The 50 / 50 ratio guideline for pickling applies to fresh-pack pickles meant for shelf-stable storage. It means that the brine should be no more than 50% water, with the other 50 (or higher) percent being vinegar (5% or higher in strength.)
The rule also applies to pickled products such as relishes and chutneys, etc.
Note: This is one half of the safety equation. The second half is that the sealed, filled jar must also be heat processed.
When the rule does not apply
The guideline does not apply to:
- lab-tested recipes guaranteed to be safe with a lower acidity;
- refrigerated pickles;
- brined or fermented pickles.
Should you see a pickling recipe using less vinegar than water in the brine, check to see if the recipe is a modern one from a reputable source — modern meaning roughly from the 1990s onwards, and reputable meaning someone qualified as a home food preservation expert (not just a chef, cookbook writer or blogger.)
Note: some pickling package mixes such as those from Mrs Wages, etc, will often direct you to less use water than vinegar with the mix. But, you will usually see the ingredients of such packages listing something such as citric acid, which is a very strong acid. That would be where the seemingly “missing” acidity is coming from.
How is this guideline helpful
This guideline can be a helpful tool in evaluating untested personal pickling recipes.
The experts really prefer, urge, and recommend that you use up-to-date tested recipes from reputable sources, as stated above.
If, however, someone is bound and determined to use one of “grandma’s old recipes” despite all the cautions, this guideline can act as a “harm reduction” tool.
Why are so many old recipes a problem
So many old recipes are a problem because:
- The vinegar people used to use was often far stronger, 10 % or higher. So less vinegar would be needed than what is needed now since the industry has largely standardized on a lower 5 %. So 1 cup of vinegar and 2 cups of water might have been okay, if your vinegar was super strong;
- However, the vinegar strength wasn’t standardized at all; it could have been weaker than 5%. And some people used homemade, of unknown strength;
- Consequently, it was hit and miss quality, and, hit and miss safety, too. People used to get Dehli-belly from home preserves back in great-gramma’s day — thus the still-lingering dread of home preserves around the Thanksgiving table in some families — but the infrastructure to document the exact reasons and track incidences was just not there as it is now;
- Now that the tracking infrastructure is in place, documented cases are piling up of food poisoning from people trying to use such old recipes.
What professional sources advise
Washington State says,
Fresh-pack or quick pickle recipes are considered safe if the ratio of vinegar to water or other liquid is at least 1:1. The proportion of vinegar can be higher, and in some recipes vinegar makes up all the covering liquid”.1
Fresh or quick-pack pickle recipes should have at least as much vinegar as water.”2
North Carolina Cooperative Extension says,
Vinegar must be at least 5 percent acetic [acid] so that low acid vegetables such as cucumbers are properly acidified. Never dilute the amount of vinegar stated in a recipe. For every cup of water, add 1 cup of vinegar. The acid must be uniform throughout the vegetable to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria. Use white vinegar to pickle light-colored fruits and vegetables. Never use homemade vinegar—there is no way to know its true acidity. ”3
What about stronger pickling vinegars
In Canada, and the UK, to name just two countries, stronger vinegars, labelled pickling vinegars, are still commonly available in stores. These have strengths of 6%, 7% and higher.
See the separate discussion dedicated to pickling vinegars, but the long and the short of it is that the only safety recommendations we have available that we currently know we can trust are based on a minimum 5% strength, so just use the same amount of 6 or 7% vinegar as the recipe calls for of the 5%.
What about the role of salt and sugar
Doesn’t putting enough salt or sugar into your pickles make up for lower quantities of vinegar?
In home canning, aside from a very small handful of recipes, salt and sugar are not safety preservatives, unless you essentially fill the jar with nothing but salt and mummify your pickling cucumber into a mini version of Lot’s wife.
For the type of high-acid products being discussed here — pickles, relishes, chutneys, etc — your safety comes from the proper acidity and from subsequent heat processing of the filled jar.
Pickles too tart
Some people say that they find the taste too tart when the brine is 50% or more vinegar. The suggested solution is to add a bit more sweetener (it’s safe to do so: it’s just a dry seasoning in these recipes) to help mask the tartness.
The University of Minnesota Extension says, “If the flavor seems too tart, add a little sugar.”4
Clemson Cooperative Extension. Say “No” to Old Pickle Recipes. (link valid as of fall 2017)
Washington State University Food Safety Advisor Handbook. Preparation and Canning of Pickled Foods. Ingredients / Vinegar. Updated March 2015. ↩
Pickling Vegetables. A Pacific Northwest Extension Publication Oregon State University • Washington State University • University of Idaho PNW 355 . August 2015. Page 9. Accessed September 2015 at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fch/sites/default/files/documents/pnw_355_picklingvegetables.pdf ↩
Judy Henderson and Carrie Thompson. Making Pickles in North Carolina. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. FCSW-497-06. Accessed September 2017 at https://fbns.ncsu.edu/extension_program/documents/foodsafety_making_pickles_in_NC.pdf ↩
Herman, Marilyn. Vinegar for Pickling. University of Minnesota Extension. Accessed Sept 2017 at https://www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/preserving/pickling/vinegar-for-pickling/ ↩