Pickles are the result of a chemical fermentation process that pits one kind of bacteria against another to achieve a sharp, tangy flavor. While you can pickle all kinds of vegetables, most pickles in the USA are cucumbers.
If you’ve love pickles as much as I do, you may be curious about how long your precious supply will last. Do pickles go bad?
While pickles can last for years in an unopened jar, once you open the jar, the clock will start ticking. The good news is that if you keep them in your fridge under the right conditions, that clock can tick for up to three months.
Let’s dive into the details of pickle preservation.
How Long Do Pickles Last?
The process of pickling turns normal, boring cucumbers (or other vegetables) that go bad in a week into durable dills that can resist harmful bacteria for a year or more. Here are our estimates for the shelf life of these chronically crunchy little wonders.
You can keep:
- Unopened jar of pickles in the pantry for 12-18 months
- Opened pickle jars in the fridge for 1-3 months
If you keep pickles sealed in their original jar, they should stay delicious in your pantry for up to 18 months as long as the temperature is below about 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once you open the jar, put it in the fridge, and it should last for up to three months before you start to see problem signs.
These yummy mummified veggies have been through quite the ordeal to obtain their life-extending superpowers. The ordeal is based around a sterile solution of saltwater, vinegar, and sometimes other spices like garlic and dill. The pickles are submerged in this liquid and left to ferment for weeks or months.
The briny juice gives good bacteria the edge over bad bacteria in the battle for the pickles’ souls. In this case, the good guys are lactic acid bacteria that fight to preserve and ferment the pickles faster than the bad bacteria can rot them.
Like an old-fashioned hotdog eating contest, lactic acid bacteria gobble up the sugars in the cucumbers or other vegetables before the bad bacteria even reads the menu.
If the salt and/or vinegar concentration is just right, lactic acid bacteria quickly convert the sugars into lactic acid, which protects the pickles and gives them that juicy, sour tang.
All this chemical warfare takes place deep in the brine. Pickles that are submerged in acidic brine will stay bacteria-resistant for months or years. If you take them out, they can go bad in under a month.
Do Pickles Need To Be Refrigerated?
The difference between pickles that need refrigeration and pickles that don’t is in the pasteurization.
Once the pickles have been thoroughly fermented, many picklers put their pickle jars into hot water to kill off the good bacteria and stop the fermentation process. Most supermarket pickles have been pasteurized.
As long as you keep them away from light and heat, you can keep pasteurized pickles in their unopened jars at room temperature. Once you break the seal, even pasteurized pickles should be kept in the fridge.
If you store unpasteurized pickles and their live bacteria in the pantry, your pickles will continue to ferment and eventually turn sour. Opened or unopened, unpasteurized pickles should always be kept in the fridge.
Unpasteurized pickles are less widespread and more of a niche product. Their jars are still teeming with live bacteria in the throes of fermentation. Cold temperatures slow down this process, and room temperatures keep it going strong.
Does Pickle Juice Go Bad?
Pickle juice is an acidic solution with a pH balance low enough to stay good for a long time. Good pickle juice should have a pale yellow color and be completely transparent.
After a while, pickle juice, just like the pickles themselves, can become unstable and turn moldy or slimy. This can happen even faster if you introduce contaminants into the juice.
If your pickle liquid is cloudy or you notice mold or slime, the chemicals have probably turned unstable, and you should throw it away.
How To Tell if Pickles Are Bad
Healthy pickles look bright and crisp and give off a tingly, acidic odor. The pickle juice should be a translucent pale amber in color and slightly thicker than water.
It’s perfectly normal to see a bit of white residue sloshing around at the bottom of the jar.
The following signs aren’t perfectly normal and probably point to pickle putrefaction:
- Stinky pickles
- Slimy pickles
- Dull pickles
- Puffy lid
- Bubbly liquid
Pickles always smell a bit sharp, but if you notice a change in odor, they’re probably going off. When pickles go bad, the foul smell is usually accompanied by a coating of slime on the skin. If you pick a pickle up and it leaves slime all over your fingers, the bad bacteria are taking over.
If they begin to lose their bright green and your dill pickles turn into dull pickles, fungi may have gotten into the jar. Fungi will cloud the juice and change its color as well. If you see a color change, you should opt for a location change, from the fridge to the garbage can.
Pickle mold usually looks like either spots or threads. If you haven’t peppered your pickles, flecks of brown or black in the brine or on the pickles themselves are probably the beginnings of a mold farm. Thin threads floating in the juice can mean the same thing.
The lid of your pickle jar should be completely flat. If your lid is bloated, gases are most likely building up inside the jar, which is a sign of a harmful bacterial outbreak.
You can whip up bubbles in the juice if you shake the jar vigorously. If you see bubbles in an unshaken jar, they could be another sign of bad bacteria or other pickle problems.
Soft pickles aren’t always a sign of spoilage. It takes a while for pickles to lose their crunch, but eventually time catches up with us all. Pickles are no exception. If your pickles have gone soft, you can still eat them, but you might not want to.
Can Pickles Make You Sick?
Pasteurized pickles won’t make you sick without warning. If you ignore the above cautionary signs and eat pickles with mold or bad bacterial byproducts, you can get food poisoning. This can include symptoms like fever, nausea, diarrhea, and terrible stomach pain.
We recommend always getting your pickles from a trusted source.
In rare cases, unpasteurized pickles from a farmer’s market or a home canning project can give you botulism. These symptoms may include double vision, drooping eyelids, and difficulty breathing.
How To Store Pickles
Pasteurized pickles in an unopened jar won’t go bad in the pantry for a long time. Unpasteurized pickles need to be kept in the fridge. Opened pickle jars, whether pasteurized or not, always need refrigeration to keep them at peak quality as long as possible.
Here are a few more specifics of pickle storage.
- Don’t store pickles in an opened tin can
- Regularly remove surface scum
- Keep your pickles submerged
- Always use a clean spoon
- Keep temperature changes to a minimum
If your pickles came in a can, move them to a different container once you open the can. Even in the fridge, keeping pickles in a tin can can transform the taste and speed up the spoilage. It’s better to pour the pickles, together with their juice, into an airtight glass jar or plastic container.
Cold temperatures will preserve unpasteurized pickles for longer, but scum may still occasionally collect on the surface of the liquid. If you keep unpasteurized pickles, keep an eye on the juice, and regularly remove any scum.
Whether pasteurized or not, pickles need to stay immersed in their juice.
If you leave them liquid-less, they’ll quickly dry out and go bad. Even if just the tips are sticking out of the brine, bad bacteria can get a finger hold. Always keep your pickles completely submerged.
Don’t use your fingers or dirty utensils to grab pickles from the jar. The best way to ruin your pickles is to introduce them to contaminants from the outside world. Keep them tangy and crunchy for longer by always using a clean spoon or fork.
If you keep your pickles in the highly volatile fridge door, you might be exposing them to too many changes in temperature.
This can upset the balance in the jar’s ecosystem. Put them on one of your fridge’s main shelves instead to keep temperature changes to a minimum.
If you store them properly, opened jars of pickles can stay good for months, and unopened jars can keep for years. We recommend storing them in an airtight glass jar in the fridge, completely submerged in their original brine.
Pickles are hardy little creatures that don’t go off quickly or easily. If you do spot mold, slime, or bubbles in the brine, you can avoid stomach problems or worse by playing it safe and tossing the jar out.