Common Causes Of Poor Quality Pickles

If you plan on doing any cucumber pickling this year, here’s a handy troubleshooting info sheet listing common problems and why they happen along with some information I found in an old cookbook. I’ve also included a homemade spice blend recipe at the bottom.

JarToo Shriveled:

  • Shriveling may result from using too strong a vinegar, sugar, or salt solution at the start of the process. In making the very sweet or very sour varieties, it is best to start with a dilute solution and increase gradually to the desired strength.
  • Overcooking or over processing may also cause shriveling.

They Are Hollow:

Hollowness usually results from:

  • Poorly developed cucumbers.
  • Holding cucumbers too long before pickling.
  • Too rapid fermentation.
  • Too strong or too weak a brine during fermentation.

Too Soft or Slippery:

This generally happens from microbial action which causes spoilage. Once a pickle becomes soft it cannot be made firm. Microbial activity may be cause by:

  • Too little salt or acid.
  • Cucumbers not covered with brine during fermentation period.
  • Scum scattered throughout the brine during fermentation period.
  • Insufficient heat treatment.
  • A seal that is not airtight.
  • Moldy garlic or spices.

Blossoms, if not entirely removed from the cucumbers before fermentation, may contain fungi or yeasts responsible for enzymatic softening of pickles.

Too Dark:

Darkness in the finished product may be caused by:

  • Use of ground spices
  • Too much spice
  • Iodized salt
  • Overcooking
  • Minerals in water, especially iron
  • Use of iron utensils

Source: Making Pickles and Relishes At Home, Home and Garden Bulletin No. 92, U.S. Department of Agriculture (1970)

Points On Pickling:
[First Published: September 21, 2007, Moved here for better organization]

Here are some handy tips I found in an old cookbook:

  1. Use firm, good quality vegetables and fruits for pickling.
  2. Some vegetables such as cucumbers require soaking in brine before covering with vinegar. This soaking helps maintain the firmness and color of the vegetables during the pickling process and also reduces bitterness. Cucumbers for gherkins should be placed in brine as soon after picking as possible. Cucumbers for dills should be placed in cold water. Hollow centers may result if cucumbers are held at room temperature for even a few hours.
  3. The proportion of 1 cup fine salt or 1 1/2 cups coarse salt to 2 quarts (10 cups) water makes a good brine. Too weak a brine will cause pickles to become soft, too strong a brine will cause them to shrivel and become tough.
  4. Be sure to use a pickling salt. Free-running salt has a chemical added to keep it from caking and is not recommended for pickling and brining.
  5. Use good quality vinegar. Both cider and blended vinegar have good flavor, but white vinegar gives better color where light colored foods such as onions and cauliflower are used. Never dilute vinegar unless the recipe calls for it.
  6. Use spices with caution. A dark color or bitter flavor may result from using too much spice or from boiling the spice too long with vinegar. Whole spices give better color and flavor than ground spices. Whole spices should be tied loosely in a cheesecloth bag, cooked with vinegar or pickle, then removed.
  7. Pickles should be stored in clean glass jars, sealers, or crocks. If kept in crocks, make sure to cover well with vinegar solution to prevent spoilage. A plate or wooden board cut to fit inside the crock should be placed on top of the pickles and weighted down.
  8. Relishes and sauces should be packed in hot, sterilized jars and completely sealed.

Source: Cooking The Co-op Way Cookbook (1960)

Interested in trying a new recipe or two? You’ll find over a dozen ideas here.

Pickling Spice Blend: Recipe

Combine 2 TBS each:

allspice berries
cardamom seeds
coriander seeds
whole cloves
mustard seeds


2 bay leaves (crumbled)
2 cinnamon sticks (broken)
2 small pieces dried ginger root (chopped)
2 small dried red chilies (crushed) or 1-2 tsp hot pepper flakes.

  • Store in a tightly sealed container until ready to use.

Source: The Complete Book of Year-Round Small-Batch Preserving (Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard)

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    • Bill Tom

    keep away from water, this is Another main reason that spoils the pickle. alwasy use dry spoons or sticks while taking out of jar….

    • dordes

    Good tips.Use sterilised jars.Thank you

    • Half Assed Kitchen

    I’m trying something called Refrigerator Pickles right now, where you layer fresh dill and sliced cucumbers, cover them with a brine of water, vinegar and salt and refrigerate. Will let you know how it goes.

    • Jinny

    I’m using a recipe from a friend called “Crystalized Pickles”.I’m new at this and have followed directions but,after the pickles have sat in brine for 2 weeks, they have a bad smell. Is this normal our should I follow my instincts and toss them?

      • jean

      Jinny, 2 weeks brine is normal, smell might be the normal. you might also be smelling the “scum” which forms naturally. that should be removed daily, but rather than throw out two weeks of pickle work, use your sense of feeling, are the cucumbers still decent feeling and looking? I am sure you know a rotten cucumber, lets hope you don’t have a load of those. also, the container to use when brining cucumbers is glass, a crock, or stainless steel. Good luck, i have sweet chunk pickles in their sugar/vinegar solution now, so my kitchen does smell nice. jean 8-2012 Hope your message was not ages old, no dates on this web site, so WHO knows. Date your words folks!!

    • Mike

    just finished batch of sweet chunk pickles. I opened a jar to test, and found that they are soft. Will they continue to get softer, or will they stay in the current condition? I noticed that they were not very crisp when taken out of the final brine? Advice? I want to do another batch, with better results.

      • Traci

      I use alum or veggie fresh in my pickles to keep them crisp. 1/2 of a tsp. Per quart. Make sure your pickles are very green. If you use pale looking cucumbers they will be soft.

    • Beccatrue

    I swear by ” well water” vs “city treated ” water in my pickles. I get a much crisper, cleaner pickle.

    • Ginger

    Hi, I wanted to know how to store the cucumbers until we harvest enough to make a batch of refrigerator dills? in the frig, in water or ?

      • charlie

      I store in ice coolers with some frozen bottled water. They will stay fresh up to 5 days. Ideal temperature should be between 45 and 50 degrees.

    • Marianne Saman

    I have been making sweet pickles for 30 years and this is the first year, I’ve had so many shrivelled , tough pickles. I had to discard the first batch . The brine is 2 cups pickling salt to 16 cups cold water. I use stainless steel pots to keep them for 5 days. I can no longer find cassia buds and have to use cinnamon and cardamom as a substitute. What am I doing wrong this year???

    • Christi Miller

    I’m making cherry leaf pickles and found the top layer rotted. I removed them and the lower cucumbers are still firm…can I continue to process them or is the entire batch bad? Should I replace the brine if I continue?

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