Is sugar essential to the pickling process?
August 17, 2020 2:25 AM   Subscribe

I want to make a small batch of cucumber pickles like these, from 1-2 sliced larger cukes at maximum. All the recipes I've seen call for sugar - is this to feed some element of the pickling process, or merely for flavour?

For context, my dream pickles are very salty & very crunchy (basically like the UK Subway pickles). My nightmare pickles are the soft sweet kind with many aromatics in the mix.

Because of the extent to which I dislike sweet pickles, I'm tempted to omit sugar from the brine recipe, but before I do that I wanted to check that the sugar isn't doing a necessary job in the mix (like the small amount of sugar that goes into a bread mix to feed the yeast).

If sugar is key to the pickling process, how little can I get away with? Thanks!
posted by terretu to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
While sugar does have some preservation properties, it's really just for flavour when you also have vinegar and salt (much better preservatives). So feel free to leave it out. From experience, you might want just a little sugar in there to take the edge off the sourness of the vinegar.

Your concern about sugar being needed for a necessary job would apply more to a fermented product, which isn't what you're making.
posted by pipeski at 4:06 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

From what I understand, sugar can help preserve the color and improve the texture of the pickles, but it's not strictly necessary from a food safety point of view.
posted by neushoorn at 4:10 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I find that a tiny, tiny bit of sugar enhances pickles a bit. But 2 tablespoons in 1.5 cups of vinegar is going to give you a very sweet pickle. I would say, omit the sugar for your first batch. You can add 1/8 teaspoon at a time if you decide that you'd like to.
posted by bilabial at 6:53 AM on August 17, 2020

The sugar is by no means necessary for refrigerator pickles. The nice thing about refrigerator pickles is that there are practically no rules; whatever tastes good is good! I don’t even measure anything when I make refrigerator pickles.

That said, my ideal dill pickle spears would have no sugar whatsoever, yet I do prefer to add a little sugar when I make refrigerator pickles (usually as thin slices). I can’t explain this. So do it one way this time and another way next time—none, some, or all of the sugar—and see what you like. You will not end up with a bad batch by experimenting, only good and better ones.

You only asked about refrigerator pickles, but if you decide to move on to water-bath canning, you will be constrained by the limited number of safe, tested recipes available. Every USA-based agricultural extension service I have seen publishes only one dill pickle recipe, and it is always a version of the quick dill pickle recipe on this page, which is basically Grandma’s Dill Pickles from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It’s fine, but it has some sugar. In fact, I am not aware of any fundamentally different (i.e. no sugar) fresh-pack dill recipe from a reputable source, meaning a canning-supplies producer or agricultural extension. But, if you buy the mentioned Ball book, there is also a Deli Dills recipe, which allows you to safely can fermented dill pickles made without sugar. That will probably be your preferred method if you decide to start making larger batches and need them to be shelf-stable.
posted by musicinmybrain at 7:16 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

To be clear; these are refrigerator pickles that are pickled in vinegar, not fermented pickles.

Absolutely no reason to put any sugar in this recipe. Just leave it out. Most Americans seem to like sweet pickles (see: bread & butter). But that's just a matter of taste. The sugar is not serving any useful preservative process. And since it's a vinegar pickle it's certainly not trying to feed a fermentation (which is unnecessary for fermented cucumbers anyway).

It's very hard to screw up refrigerator vinegar pickles. Feel free to experiment.
posted by Nelson at 7:25 AM on August 17, 2020

I've been making dill and fermented pickles with zero sugar. In canned pickles salt, acidity and heat are what control bacterial growth. In fermented pickles all you really need is an appropriate salt brine.
posted by Ferreous at 7:26 AM on August 17, 2020

Thanks everyone! My temptation is to do as bilabial suggests and make the first batch without any sugar, see how we like them, and then ratchet it up in small amounts for future batches if the sugarless pickles are indeed missing that certain something.
posted by terretu at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

We made the pickles using the brine recipe linked in the question, omitting the sugar and the red pepper flakes and increasing the dill, and they are god-tier. More delicious than the most delicious commercial pickles I've ever eaten. We just had them on burgers and they were so good.

Next time I'm inclined to reduce the salt and vinegar levels in the brine very very slightly but otherwise I'm extremely happy with how these turned out.
posted by terretu at 11:35 AM on September 4, 2020

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