Can Pickles Get Botulism? Yes! Here’s How To Avoid And Detect.

Yes, they can. Here, we share information on how you can avoid botulism in pickles. You will also know how to detect botulism in a jar of pickles.

What is Botulism?

Pickles Botulism In A Jar

Botulism is a fatal bacteria-induced illness affecting the human body. The name of the bacteria which can cause botulism is clostridium botulinum. The bacteria produces a dangerous toxin and if not treated quickly, it can lead to physical weakness, difficulty breathing, dizzy spells and in severe cases, could cause death. There are five kinds of botulism and food-borne botulism is one of them.

Can Pickles Get Botulism?
Can Pickles Get Botulism?

How To Avoid Botulism When Pickling?

When pickling or canning at home, there are certain tips or methods you should follow to avoid pickles botulism. We share the most important things to remember and successful ways of avoiding botulism when pickling.

1. Some food is more prone to botulism than others

Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria which causes the botulism toxin prefers a low-acid environment at room temp. A low-oxygen condition is perfect for botulism to develop. Most vegetables are low-acid vegetables, like root vegetables, tubers, and other vegetables like green beans, onions, garlic, and corn. Therefore, you will need to bring the acidity up by finding out how to make pickling vinegar. However, the botulism bacterium will not thrive in vinegar-pickled vegetables. Vinegar is an acidified brine and when vegetables are dipped in it, the acidity level becomes high enough to resist botulism in pickles.

Food categorized as low-acid have a pH level of 4.6 or more. Non-vegetarian food like fish or meat is low-acid too. Therefore, when you pickle them, you must follow the required precautions too.

Pressure Canning: The surest way to avoid botulism when pickling

You may think that boiling or cooking is enough to destroy botulism bacteria but it isn’t. Clostridium botulinum creates heat and chemical-resistant endospores to survive in unfavorable environments. Boiling the jars in water is only enough to kill the bacteria in their vegetative form.

There are different types of Clostridium botulinum and they have different levels of heat sensitivity. There are two forms of the bacterium C.botulinum – active and dormant. The vegetative form is the active form and can be easily destroyed.

Boiling the food items until the temperature reaches 212°F for about 15 minutes should be enough to kill C. botulinum in its vegetative state. However, the dormant form is the challenging one. The dormant form is the spore form. 

Botulism bacterium spores don’t die at 212°F, but at 240°F. Time, temperature, and altitude play important roles in processing. Higher altitudes need a longer time. Different processes use different times and temperatures, which is crucial for killing spores. But the temperature for all the processes for low-acid foods generally ranges between 240°F to 250°F for a span of 20 to 100 mins. And this is enough to kill the dormant form of Clostridium Botulinum.

We suggest you turn to pressure canning instead of traditional water bath or pressure cooking, if you can. When pressure canning, the internal temperature of the canned food can get as high as 250° F, killing botulism in any form.

Why Use A Pressure Canner?

Low-acid food such as vegetables, fish, poultry, and red meat have a higher probability of getting affected by botulism, if not processed carefully. A pressure canner can damage the botulism-producing spores as it can heat food at 240-250°F or higher. Therefore, when you want to can low-acid food, you should use a pressure canner. 

Let us reiterate that pickles botulism is very much a reality. And the major cause that leads to the growth of the botulism toxin is, incorrect processing. You must pressure-can your food for the correct amount of time to protect it from botulism.

Successful Canning Without A Pressure Canner

Can Pickles Get Botulism? Yes, they can. Learn how to can without a pressure canner.

We understand that most people that pickle at home, might not own a pressure canner. The good news is that proper sterilization is enough to keep your pickles safe from bacteria and you do not have to use high-tech equipment or technical procedures. If you can boil water in a stockpot, you can successfully can your food without a pressure canner. Here’s how to do it;

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1. Prepping The Jars

  • First, ensure that your jars are clean. You have to fill up a pot with water, enough to fully submerge all the jars. Then place the pot over the stove.
  • Before putting the jars in, place a rack at the bottom of the pot and then place the jars face down leaving some gap in between each jar. By doing these you will allow the hot water to get in between and inside the jars.
  • Switch on the stove and let the water to come to a full boil for about 5 minutes. Then switch the flame off and let the jars rest in the hot water until needed.

2. Chopping The Food

  • Start preparing the vegetables (or fruits) that you intend to pickle.
  • Clean the vegetables in running water to wash away even the tiniest speckle of dirt.
  • Trim and slice them as required.

3. Preparing The Brine

  • After your vegetables are ready, it is time to make the brine. The common ingredients for all brine recipes are salt, vinegar, and water.
  • Use 2/3 vinegar to 1/3 water to get the recommended 5% acidity for making pickling vinegar brine. Use about 1 tablespoon of salt for every 1 cup of water.
  • Put all the ingredients in a small cooking utensil and heat it up until it starts to boil for about 3 minutes.
  • Stir the mixture properly ensuring you have dissolved all the salt, leave to cool down completely and your brine is ready.

4. Fill Up The Jars With Chopped Vegetables And Brine

  • You have to fill up the jars with chopped vegetables and brine. First, put the vegetables in and then fill the jars with the brine.
  • Leave a bit of room at the top, about 1/2 an inch from the jar’s mouth. By doing this, you will allow the brine to move around the vegetables and keep them fully submerged. Also, the mixture can expand without causing any damage to the jars.

5. Making The Jars Ready For Canning

  • Proper sealing is crucial for the longevity of your pickles. Sealing keeps the pickles safe from air and bacteria. You have to remove all the air bubbles inside the jars. Use a clean silicone or wooden spoon, or spatula and rub around the corners of the jar to release air pockets. Don’t use any metal utensils as they may graze or create fine lines on the glass.
  • Now close the jars by placing the lids on them. Be very careful and close the lids tightly without using excessive strength.

6. Finishing The Canning Process

  • This is the final step where you vacuum-seal your jars. You have to do this by placing them back into the water and turning the stove on.
  • After the water starts boiling properly, let it boil for another 15 minutes. This helps to ensure the sealing of the lids.
  • Remove the pot from the stove and allow the water to cool a bit. Then remove the jars from the water and allow them to cool completely. When you hear the lids make a popping sound, you know that you have successfully canned and sealed the jars.

Can You Get Botulism From Quick Pickles?

Yes, you can. Some quick pickling recipes out there might tell you that you do not require the traditional water-bath canning process, please do not skip cleaning the jars and sterilizing them. This helps to eliminate even a tiny chance of botulism affecting your pickles.

In quick pickling, you simply cover cooked or raw food in brine and refrigerate them without going through the canning process. The botulism-producing bacteria are not likely to thrive in quick-pickled food bathed in acidic substances and kept in the fridge. As long as your vinegar has at least the recommended 5% acidity, it will not be conducive for bacterial growth. The addition of salt helps too.

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How To Make Botulism-free Quick Pickles

So have we piqued your interest in trying out a quick pickle or refrigerator pickles? The brine must be at least 5% acidity with a 2/3 vinegar to 1/3 water to avoid botulism in quick pickles.

Follow these given steps:

  1. Selecting your pickle, i.e. what you want to pickle. Avoid choosing something you cannot dip in vinegar, for instance, fresh greens. Otherwise, you can pickle most vegetables and some fruits too. We suggest you opt for food like cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and peppers. These are the common choices.
  2. Prepping the pickles. You must carefully clean and cut the vegetables. It is necessary to discard anything that has become limp or moldy. Also, while cutting, consider the time you are ready to wait for the pickle to be ready. For example, bigger pieces of vegetables or whole pieces will take a longer time to prepare. Whereas you will be able to pickle sliced tomatoes and jalapenos within a few hours. 
  3. Prepare the brine. Building up the brine will need 1/3 water and 2/3 parts of vinegar, and the addition of salt. You should ideally put one tablespoon of salt for every cup. The prime reason for adding salt here is not as a flavoring agent but as a preservative. Additionally, it helps to get the desired texture. You can add a little sugar to the brine for retaining the color of the vegetables and balancing the flavors.
  4. Pack the vegetables carefully. Make sure the jars are completely sterilized and clean before packing in the veggies.
  5. Curing the Pickles. You do not have to wait for a very long time with quick pickles. Instead of a few weeks, letting it cure for one or two hours is enough. It will not be sour but will taste more like fresh pickle marinade. For best results, let it rest for one night. And if you let it cure for two days, you will get a better texture and flavor.

Extra Quick Pickle Tips

  1. Blanching Vegetables A smart step to take while pickling thick vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, carrots, or green beans is to blanch them. This means you have to boil them for a small instance of time, say about thirty seconds to a minute. Then you can use cold water to wash the veggies or dip them in ice-cold water to preserve their fresh green color.
  2. Maintain Your Brine At 5% Acidity Quick pickling gives you the freedom to go for other kinds of vinegar but be sure that they are at 5% acidity. You can either opt for cider, distilled white, or wine vinegar. You can even try using rice wine vinegar for a different flavor but it has less acidity. So it needs to be combined with another vinegar to increase its acidity level.
  3. Use Herbs and Spices In quick pickles, you do not have to keep the brine clear, so feel free to add your desired herbs and spices. Find out some of the best herbs and spices to use for pickling. Just to name a few, these can be turmeric powder, whole cumin seeds, cloves, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dry thyme, and dill leaves. You can grind the spices too as it is better to use whole spices than the powdered variety.
  4. Consider To Grill Your Vegetables Use your pot to heat the brine and dissolve the sugar. Remember to stir the brine occasionally. When you are using pre-cooked or blanched vegetables, it is better to grill the vegetables to prevent them from getting too soft. And then use an already-cooled brine. This will prevent the vegetables from getting further cooked. 
  5. Keep Veggies Below The Brine When you are pouring the brine, pour enough to almost drown the vegetables completely. Put the lids on and keep them in the fridge.
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Quick Pickles Using Glass Jar Vs Plastic Container

Pickles in Plastic Containers

Quick pickles last for weeks and even months, as long as they are in the fridge. But you must regularly keep an eye out for molds.

Since you can skip canning while making quick pickles, you can make them in any kitchen bowl, mason jar, or even a plastic container. But this reduces its shelf life as compared to pressure canning. We prefer to never use a plastic container for canning.

The best practice to avoid pickles botulism is to store your pickles inside the refrigerator and finish eating it within a few weeks. 

Can You Get Botulism From Store-bought Pickles?

Yes, but it is extremely rare. You can get botulism from store-bought pickles if they were homemade and not pickled or canned properly. One such case happened in Washington.

If the pickles have a high pH level, Clostridium Botulinum can grow in them. Initially, these pickles may not necessarily look or smell bad. So if you end up using such affected pickles, you might end up suffering from severe food poisoning.

Can You Spot Botulism In A Jar Of Commercially Packed Pickles?

If you are worried about getting botulism from store-bought pickles, you must carefully inspect the container before buying it. These are the irregularities you must look out for:

  • The can or jar looks abnormal, damaged, or cracked.
  • The container is swollen or bulging. 
  • The food inside looks discolored, foamy, or moldy.
  • The liquid or fluid preserving the food in the jar looks watery or thin.
  • The container has a broken or weak seal.
  • There are air bubbles inside the jar.
  • The label proves that it has expired.

Can You Spot Botulism In A Jar Of Homemade Pickles?

Yes, you can by looking at some signs. However, depending on how severely the jar has been contaminated, not all foodborne botulism can be spotted with the naked eye. These tell-tale signs usually assist the spoilage of pickles;

  • The liquid has a milky or cloudy appearance.
  • It smells bad.
  • The presence of bubbles in the jar.
  • A bulging lid.
  • Damaged or cracked jar.
  • When you are opening it for the first time and you hear a hissing sound.
  • The jar is leaking.
  • When you open the jar, foam or liquid comes out. 

The above signs do not necessarily mean that the pickle jar has been contaminated with botulism, but they can also be affected by other harmful bacteria. If any one of these signs show up, it can mean that the jar of pickles may be unfit for consumption. When in doubt, chuck it out!

Disposing Of Contaminated Pickles Safely

Now that you are aware of possible signs of pickles botulism, you should also know it is crucial to dispose of the contaminated pickles safely. The botulinum toxins are so dangerous that they can enter your body through your skin. Don’t let children or pets near contaminated food. Follow these procedures for safe disposal:

  • Put on a pair of gloves and wear a mask. Use latex or rubber gloves and be careful not to spill or splash the contaminated food. You must handle the container with extra care.
  • Place the contaminated jar in a disposable bag and seal it. Double-bag it, which means wrapping the sealed bag with another disposable bag and then taping it for extra safety.
  • Ensure that animals or other people cannot reach it by dumping it in the bin for non-recyclable trash.
  • Never try pouring the contaminated food down the sink, toilet, or garbage disposal. 
  • If there has been any accidental spillage or leakage while disposal, prepare a bleach solution of 2 cups of water and ¼ cup of bleach. Use this bleach solution to completely cover the surface affected by the spillage. Put a layer of paper towels or a washcloth on it and leave it for about fifteen minutes. Then wipe and discard properly. 
  • After you are done, use soap and wash your hands under running water for two minutes. 
Photo of author

Eve MayHew

Eve Mayhew is a stay-at-home Mum, graphic designer and wife who takes more of a relaxed and practical approach to her lifestyle. She prefers to live a more stress-free life and enjoys food and drink in moderation by counting her blessings rather than counting the calories or feeling guilty over the odd soft drink or fast food fix every now and then. (Contact Author)