The average American household buys a jar of pickles every 53 days.
Although you may go through a jar of pickles before it starts noticeably going bad, you should still always refrigerate an opened jar of pickles.
Contrary to popular belief, pickles can go bad. An unopened jar can last a few years if stored in a cool, dark place.
Do Pickles Need to be Refrigerated?
Although pickles last longer than many other foods, they still need to be refrigerated once the jar or container is opened. If they are not, then dangerous bacteria, yeasts or molds grow. Spoiled jars of pickles smell bad, turn a different color, and have bubbles or foam on the top of the pickle liquid.
Pickling and Fermenting
Before there was refrigeration, there were two main ways to preserve cucumbers, cabbage, or even foods like eggs.
One method was soaking the food in a liquid-like vinegar, which is the main method of how the pickles on your store shelves are made, and which is known as pickling.
The second method was fermentation. Fermentation requires bacteria, and plenty of salt, to preserve food.
Both methods of making pickles have their positives and negatives, but one thing is clear – they both require that any opened jar has to be refrigerated to keep the pickles from spoiling soon.
According to the University of Minnesota, fermented cucumbers can be kept in the refrigerator for nine months.
Pickled pickles, or those made through the pickling process as opposed to fermentation, last for up to two years beyond their expiration date, provided they are refrigerated.
Why Food Can Last Beyond Its Expiration Date
If a jar of pickles can last for so long after the expiration date, then why is the expiration date so inaccurate?
They are made to be absolutely sure when the food is still okay. This is done to protect the food companies and grocery stores from lawsuits.
A 2013 study done by the Harvard Law School found that most “sell by” labels show that the food was still good long after the date passed.
There are no federal laws that state how a pickle company can determine an expiration date.
The companies basically make up a date themselves.
The key to the Harvard study is that food lasted well beyond the expiration date, as long as the food was properly stored.
Keeping an opened jar of pickles out of the fridge for a couple of days in summer is likely to produce unsafe pickles, even if the jar is put back into the fridge.
Suppose you always kept your opened jar of pickles in the fridge and the power went out for a couple of days during summer.
It is possible that the pickles may be good, provided the fridge wasn’t opened much during the power outage.
However, you should inspect the pickles before eating them. Look at them, the brine in the jar, and give them a good smell.
How to Tell if a Jar of Pickles Has Gone Bad
Even if your jar of pickles is nowhere near the expiration date, the pickles may still not be safe to eat. Here are ways to tell if the pickles have gone off:
- The pickles have turned brown, a much darker shade of green, or are otherwise discolored. This discoloration could be on some parts or all over the pickles.
- The pickles have gone fuzzy. This is mold and can get you very sick.
- The pickles have gone very soft, either in patches or the whole pickle.
- You open the jar and a bad smell practically hits you in the face. Any pickle that doesn’t smell like – well, like pickles – should be thrown out.
- Bubbles or foam appear on the surface of the pickle’s brine.
- The brine changes from being oily to becoming thin and watery.
- There is white film anywhere inside of the pickle jar.
- The top of an unopened pickle jar has a noticeable bulge in it. This is due to gases made from bacteria, yeast or other undesirable microorganisms.
- The jar has any sort of a crack — even if the crack has not gone all of the way through to the other side and nothing is leaking.
Do Not Use Very Old Recipes for Making Pickles
The process of making pickled cucumbers may have been around for 4,000 years, but those old recipes did not always make pickles safe for eating.
Even old family recipes, unless they’ve proven to be safe, should not be tried.
Clemson University notes that old family recipes may not have the right ratio of vinegar to water in order to make pickles safe for eating.
The right ratio is 1.5 quarts of vinegar for every 2 gallons of water.
Not adding the right amount of vinegar means the pickles will start spoiling.
This makes food for harmful bacteria, including bacteria responsible for botulism.
The pickles may even smell and taste fine, but can still get you sick.
Usually, the pickles will produce a white foam or film that lets you know right away that the pickles should be thrown out, but this visual giveaway that the pickles are off may not appear before someone decides to give the pickles a try.
Frequently Asked Questions about Do Pickles Need to be Refrigerated
What is the Oldest Jar of Pickles?
The oldest pickle known is a medicine bottle that was made in 1876. It is in proud possession of the descendants of the pickler, the Boyle family of Florida. The pickle is many shades of brown and obviously has gone off.
Are Pickles Alive?
Although pickles are not alive, the bacteria in fermented or brined pickles, not pickles made in vinegar, are alive. Currently, they have no plans for world domination.
What Do Pickles That Have Gone Bad Smell Like?
Although good pickles have a strong vinegar smell, pickles that have gone off can be detected from their smell. Rancid pickles have a smell described as “sour mold.” A strong yeast smell is also bad news. If pickles smell bad, chances are they are bad for you and should be thrown out.
The Least You Need to Know
Pickles definitely need to be refrigerated when the jar is opened.
Keeping them at warm or room temperatures promotes the growth of mold, bacteria, yeast, and anything else that can get you very sick.
Refrigerated pickles can last for months.
Unopened pickle jars can last up to two years beyond their expiration date, as long as they have been stored consistently in a cool, dry place.