the vinegar is there to lower the pH of pickling juice to below 4.6. At such a low pH, bacteria won’t be able to germinate and grow. While the 50:50 standard rule is a good baseline, there can be some exceptions.
If your pickled products are going to remain in the fridge, then an exact ratio isn’t essential as the lower temperature will preserve the food by limiting bacterial growth. However, by relying on refrigeration for preservations, and using the vinegar only to alter the taste and texture, you are lowering the possible shelf-life of your foodstuff.
If the recipe calls for other acidic ingredients, then you can add less vinegar into the brine. Often, for flavor, citric acid is added into some pickling mixes. You may also be starting with a higher concentration of vinegar, and extra water is needed to dilute it slightly. Conversely, if you are pickling foods with high water content, like cucumbers, you will need to raise the starting vinegar ratio to account for diluting the food’s water.
The more vinegar you add, the stronger the pickling taste will be. You cannot use “too much” vinegar in the sense of preservation, only too little. If you are worried about whether your pickling ratio is sufficient, check the pH of your solution. You can do this by purchasing some litmus paper.
Be Careful of Info You Find Online
If you look online, you may find some recipes calling for you to use as little as one-quarter of the brine mixture as vinegar. And there may be a few reasons for this. First of all, some of these recipes also use citric acid, which brings the acidity of the mixture up without having to use as much vinegar. This may be done for taste, cost, or convenience, but for whatever reason, the citric acid is included making the mixture safely acidic.
So when trying this yourself, ensure that you also use the citric acid. The other case, though, is that many of the recipes online are sometimes known as quick pickling. In this process, you are not technically pickling the vegetable or fruit but instead adding a brine mixture over the food, and this gives the taste and sometimes the texture of the pickled version of that food. But this food must not be left refrigerated or left for too long before eating as it will spoil unless the proper pickling techniques are employed.
When it comes to actually pickling food instead of just doing it for the taste, the acid content must be considered. It is generally accepted that the ratio should be at least half vinegar and half water. It is perfectly fine to have a higher ratio of vinegar and less water, but the reverse is not true. Vinegar content should always make up at least half of the solution.
This ratio is assuming you are using vinegar, which has a 5% acidity. If you are using rice vinegar, for example, which is often used in Asian cooking, the acidity level may be slightly lower, around 4.8%. And in this case, a somewhat higher proportion of vinegar should be used.
The 50% minimum of vinegar is usually for the sake of taste, having significantly more vinegar would not harm the process at all, and some recipes actually call for a ratio of 3:1 vinegar to water or ever 100% vinegar. For these recipes, do not deviate from the amounts stated as there may be some reason that they can’t have a smaller proportion of vinegar. And if you’re a fan of sour foods, try your recipes with 100% vinegar.
Err on the Side of “Too Much” Vinegar
It would not be recommended to try any food process which, if done wrong, could cause botulism without the proper utensils and cooking equipment. But if you do find yourself in this situation and you can’t measure things like volume and temperature. Ensure the brine has enough vinegar such that it is visibly apparent it’s the higher ratio fluid. And ensure the mixture comes to a visible boil. But again, this would not be recommended unless absolutely necessary.
For what sounds like it could be a quite daunting and potentially dangerous method of food preparation, it would be easy to think ‘What’s the point?’. But don’t let that put you off trying it yourself. Pickled foods are a great way of preserving food without impacting its nutritional content, as opposed to freezing, where some nutritional value is lost.
Pickled food is also delicious, and knowing that you picked it yourself will give you a sense of achievement and pride and will taste all the more delicious for it! It may also be cheaper and much better for the environment than pickled foods bought at a supermarket.
Which Vinegars Can Be Used For Pickling?
Vinegar is an aqueous solution of acetic acid—most kinds of vinegar range between 4-20% acetic acid by volume. Anything below 4% is not strong enough to be used for pickling. With more than 10% acetic acid content, vinegar is potentially dangerous and can cause skin burns.
Make sure you work with gloves before it is diluted. Above 20% acidity, and you are only going to purchase that as a weed killer. All vinegar is made by the fermentation process, taking up to a year to produce. The starting product can be fruits, grains, alcoholic beverages, etc. As a result, there are many types of vinegar available, and each will infuse a different flavor profile into your pickled foods. Here are some of the most common kinds of vinegar used for pickling:
- Distilled White Vinegar: This vinegar is made from a grain, typically corn in the United States. The most common acidity sold is 5%, and it is the most frequent choice for pickling in the US. This vinegar isn’t distinctive and will not overpower the original flavor of the pickled food. It is also popular vinegar to use because it is clear, so it doesn’t alter the natural color of the food.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Apples ferment to make a slightly brown vinegar and is often used instead of white vinegar. It will slightly color your food will producing a more robust flavor of pickling than a vinegar made from grain. Do check that you have at least 5% acidity, as cider vinegar can be sold at only 4%.
- Malt Vinegar: Malted barley is the base of this vinegar. The result is a dark brown color that will stain your food. Although it has the same acidity as distilled white vinegar, it has a much stronger flavor profile, so it is best used when you want a bold pickled taste.
- Wine Vinegar: Depending on the wine used as the base, wine vinegar can provide several flavors that can be absorbed into the pickled food. Many types of wine vinegar are sold to be used a salad dressing, so make sure you get one with at least 5% acidic content. Red wine will stain the food, whereas white wine won’t.
How Do You Pickle Foods?
To break it down into the simplest form, to pickle something, you heat a mixture of vinegar, water, salt, and sugar (but this is optional and for taste) in a saucepan. You then pour this mixture over vegetables in a clean, dry jar. Tap out any air bubbles and then place the lid on the jar. These pickles can then be stored in the refrigerator for up to two months. To make them suitable for room temperature storage, the food must be heat treated and then sealed in an airtight container.
Pickling is, in some ways, easy to do, but hard to master. Here is a more detailed step-by-step guide to getting you started on the path to perfection.
1. Prepare the jars
You will want to use something like a mason jar with airtight lids to store your food while it pickles. Make sure they are sterile, clean, and dry before use.
2. Start with fresh produce
Pickling isn’t for produce or meats that are about to spoil. You will get a far better result if you buy the vegetables or meats for the specific purpose of pickling.
3. Prepare the food
This can be anything from cutting it into the correct shape, blanching in the instance of green beans, or removing the blossom of the cucumber. Whatever your future pickled food needs, do this now.
4. Pack the food into the jars
Fill the jars, but do leave ½ inch of space between the food and the top of the jar. Do your best to leave some space between each item of content so that every piece will be surrounded in brine.
5. Prepare your brine
Start with a simple half vinegar half water mixture. Use vinegar, such as white, apple cider, or rice vinegar. You can even mix them to get a balance of flavor you like. Never use balsamic vinegar, and malted vinegar should only be used when an intense flavor is desired. Add herbs and spices the brine. Fresh or dried herbs work well. A clove of garlic could be an excellent addition. You will want to add in some salt, sugar, or both. Make sure you don’t use iodized salt as this its caking agents will turn the brine cloudy. Use pickling or kosher salt instead. For inspiration, look up some specific recipes for the food you are pickling. What is a tasty brine for carrots probably won’t work well for apricots.
6. Boil the brine
Bring the pickling mix to a boil and make sure the salt and sugar are fully dissolved. While still near boiling, pour the brine into the jar. This will slightly cook the food and kill and microorganisms that can survive at a low pH. Some recipes may not suggest adding in a boiling mix because it can negatively affect the flavor and texture of the pickled product. Cover all the food with the brine. Leave the ½ inch at the top.
7. Remove air bubbles
This is done quickly by tapping the jars against the countertop. Removing the air bubbles ensures there is no surface that is not covered in the protective brine.
8. Seal and store
Seal the jars and let the brine fully cool—either place in the refrigerator or store at room temperature. Give your pickled food at least 48 hours before digging in. That way, it will have time to develop a good flavor.
How Do I Know If My Pickled Food is Safe To Eat?
If you have pickled some foods and left them for a while, you will want to thoroughly check them before you consuming for signs that they have not preserved well. You are looking for an indication that bacteria have grown or that the decay process has continued during storage.
First, check the container carefully. Look for signs of leaking, bulging or swelling around the lid, and for bubbles in the jar. All of these are clear indicators that bacteria have been growing in your pickling jar. If the jar is cracked, damaged, or in any way appears not to be airtight any longer, do not eat the food inside.
Bacteria causes the build-up of gases due to anaerobic respiration, so if liquid squirts out when you open the jar, or you see any foam, then don’t eat the food! It seems obvious, but if the food is discolored, moldy, or has a foul odor, you should assume that it has been decaying during storage.
If your pickled product passes all of these examinations, then it is most likely safe to eat.
The Dangers of Incorrectly Pickled and Stored Foods
If not treated properly, pickled foods can allow spores of C. Botulinum to germinate, which, when ingested, can cause botulism. This paralytic illness, in severe cases, can cause respiratory failure and death.
The conditions that allow the spores to germinate are often when the food was not appropriately treated or not acidic enough. Since vinegar is the brine’s acidic component, it is essential to ensure that when pickling, we get the right amount.
Are Pickled Vegetables Bad for You?
A few studies in recent years have linked pickled foods to a rise in cancer, and the World Health Organization lists pickled vegetables as a carcinogen. The link to esophageal cancer was first made in the British Journal of Cancer in 2009 and was corroborated in various studies, including a Chinese paper in 2017. However, these incidents seem to be related to vegetables that were infested with fungi. The fungi created the carcinogens during the pickling process. If you are pickling clean vegetables, then you shouldn’t fear getting cancer from the produce you pickle.
Away from possibly causing cancer, there are pros and additional cons to eating pickled vegetables. First, by not cooking the produce, most of the nutrients are still present compared to fresh vegetables. The cooking process can reduce the nutritional content. However, if your pickling recipe involves a lot of salt, then there will be an increase in sodium. Ingesting too much sodium regularly will lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
On the plus side, as vinegar is made through a fermentation process, pickled vegetables are also infused with probiotics. These organisms help with digestion, boost your immune system, and reduce inflammation. Finally, the vinegar will add a hard to acquire vitamin B12 to your diet to which you cannot get from fresh vegetables.
Pickling is a four-thousand-year-old method of food preservation that uses an acidic environment to protect food from spoilage. To ensure you are pickling safely to stifle bacteria’s growth, make sure that you are minimally observing the 50:50 ratio rule of vinegar to water. By following this ratio, your pickling mixture should be at or below pH 4.6, which is the required acidity to preserve the pickled food.
You can use a variety of vinegar types to pickle your food, which will alter their flavor and color to suit your taste. Always check that your pickled foods have been stored correctly before consumption, checking for signs of bacterial growth or decay. Pickling might not be the healthiest way to consume vegetables, and it is just like most things, in moderation, it won’t do you any harm!
Here are the products I recommend for pickling. Click to see the Amazon listings and get the current price:
What is the Shelf-life of Pickled Vegetables?
If stored correctly, most pickled vegetables will last up to 6 months, though some will be fine for 1-2 years. To obtain this longevity, make sure you stored your vegetables in clean, sterile, airtight containers. The brine mix is also essential to ensure bacteria didn’t grow during storage. If the brine mix was boiled, typically, the pickled vegetable will be edible longer.
Should I Be Concerned About Botulism While Pickling At Home?
Botulism is a form of food poisoning caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is rare but can be fatal. Importantly, you cannot see, taste, smell this deadly toxin. According to the Centers for Disease and Preventions, between 1996 and 2014, 145 outbreaks for botulism have been attributed to the preparation of food at home. Of these, 30% were canned vegetables, which is similar to pickling. To protect yourself, boil the brine before pouring it over the food product. Without hesitation, you should throw away any pickled products that show signs of spoilage immediately.