Have you ever bought a jar of pickles, put it inside the cupboard, and completely forgotten about them? Or spent hours making your very own batch of homemade pickles, only to get to the end, not knowing how to store them?
The worst is when you see pickles in the fridge at your local grocery store. Have we done it wrong all these years? Stored pickled products at room temperature when in actuality, they are better off at cooler temperatures?
Do pickles need to be refrigerated? We always recommend storing opened products in the fridge to slow down bacterial growth, but because of the high acid levels and airtight jars, unopened pickles will keep at room temperature for years.
In today’s absolutely stuffed article, we will be looking at all things pickle and more specifically, where and how it should be stored.
We will discuss the many different types of pickles you can find and how each should be stored, how the storage methods affect their shelf life, and how they will change over time.
What Are Pickles?
There are many different types of pickles you can find on the market. And no, we don’t only mean different ingredients being the pickles themselves, but also different acid bases used and even different methods.
You can get commercially produced and smaller, more homemade batches. Regardless of which you choose, they all basically come down to the same basic steps for preparation.
Pickling food is a way to help preserve it and ultimately extend its shelf life. This is also a method that can be used to add acidity to ingredients and an overall dish, as well as many other typically savory and umami flavors.
While pickling can also refer to a fermentation-based preserving process, it most commonly refers to the brining method used (liquid-based techniques).
Pickled cucumber is the most common type of pickled product and can be found around the world. In other countries like South Africa, Australia, Britain, and Ireland, these are referred to as gherkins.
A pickling base or brine always contains an acid which is usually some type of vinegar. Alongside the acid, many other ingredients can be added to create a unique flavor profile.
These ingredients can be anything from sweeteners, spices, fresh or dried herbs, and even dried fruits (like lemon or orange peel).
In terms of foods that can be pickled, they can be literally anything. The most common ingredients to pickle are cucumbers, green olives, and onions, however many other vegetables and even fruits are being pickled today.
How Pickles Are Made
The most important thing, even before discussing methods, is the pickling liquid used.
Obviously, it has to be flavorful and pair well with the accompanying ingredients and the main ingredient being pickled, but more than that, it has to have a pH lower than 4.6.
Vinegar is the most common type of acid used to make pickling liquid bases because of its extreme acidity. Sometimes lemon juice (or another type of acidic citrus juice) is used, but most often added to the vinegar.
Any type of vinegar can be used and playing around with flavors is a great option.
Sometimes an ingredient already has a ton of moisture and then only salt has to be added, in which case you are making a pickling brine. This produces more salty foods than acidic ones, but the concept stays the same.
There are four different types of pickling methods used; quick-pickling, salt-brined, vinegar-brined, and fermented.
Quick pickles are usually made at home and in smaller quantities. They are also sometimes referred to as fresh pickles.
The fresh cucumber is prepared and placed into a heat-proof jar. A hot pickling liquid is poured over the ingredients.
Sometimes, the ingredients can be heated with the pickling liquid, but this tends to cook them first, which causes them to lose their crispness.
This is the method we briefly touched upon where some ingredients already have an extremely high moisture content. In those cases, only salt has to be added. The salt extracts the moisture from the ingredient and creates a pickling base.
This also allows the pickling liquid (which can be flavored) to penetrate the fruit or vegetables’ cells and better incorporate those flavors.
The ingredients are allowed to sit in the salty liquid for a couple of hours before being rinsed and placed into a pickling jar. Only then is a vinegar-based pickling liquid added, the jar sealed and stored.
This method has a bit more to it than quick-pickles.
For this method, the excess moisture in food is slowly drawn out by soaking the ingredient in a vinegar solution or salt-water brine, then draining it, then soaking it again, then draining, and so on.
This helps you pack as much flavor into the vegetables or fruits as possible and also gives them a crunchy texture. But, as we have said, it comes at a price -time. Traditional recipes can take anywhere between 9-12 days!
When foods are fermented with salt, the salt helps draw moisture out of the ingredient, after which microbes start multiplying because of the sugars in the liquid.
They form lactic acid, which is what lowers the pH of the mixture and ultimately pickles it. Fermentation differs mainly in the method, but also in the flavor that is produced.
Because the mixture is left to stand, microbes produce the acid and along with it, natural yeasty flavors. Sauerkraut is a fantastic example of a fermentation-pickled product.
Should Pickles Be Refrigerated?
Obviously, when you buy pickles from the store or your local market, you don’t find them in the fridge, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be stored inside the fridge.
For closed pickle jars, the best way to determine where they should be stored is by looking at where you got them. If you took them from the fridge in the shop, you definitely need to store them in the fridge at home.
The packaging will also usually give you a good indication of the correct storage method for that specific product. We would also recommend storing pickled meats inside the fridge – just for safety.
Most pickles, however, can be stored at room temperature without any problems.
The real question comes in after the jar has been opened; where should you store the pickle then? In our opinion, store it inside the fridge.
You don’t have to, but opened products always run the risk of deteriorating faster at room temperature than in a fridge.
What About Fermented Pickles?
Fermented pickles are also considered to be unpasteurized pickles. You will usually find these in the fridge section in a store.
This is because there are still a ton of active bacteria inside the jar, constantly developing flavor. The cold temperatures of the fridge help slow down this process.
Always store fermented pickles in a fridge regardless of it having been opened or still closed. When stored at room temperature, they can potentially make your ingredients very sour.
What About Homemade Pickles?
The same rules apply to homemade pickles. Unopened, they can be stored at room temperature in a cool and dark area (like a food cupboard or pantry), but once opened, we would store it in a fridge.
The fridge also helps make your pickles nice and cold, adding an extra refreshing and even crisp flavor and texture.
Shelf Life Of Pickles – Refrigerated Vs. Unrefrigerated
Because pickling already helps preserve the ingredients being pickled, the shelf life is naturally very long.
When storing pickled products at room temperature, specifically pasteurized pickled products, they can last for anywhere between 1-2 years after the expiration date!
Fermented pickled products shouldn’t be kept at room temperature, but if they did, they will still be able to last pretty long. The biggest risk is the jar not exploding if it becomes too hot in a certain area.
When storing pasteurized or unpasteurized pickles in the fridge, the shelf life is pretty much the same time compared to room temperature storage. Even once opened, as long as you keep the pickles in an airtight container, they will last a long time.
The biggest problem with the extended shelf life is that the texture will eventually change, not necessarily in a bad way.
Some ingredients cannot be stored for that long and either start becoming mushy or completely hard, while others develop an amazingly crisp texture.
What About Quick Pickles?
Quick pickles unfortunately don’t have as long a shelf life compared to brine-pickled, vinegar-pickled, or fermented-pickled products.
The mixture usually consists of vinegar, salt, and sugar. They have to be stored in the fridge if you want to extend their shelf life, but they will probably only be nice and crisp for a month or two.
You should preferably only use this method when making smaller quantities of pickles or if you are planning on using them quickly.
Have Your Pickles Gone Bad?
Despite having this extremely long shelf life and many people even believing you can eat them forever, pickles can go bad and have drastic effects on your health.
And when you don’t have the expiration date to work off of, how do you know when they have gone bad? Luckily, we have assembled a checklist for you to use.
If your pickled product has even one of these signs, especially if you know it’s been sitting for a while, throw it out – never risk it!
The first and most obvious sign is a change in the color of your pickles. This is also why it is important to use glass jars; to see the contents and how it is developing.
When the color changes of any food item, it means that chemically and microscopically something has changed.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a sign that the pickles have gone bad, but it is a sign they have had a substantial amount of time to sit and change, seeing as pickling liquids also help preserve color.
Alongside color changes, you can also look at physical changes in the product. Specifically, mold growth.
This is extremely common in fermented pickles where the bacteria took over to such an extent that bad (harmful) bacteria have been allowed to thrive.
If there are any signs of mold, chunkiness, or fizziness, then your pickle is better off in the trash.
3. Bulging Lid
Another tell-tale sign that pickles have gone bad is a bulging lid. This means that there are gasses trapped inside.
These gasses are caused and created by living organisms, aka, bacteria. So, even if you cannot see mold, if your lid bugles, they are there!
The last sign you can go off of is the smell. If the pickle smells strange in any way, better not eat it.
Can You Freeze Pickles?
This is such a debated question and many people get very passionate about freezing pickles. We have a whole article explaining if you can freeze pickles, but here’s here are our two cents: why would you want to?
Pickles are already a type of preserved food item and we will guarantee that your freezer isn’t necessarily going to make them last longer than they would’ve at room temperature or inside a fridge – unless of course, you’re stocking up for very long-term end-of-the-world use.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you. What a freezer will do to your pickles is change their consistency.
Because pickles have absorbed so much of the pickling liquid, this liquid will freeze crystalize. Once they are thawed, the ice crystals will melt and seep out of the ingredient.
Now some foods still have fibers and protein bonds that hold them together, but fruits and vegetables don’t. You will be left with a completely soggy and mushy item that lacks flavor as well.
If you want to use frozen pickled products, use them while still frozen to add texture and flavor to refreshing summer salads, or inside dishes that will be cooked, like casseroles or curries.
Why Are The Pickles Mushy?
Mushy pickles are often the result of yeast fermentation. This basically means that they have been spoiled from bacteria.
This can be because the fermented pickle has sat at room temperature for far too long, or because the pH of your vinegar pickle is too high (remember, it needs to be below 4.6).
It can also be because the pickles have been cooked for too long before being jarred or canned.
Does Boiling Your Vinegar Make The Pickles Last Longer?
Boiling your pickling liquid has nothing to do with the shelf life of your pickles, but rather flavor and texture.
By heating it, you are causing the flavors to blend together better and become one, not many different separate parts.
Do Pickles Expire Even If They Stay Packaged?
They will still eventually expire, despite still being sealed and closed (and stored at the correct temperatures and conditions). You are still working with food and living organisms that can deteriorate, no matter what you do to prevent it.
What Happens If I Eat Expired Pickles?
Two words my friends – food poisoning. Yes, while there are mild forms of food poisoning, the danger lies in that you cannot detect the more harmful bacterial strains.
In extreme cases, you can get high fevers, cramps, start vomiting, and have diarrhea – nothing good ever comes from eating expired food. If you are ever questioning an item, throw it out.