Pickling is a great way to preserve all of your favorite summer vegetables. But which vinegar is best for pickling? According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), “white distilled and cider vinegars of 5 percent acidity (50 grain) are recommended.” Vinegar plays a vital role in maintaining the proper level of acidity needed for safe preservation. It’s important you don’t alter the amount of vinegar used in your recipe, and don’t use anything with less than 5 percent acetic acid to avoid botulism. As long as you’re following these guidelines, the type of vinegar you use is a personal preference.
When you think of pickling, cucumbers are probably the first thing that come to mind. But you can pickle all sorts of fruits and vegetables: asparagus, beets, carrots, cherries, cranberries, peaches, peppers, and radish are just a few.
There are many different types of vinegar available on the market. We’ll explore which type of vinegar is best to use when pickling vegetables, as well as how different types of vinegar affect the taste and texture of your finished product.
What exactly is pickling vinegar?
The term “pickling vinegar” is loosely used and causes plenty of confusion for home canners.
In some circles, pickling vinegar refers to any vinegar with added salt and other spices and seasonings. You can search for pickling vinegar recipes online and find a smorgasbord of varieties. Most pickling recipes contain some variation of bay leaves, black pepper, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, dill, garlic, mustard seed, and red pepper.
Many people make their own pickling vinegar. Apparently you can buy some premade pickling vinegar with added spices in some places, but I’ve never seen any in my neck-of-the-woods here in Canada.
In other circles, pickling vinegar is considered a stronger type of vinegar than “regular” vinegar. Where I live, you can find Allen’s Pickling Vinegar which contains 7 percent acetic acid.
One thing that’s not up for debate: as long as you ensure the label states at least 5 percent acetic acid, you can use whatever food-grade vinegar you like.
Tip: According to Pennsylvania State University, an acceptable range of acidity is between 5–7 percent for safe home pickling.
Which vinegar is best for pickling? It’s really up to you…
The two most commonly used and recommended types of vinegar for pickling are white distilled vinegar and apple cider vinegar. The type of vinegar you use will affect your finished product’s flavor profile. There’s really no such thing as a “best” vinegar as it largely depends on a few factors:
- Your personal taste preferences;
- Budget (white vinegar is the most budget-friendly); and,
- The types of food you’re planning on pickling.
So long as you check the label to ensure at least 5 percent acetic acid, feel free to try a few different varieties when pickling to see what you like best. Use one type, or mix-and-match a few (although for best results, you may want to stick with the type of vinegar used in your recipe!).
Here are a few common varieties of vinegar:
Types of vinegars NOT to use
Please don’t use the following types of vinegars when pickling…
Homemade vinegar: Not recommended! While you may have toiled away on your delicious batch of homemade vinegar, save this stuff for cooking or salads. It’s really difficult to test the acidity of homemade vinegar, which is why commercial vinegars are the best option.
Cleaning vinegar: Not recommended! Cleaning vinegar is meant for cleaning around the house and is not food-grade quality.
Industrial vinegar: Not recommended! Used for a variety of industrial or heavy-duty cleaning purposes, industrial vinegars are most definitely not suitable for pickling purposes. The acetic acid content can be between 20–30 percent.
Types of pickling
There are a few different ways to make pickles:
- Refrigerator pickles: Made in just a day these are the quickest and easiest type of pickles! Cucumbers are sliced and raw-packed (a hot brine solution is poured over raw cukes). As the name suggests, these tasty treats need to be kept in the fridge.
- Quick pickles: Made just like refrigerator pickles, quick pickles have the added step of processing (typically in a water bath canner). This ensures the pickles are shelf stable for storage at room temperature.
- Fermented pickles: This method is the most time-intensive but produces the most flavor. The cucumbers are soaked in a brine solution with salt and spices which is then left to ferment for several weeks.
The preserving power of vinegar
In order to safely pickle your favorite fruits or vegetables, you need to use the right amount of acid, sugar, and spices. To ensure a longer shelf life and to prevent botulinum toxins from growing, it’s vital to follow a reputable recipe.
Never alter the amount of vinegar used in a recipe. Some recipes call for the use of added water, while others require undiluted vinegar.
Botulinum bacteria grow more easily in a low-acid environment. Using the proper vinegar in the recommended amount increases acidity. Most pickled foods have a pH of around 4.6 or lower.
Vinegar will create a pickling liquid that helps preserve your vegetables by killing off bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and other harmful pathogens.
How long do refrigerator pickles last?
Most refrigerator pickles are best consumed within 2 to 4 weeks. The longer you keep them, the soggier they’ll get, so it’s best to enjoy them sooner!
Do you have to heat vinegar for pickling?
Most pickling recipes call for ingredients for brine (which includes vinegar, sugar, salt, and other spices) to be combined and heated to boiling. The hot brine is then poured over the jar’s contents. Heating the brine solution helps in several ways:
- To thoroughly mix and dissolve the sugar and other spices;
- To help unlock the flavors; and,
- To get a pickle-y texture.
Can you reuse leftover pickling juice?
If you have leftover unused brine that hasn’t touched any food, it’s safe to reuse. Just be sure to use this right away and use according to your recipe’s instructions.
Don’t reuse any pickling brine that has been cooked with other foods. If you have leftover pickle juice and you want to make a new batch of homemade pickles, don’t do it! The brine’s composition will have altered over time when in contact with food; the proper level of acidity may not be achieved for safe food preservation.
Instead, try using leftover pickle juice in cooking: add it to egg salads, or salad dressings!