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Nerdy Science in the Kitchen

How to Make Pickles–3 Rules You Can’t Break



Making homemade pickles couldn’t be easier. A little prep work with pretty basic ingredients can yield very tasty results.

Some of you who are not new to making pickles know that you can end up with some disastrous results when pickling cucumbers for the first time. Pickles can easily turn out too soggy, too sour, or too sweet, or even go bad too soon.

white bowl of pickles surrounded by dill weed
There are three important rules to remember when making your own pickles at home.

We have come up with a step-by-step guide to making perfect pickles and share our three best pickle-making rules to guide you so that your home pickling is a complete success.

These tips can also prevent you from making common mistakes in making homemade pickles. More importantly, they can ensure the crunchiest, tastiest pickle experience that everyone is after.

We also are sharing an old tried-and-true refrigerator pickle recipe that yields pickles that are tangy, refreshing, and crisp and offer a garden-fresh flavor.

Very simple ingredients are all that’s needed in our recipe to make delicious refrigerator pickles.

All you need are: vinegar, salt, fresh dill, garlic, and a few basic seasonings of your choice. To cut the bite of vinegar a bit, we added sugar, but the level of sweetness in your own pickles will be left entirely up to you.

This recipe will introduce you to the quick pickles method, also known as refrigerator pickles.

This is the easiest entry to the world of pickling. It doesn’t involve any boiling or canning at all.

For us, it is also the most affordable and delicious way to preserve all the extra cucumbers our garden provides us every year.

Your pickles will be ready after a short refrigeration–in as little as one hour! The bonus: they keep for several weeks. Let’s get started!

Use Cold Brine if You Want to Make the Perfect Brine for Your Pickles

A cold brine yields pickles with the best flavor, color, and texture. It is the perfect brine for your pickled veggies to retain their crunch throughout the pickling process.

Although boiling your pickles will help flavors meld better, the pickles cannot help but to be at least partially cooked. They become a little soft, and you risk losing some of their crispness.

Some people use a lot of hot water thinking it will prevent bacteria in their pickles, but a pickle brine is acidic enough for a hot wash to be actually unnecessary.

You don’t need to boil the pickles for this recipe. Instead, allow the natural bacteria that exists on the vegetables. These bacteria thrive in salty water to convert the sugars in the veggies to lactic acid. You want this: natural bacteria and lactic acid can keep rot-causing bacteria away.

Anyway, a hot brine requires more work, since you need to boil and then can the pickles. You would also need to keep your pickles in airtight and sterile jars to keep the nasty type of bacteria out of them during storage.

In contrast, cold brining (or refrigerator pickles) is quick and easy–no sterilizing jars or canning equipment required. Just slice the vegetables, cover them with brine, pack them in jars, and tuck them into the fridge. They are ready to eat as soon as the next day.

Pick Fresh if You Want to Make the Crunchiest Pickles

The most important rule in making the crunchiest pickles is to pick the freshest vegetables. If you use big and overgrown veggies for your pickles, no amount of work or creativity will turn them crunchy.

When possible, choose the best varieties of vegetables to pickle. For example, some cucumbers come with a specific description, like “great for making pickles”. These types of cucumbers are usually shorter and firmer than the cucumbers we choose to eat fresh in salads and as snacks.

If you can’t get to work on your veggies immediately, soak them in a bowl of icy water inside the fridge to firm them up for at least 30 minutes before brining them.

If you’re using cucumbers, cut off their blossom ends for crisper pickles. It’s the opposite end from the one that was attached to the plant. It is said to contain enzymes that can cause your pickle to be mushy.

You can also try adding tannins to your pickles, such as oak leaves, grape leaves, or black tea. There is no guarantee that this will help, but it can’t hurt to try. Then again, nothing can magically turn already soft vegetables crispy.

Blend Seasonings and Spices if You Want the Best Flavor for Your Pickles

First of all: distilled white vinegar is the most popular pickling vinegar because it is clear and has a mellow flavor. We highly recommend you use this type of vinegar when pickling cucumbers.

While vinegar, sugar, and salt are all that you need for pickling, adding various herbs and spices can give you an even better flavor for your pickles.

Fresh dill seeds are the main flavoring for dill pickles. People often think that the feathery dill weed is responsible for this, since fresh dill seeds are not something that can be found in every grocery store. If you can’t find them there, dill seeds are available in markets selling organic foods, co-ops with bulk herb counters, and online.

Aside from dill, pickling often involves the blending of about 6-8 additional seasonings and spices. Typically used are mustard seed, allspice, garlic cloves, ginger, coriander seeds, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, and cinnamon sticks.

Herbs can also be used to differentiate between pickle types and give pickles a unique taste. Herbs like basil, mint tarragon, marjoram, and thyme are some examples. Flavorful vegetables like onions and garlic are also often included in a pickle solution.

All of the ingredients together can be a bit overwhelming, so you can pare everything down to even just three essential herbs and spices. A sample of a good mix would be mustard seeds, black peppercorns, and cloves.

If you have these, you can further customize your refrigerator pickles by adding other herbs and spices that you and your family like.

bags of heaped spices and herbs
Choosing the herbs and spices to add to your refrigerator pickles is half the fun.

Choose and Slice the Cucumbers Correctly

Always remember that your pickles will only be as good as the cucumbers you choose. The best ones are picked at the right stage of maturity. They are not under or overly ripe. The freshest and firmest cucumbers tend to produce the best pickles.

Also be sure to use cucumbers that are specifically labeled as pickling cucumbers. The Kirby variety, for one, has a thicker skin that can stand up better to the pickling solution than other thinner-skinned varieties. It remains crunchy, even long after it’s been brined. Furthermore, the skin is less bitter than that of cucumbers of the slicing variety and it has fewer, smaller seeds.

You also need to choose cucumbers that aren’t too big or too small. Choose those that are no more than 2 inches in diameter. Try to get them all in the same size range for the sake of consistency in your pickles.

According to your preferences, you can leave the cucumbers whole, cut them into spears, or slice them into coins.

For spears, slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, then slice the halves into quarters. Finally, slice the quarters into eights of wedge-shaped spears. If you end up with long spears, just slice them through the middle.

For cucumber coins (chips), slice the cucumber into thin rounds of about 1/8 inch in thickness.

How to Make Our Favorite Homemade Dill Pickle Recipe

Ingredients for Refrigerator Pickles

  • 1 medium cucumber or 2 small cucumbers
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons fine kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper (amount according to taste)
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh dill sprigs
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 piece bay leaf


  • Wash and dry the cucumbers. Trim away the blossom end. You can leave the cucumbers whole or cut according to your preference. Set aside.
  • In a bowl, combine the water, white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar), sugar, salt, pepper flakes (optional), and black pepper. Stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved into the liquid. Set aside.
  • Place the cut cucumbers into a wide-mouthed jar. For cucumber spears, trim the ends if they come more than ½ inch below the top of the jar. They must fit snugly in the jar, but not so tightly that they get smashed.
  • Put the dill and garlic on the top of the cucumbers and tuck the bay leaf into one side of the jar.
  • Pour the liquid over the cucumbers until they are fully submerged. Cover the jar and put it inside the refrigerator for at least 1 hour for the pickle rounds or at least 3 hours for the pickle spears before serving.

How Can I Make These Pickles Sweeter?

If you want sweeter pickles, you will have to use more sugar. Note that you can use maple syrup as sugar substitute if you want to.

Just mix the additional sugar (or maple syrup) to the vinegar mixture, but taste the resulting mixture first to make sure it’s exactly the flavor you want before pouring it over the cucumbers. Adjust the sweetness according to your preferences.

Can I Can These Pickles?

Unfortunately, this refrigerator pickle recipe is not designed for canning and, therefore, has not been tested if it is safe to be used in the canning process.

There are so many safe canning recipes available that there is no point in wanting to can pickles made from a recipe designed for refrigeration only.

Other Foods You Can Pickle

When people think of pickles, their minds probably go automatically to cucumbers. However, there are a lot of other foods that can be pickled successfully.

Some of the more popular vegetables to pickle include okra, green beans, carrots, radishes, beets, peppers, onions, tomatillos, turnips, eggplants, asparagus, zucchini, cauliflower florets, fennel bulbs, cabbage, and rainbow chard stems.

Although not as popular as pickled vegetables, fruits can be pickled as well. It may sound a bit strange, but watermelon rinds are pickled, but the juice is used as a condiment. The pickled rinds are not to be eaten. Other fruits that are pickled are pears, figs, lemons, grapes, mangoes, and pineapples.

Would you believe that there are such things as pickled meats? This practice actually began as a means of preserving game meats but soon, other proteins were pickled too.

The most famous pickled meat is corned beef. It is cooked but goes through a pickling process for added flavor. The result is corned beef’s distinctive flavor. Some other meats that are pickled are probably favorites around your house, like kielbasa, bologna, sausage, ham hocks, octopus (wow!), and bacon.


The quick pickle method is your best bet for getting the crunchiest dill pickles, fast.

However, no matter what you do, there’s just no hope for old or over-ripe cucumbers. You’ll just get soggy pickles if you try to use them.

That’s why you have to carefully select the vegetable you want to pickle. Avoid limp or wrinkly ones. You also have to wash the vegetables before pickling and cut away bruises or blemishes. Always remember that the firmest and freshest fruits and vegetables will produce the best pickles.

If not done right, pickling can be unsafe. Following any pickling recipe to the letter is a must. Do not attempt to alter or improvise the brine, as you may not have the correct, safe water-to-vinegar ratio.

If any of these pickling steps are not followed correctly, your pickles may end up becoming a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Our dill pickle recipe has been tried and tested to be not only delicious, but safe as well.

Lastly, storing your pickles in hygienic conditions in the refrigerator play a big part in keeping your delicious refrigerator pickles from going bad too quickly.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to make a cucumber into a pickle?

Refrigerator pickles do not involve a long canning process, sterilization, and hot baths. The process takes just a few minutes. Once they’ve been refrigerated, you can enjoy the tangy cucumbers in one to three hours, depending on how you sliced the cucumbers.

However, it is best to allow the pickled cucumbers to rest in the fridge for at least 24 hours before serving them. The flavor will continue to develop over the next few days. So, if you can wait that long, the best yield will be on the third day.

How do you make pickles step by step?

You will find the full recipe within this article (see above). It tells you how to make cucumber pickles with a room temperature brine and does away with cooking the vinegar brine or immersing the ingredients in a hot water bath. A cool brine can be used with cucumbers, since they readily absorb flavors.

Anyway, these pickles are easy to make in a very short time.

  • Slice cucumbers according to the desired cut. If you have small cucumbers, you can leave them whole.
  • Prepare the brine by whisking together the basic brine of vinegar, water, and preferred seasonings in a small saucepan.
  • Pack the cucumbers tightly into a wide-mouth jar and top them with dill and garlic.
  • Pour the brine until the cucumbers are fully submerged. Close the jar.
  • Refrigerate from 1(for thin, round cuts) to 3 hours (for whole cucumbers or spear cuts). You’re done!

Is it cheaper to make your own pickles?

A jar of store-bought pickles can cost anywhere from around $2 to $5. Homemade pickles in a jar are estimated to cost about $1 to $1.25 to make.

Your savings will add up more if you grow both your own cucumbers and spices. Another way to increase your savings in the long run is by buying the produce in bulk from local farmers. This has the bonus of helping both the farmers and the local economy.

Another easy way you can save money by making your own pickles is by saving scraps from produce that you would otherwise throw away. You will be giving them another lease of life inside a pickle jar.

The stems of broccoli or the purple centers of swiss chard are edible and can be pickled to be side dishes or part of a party platter.

How does a cucumber turn into a pickle?

A cucumber turns into a pickle through a process called, unsurprisingly, pickling.

Water and vinegar are combined and make up the pickle juice, or brine. Sugar is often added to offset the sour taste of the vinegar. Salt is also used for more flavor, and herbs and spices are added as well. Over time, cucumbers turn into pickles.

Pickling ferments the cucumbers with beneficial bacteria and preserves them in the brine so that they will not go bad. When made and handled properly, pickles will last for up to one year.

Do homemade pickles go bad?

Different factors, such as the method of preparation and how the pickles are stored, contribute to the shelf life of homemade pickles.

When the vegetables are immersed in brine water and vinegar inside a tightly sealed jar, the process of fermentation increases good bacteria.

These good bacteria are able to fight off the bad, rot-causing bacteria. If the fermentation is done correctly, the pickles will last longer.

You can prevent your homemade pickles from going bad by storing them in hygienic conditions. Proper refrigeration and careful handling also play significant roles for pickles not going bad quickly.

Additional Resources

Image Credits via Flickr: “Herbs and spices” (Public Domain) by Spicyblackafrica