For many home cooks and food enthusiasts, preserving fruits, vegetables, meats, and more into tasty pickled creations is a beloved DIY project. However, safely canning your own pickles, relishes, and fermented favorites requires paying attention to some key details. One of the most important aspects of food preservation to get right? Using the proper type of salt. While it may seem innocuous, the salt you use can actually make or break both the quality and safety of your homemade preserves. In particular, confusing standard table salt with canning or pickling salt can lead to spoiled batches ruined by nasty bacteria. Read on to learn why picking the right salt matters when it comes to delicious and safe home food preservation results.

Salt Types and Their Uses

Table Salt

Iodized vs. Non-Iodized

When it comes to everyday uses like seasoning food at the table, table salt is perfectly fine for the job. While very finely ground for easy pouring and mixing, table salt comes in two main varieties: iodized and non-iodized. Iodized table salt has added iodine, an important nutrient, while non-iodized salt does not. For quick pickling with vinegar or fermenting foods, the iodine and anticaking agents added to standard table salt mean it is not an ideal choice.

Anticaking Agents

Table salt also contains anticaking agents like sodium silicoaluminate to prevent clumping. While harmless for regular cooking uses, these additives can cause cloudiness in brines and picking liquids. This affects the crispness and visual appeal of the final pickled products. The antimicrobial action needed for food preservation may also be impacted.

Pickling/Canning Salt

Pure Sodium Chloride

In contrast to table salt, pickling and canning salts do not include any additives. They are highly purified sodium chloride mixes specifically designed for home food preservation. The pure salt crystals yield solutions that readily dissolve when making brines, cures, or fermentation mediums. This allows for crisp results and adequate control over microbial growth.

No Additives

Without iodine, anticaking chemicals, or other additives, pickling or canning salts offer predictable performance for following canning recipes precisely. The purity provides reliable results across batches of homemade pickles, relishes, sauerkraut, cured meats, and more fermented products.

Kosher Salt

Flaky Crystals

With large, irregular flakes, kosher salt is another additive-free choice that works for some pickling and fermenting recipes. However, its crystal size means it does not dissolve quite as readily. This can lead to overly salty patches if not mixed well. The lower density compared to canning or pickling salt also makes achieving the right salinity levels tricky.

Surface Area and Solubility

The larger surface area of kosher salt crystals impacts solubility rates in brines and cures. So additional adjustments may be needed to pickle and cure properly compared to uniform pickling salt crystals.

Sea Salt

Other Minerals Present

Salts harvested from ocean water or saline lakes also work for some preservation methods. However, they do contain traces of other minerals like magnesium or calcium sulfates. This can cause some discoloration in finished pickled products compared to purified pickling salts.

Flavor

On the plus side, some cooks enjoy sea salt for fermenting vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut to provide subtle flavor nuances. Still, the varying mineral content between brands makes dialing in the right saltiness difficult. So additional brine adjustments are usually necessary when using sea salt.

How Salt Preserves Food

Creates a Highly Salty Environment

Salt’s preservative qualities come primarily from its ability to create conditions that are impossible for microbial lifeforms like mold, yeast, and bacteria to survive in. By introducing enough salt to foods through brining, curing, or pickling, the salty environment essentially dehydrates hazardous microbes, causing spoilage and rendering them unable to grow and spread.

Controls Water Activity

More specifically, dissolved salt in a solution dramatically reduces available moisture—a concept known as “water activity.” Most food-poisoning microorganisms require mid- to high-range water activity levels to proliferate. Dense salt concentrations bind with water molecules through osmosis, dropping water activity below the thresholds necessary for nasties like Salmonella or Listeria to grow. This also allows beneficial lactic acid bacteria needed for fermentation to thrive in the presence of salted foods until acid levels increase, further preserving against contamination.

Provides Antimicrobial Properties

At a chemical level, salt ions interfere with cellular metabolic processes. The sodium and chloride essentially cancel out the motility and other functions, keeping problem-causing pathogens alive and dangerous. High-salt conditions will shock and destroy their cell structures. Between dehydration and interference with microbial life processes, salt both prevents spoilage and directly halts microbe activity as a preservative.

The Risks of Using Table Salt

Reduced Crispness and Firmness

When it comes to pickling and fermenting foods in a brine solution, texture is an important quality factor. Using table salt rather than pickling or canning salt can result in a noticeable loss of crispness and firmness across batches of homemade pickles, relishes, sauerkraut, and more salty-brined products. This is due to subtle differences in how readily table salt versus pure pickling salt crystals dissolve.

Iodine Can Cause Discoloration

The iodine added to some table salt varieties can also cause undesirable discoloration over time in finished pickled items stored in iodized salt brines. So beyond texture issues, the appearance of beautiful garden-fresh cucumber spears or other veggies and fruits transformed into pickled delights can suffer when using the wrong salt.

Food Poisoning and Spoilage

However, lack of crispness or duller colors are not the only risks associated with using standard table salt for home food preservation. More critically, inadvertently using table salt means any anticaking agents or iodine present can adversely impact microbial control. This affects how well the salty brine or cure solution protects against potentially hazardous yeasts, molds, and bacteria.

Yeast, Mold, and Bacteria Growth

Without precise control of water activity and sodium/chloride ion concentrations thanks to additives, the pickled items stay vulnerable to contamination even when following other proper canning techniques. So using table salt comes with an increased risk of food spoilage, fermentation failures, or dangerous foodborne illnesses if the finished products end up harboring stealthy microbes like botulism-causing Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

Best Practices for Safe DIY Food Preservation

Only Use pickling or Canning Salt

First and foremost, only use salts specifically formulated for home canning, pickling, and fermenting purposes. Pickling and canning salts dissolve readily in water to produce crisp textures and contain no potentially interfering additives. This includes leaving out iodine, anticaking chemicals, or supplemental minerals. Pure sodium chloride pickling salts reliably achieve the concentrations necessary for sufficient microbial protection too.

Follow Precise Recipes

While getting the salt type right is paramount, precise measurements matter too. Carefully weigh out the exact amounts of salt called for in trusted pickle and preservation recipes rather than estimating. Too little salt risks dangerous food poisoning if good microbes cannot outcompete pathogens in fermented products or brined solutions remain weak antimicrobial guards. Meanwhile, excessive salt can also enable yeasts and molds to take hold instead as osmotic pressure shifts.

Use Proper Acidification

In recipes for quick refrigerator or freezer pickles using vinegar solutions, stick to the acidification guidelines, like cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar, in the necessary amounts. Acidity levels work with salinity to create an inhospitable environment for bacteria, ensuring shelf-stable and safe results. For fermented vegetable pickles relying on lactic acid instead, monitor pH and stop fermentation at levels below 4.6.

Employ Adequate Processing Methods

Canning

While salinity keeps canned pickles and relishes safe at room temperature before opening, it does not replace proper canning methods for shelf stability, which are sealed away from new airborne or handling contamination dangers. Pressure canning remains essential for low-acid vegetables and meats.

Fermentation

During active fermentation, which produces lactic acid, keep foods fully submerged in brine to prevent mold growth on exposed surfaces. Anaerobic fermentation conditions also promote beneficial microbial communities. Then move to cold storage before dangerous microbes can take over as lactic acid bacteria die off over time.


Curing

For meat products like salami and prosciutto using curing salts with nitrates or nitrites, manage temperature and humidity levels closely during the drying process. Use curing salt quantities sparingly as directed. Then continue aging only as long as the recipes state to prevent pathogenic bacteria from accumulating.

While making homemade pickles, relishes, and other salty-brined or fermented foods carries inherent risks if procedures are not followed properly, taking precautions like using pickling salt allows for great-tasting and safe results. With attention to details like precise salt selection and measurements plus sound canning methods, home cooks can confidently preserve the season’s bounty for year-round enjoyment.

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