Home Canning: Preparing Pickled and Fermented Foods

Radishes in a jar for canning.

Home canning tastes amazing and one bite of a homemade pickle will make you want to take up the hobby for yourself. While you may be mentally prepared to begin home canning, actually pickling and fermenting vegetables is a precise process. Once you have the right materials and some fresh garden vegetables, you're on your way to starting your own home canning operation.

Fermented or Pickled?

Home canning experts know that there's a difference between fermenting food and pickling foods. These are two different processes in the effort to preserve food. Ironically, both can be done to cucumbers to create pickles. In fact, you can choose to pickle or ferment just about any vegetable you want, so start growing your home garden even bigger and better to start experimenting with both processes.

Through fermentation, pickles and other foods like cabbage are allowed to cure naturally. This process can take up to several weeks. Pickling is a faster method that's also known as quick-curing. Through pickling, your vegetables will be ready to eat in about 48 hours.

In a Pickle

Two small glass bowls with vinegar.

If you plan on pickling your veggies, it's best to begin the process within 24 hours after they've been picked. If you can’t start right away, store your vegetables in the refrigerator immediately after you harvest them and keep them dry and clean.

After vegetables have been thoroughly washed and all blossoms or extra plant matter has been removed, put your vegetables in a jar and fill the jar with a basic brine made from water and vinegar, along with salt and any spices you want to add.

Make sure your vinegar has the right amount of acidity. This is crucial, and if you've had bad luck with pickling in the past it's probably because you didn't have the right vinegar. Check your label, and make sure it has five percent acetic acid. Cider vinegar and white distilled vinegar are common pickling vinegars that have the right amount of acidity. Homemade vinegar won’t work because it doesn’t have the acidity your veggies need. Also, use canning salt rather than regular table salt. If your pickling recipe doesn't call for salt, then don't use it at all.

There should be about a half-inch of space between the rim of the jar and the tops of your veggies. Tap the jar to get rid of air bubbles, and seal. Allow the jars to cool and store them in the refrigerator. You can start eating your pickled veggies right away. They’ll pick up flavor from the brine quickly, so you can enjoy them after about two days.

The Right Way to Ferment

A bunch of pickles floating in a brine.

Fermentation is a longer process than pickling, but some home canners prefer it to quick pickling. Try out both methods and find out which seems to work with your veggies the best. For every five pounds of fresh veggies you're going to ferment, you need a 1-gallon container. Stone crocks are the traditional tool for fermentation, but food-grade plastic and glass containers are equally successful.

Fill the pot with brine and put your veggies inside, making sure all vegetables are completely covered with the brine. Cover the pot and let the fermentation process begin. Fermentation will take one to six weeks, depending on the type of vegetables and the quantity. You can taste your vegetables throughout the fermentation process to find out how the flavors are building.

After the vegetables have successfully fermented and you like the flavor, it can all be packed into jars so you'll have tasty vegetables to enjoy throughout the year.

Commonly Canned Vegetables

Someone cutting carrots for canning.

Home canning is most common with vegetables, but fruits and some seafoods can be canned as well. Asparagus, beets, carrots, okra, peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage are some of the most popular vegetables used in home canning. Always use veggies or fruits that are completely free of rot and brown patches. Don't use anything that's overripe, and make sure your jars are sterilized before you fill them with food.

Because pickling and fermenting foods are a tricky processes, always use a recipe. You run the risk of including foodborne pathogens along with your other ingredients if you don't work from a recipe. To completely destroy bacteria in foods, water used for canning must be heated to 240°F.

Adding the Flavor

Spices in a canning jar.

Add fresh herbs and spices to your brines to give your pickled and fermented foods more flavor. Coriander, dill, sugar, basil—play with flavors and different recipes to find out what you like best. Sugar and salt are common brine ingredients. Play around with your brines, and find a recipe that works well with the vegetables you’re canning. (Using brown sugar will discolor the brine and possibly the vegetables as well, but it will still give the veggies a delicious flavor.) Once you start pickling and fermenting your foods, you'll find that you have an unlimited number of options to create hundreds of different flavor profiles.