How to Make Crisp Homemade Pickles

How to Make Crunchy Homemade Pickles
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One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is: "How do I make my homemade pickles crispy?" Indeed, there is some know-how involved. Let me walk you through it!

Refrigerate, Ferment, or Can?

Each potential method of making cucumber pickles results in a different texture. Old time pickles were almost always lacto-fermented, and this method of preserving may, indeed, give you a crunchier pickle than if you home can your cukes. Still, most people seem to feel refrigerator pickles are the crunchiest. Just note that any of these three methods can result in mushy pickles if you don't follow the tips below.

Choose the Right Cucumbers

For the best, most crunchy pickles, choosing the right type of cucumber is the most important factor. Not all cucumbers are suitable for pickle making, so look for an actual "pickling cucumber." These varieties do a much better job of staying crisp once they are canned, fermented, or refrigerated in brine. Other types of cucumbers are safe to use, but they make pickles in varying degrees of mush. Any good seed catalog will mark its pickling cucumbers clearly. 

How fresh your cucumbers are also has a dramatic effect on how crispy your pickles will be. Always harvest cucumbers in the cool of the morning. - and just say no to big cukes. The larger the cucumber, the less crunchy a pickle it makes. (Plus, bigger cucumbers tend to be full of big seeds, which aren't what most people look forward to in a pickle.) Instead, select smaller cucumbers; the smaller they are, the more firm they naturally are, and the crunchier the pickle they produce. The general recommendation is to harvest cucumbers at 2- to  4-inches long. (Not sure what to do with bigger cucumbers? Eat them raw, or turn them into relish. However, avoid cucumbers that are so overripe they've turned yellow and bitter.) 

It's also really important to pickle cucumbers immediately after harvesting. Some people feel they must wait to make pickles until they have a large amount of cucumbers. This is a mistake. It's better to make pickles as cucumbers become available, even if it means making one or two jars at a time. 

Smaller pickling cucumbers lead to crispier pickles.

If Using Purchased Cucumbers...

If you don't grow your own cucumbers, buy the freshest cukes possible. Grocery stores are the worst place to buy pickling cucumbers because they've been sitting around a long time. A better choice is a local gardener or a farmer's market.

Then, when you bring the cucumbers home, give them a good soak. (NOTE: Some people insist that soaking even freshly-harvested cucumbers is a must for crisp pickles; try making some jars with soaked freshly-harvested cukes and some without soaking and see what you think.) 

After trimming the cucumbers (see below), throw them into an ice bath: Pour a layer of ice into a sink, cooler, or large bowl, then add a single layer of cucumbers. Next, add another layer of ice. Repeat the layers until all the cucumbers are under ice. I also find that salting the cukes makes a big difference in pickle crunchiness: Mix together 1/2 cup of pickling salt or pure sea salt (don't use a salt with common additives like sugar, iodine, or anti-caking agents) with 4 cups of cold water. Pour this over the iced cucumbers. The water must cover the cukes, so make more salt water, as needed. You may also use dinner plates to hold the cucumbers under the water. Allow the cucumbers to soak at least 30 minutes, and preferably overnight.  

Icing cucumbers can make for crispier pickles.

Give 'Em a Trim!

The blossom end of cucumbers contains an enzyme that, in the words of The National Center for Home Food Preservation, "may cause excessive softening of pickles." This is why you must never fail to cut away the blossom end of every single cucumber you want to turn into a pickle. The blossom end is the end opposite of where the cucumber was attached to the plant. Cut off a whole 1/4 inch from the blossom end.

Make the Cut

How you cut your cucumbers makes a difference in how crunchy they are. Slices are the least crunchy, and uncut, whole cucumbers (blossom ends removed) are the most crunchy. I always feel pickles better take on the flavor of their brine when made into spears, however. (To make spears, cut a cucumber in half, then cut those halves in half again.) 

Adding a fresh grape leaf to each jar makes for crunchier pickles.

Add a Leaf

I always include one freshly picked grape leaf in every jar of pickles; the tannins in the leaves aid with crispiness. Other leaves said to work just as well as grape leaves include fresh oak leaves, fresh horseradish leaves or root (grate the root first), fresh raspberry or blackberry leaves, dried bay leaves (use 2 to 4 per quart jar), or black tea (1/2 teaspoon per quart size jar). 


If you choose to can cucumber pickles, you may wish to try a method called low temperature pasteurization. This method helps create crispier pickles - but it must be followed to a 'T" to create a shelf stable, crispy product. It's also only suitable when the tested recipe says it's an acceptable method.

To pasteurize your pickles, fill a water bath canner halfway up with water that's 120 to 140 degrees F. Add jars of pickles and then add hot water until it's 1-inch above the jars. Heat the water to 180 to 185 degrees F. for 30 minutes. I highly recommend using a calibrated thermometer for this process, or you may over- or under-process the pickles. (You may view The National Center for Home Food Preservation website instructions here.)

Tested safe recipes for this method include Quick Fresh-Packed Dill Pickles, Sweet Gherkin Pickles, 14-Day Sweet Pickles, and Quick Sweet Pickles.

Alum can be added to fermented pickles.

Lime, Alum, and Calcium Chloride?

Lime is an old-time way to make pickles more crunchy. The cucumbers are soaked in a food-grade lime solution for 12-24 hours, then thoroughly rinsed before canning. However, lime lowers the acidity of pickles if they are not very thoroughly rinsed. The use of lime for pickle-making is mostly discarded today because its use has been linked to botulism poisoning.

Historically, food-grade alum was also used for pickle making, but scientific testing shows it has little to no effect on the crispiness of pickles - although it does add firmness to fermented pickles when used at a rate of 1.4 teaspoon per pint. Too much alum makes mushy pickles.

Calcium chloride is often used in commercially canned pickles, and is the most recommended pickle "add on" today. It can be found in products like Xtra Crunch, Pickle Crisp, and Pickle Fresh. Calcium chloride works as well as lime at making pickles crunchy, but it does not lower acidity and therefore is a much safer option. It is not suitable for fermented pickles.

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  1. I am looking for some advice. I am planning on converting to no-till gardening methods. In general I am sure I can do fine. My problem is that I have an old leach field on my property that I would like to garden. Nothing seems to grow very well there, not even weeds. I was going to use raised beds, but I am not sure I will need to if I use a deep mulch. I am concerned about deep rooted crops like carrots and rutabagas. Do you think I will need a raised bed for those types of crops?

    1. If the leach field is in current use or if you're unsure if there are pipes buried there, I would use raised beds.