Ingredient Intelligence

How to Tell If Pickles Have Gone Bad (Plus, the Right Way to Store Them)

published Jun 23, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Whether you buy pickles from the grocery store or make your own, cucumber pickles — or more commonly, pickles — are a delicious way to add flavor to your meals. They also happen to make an excellent snack all on their own. But storing pickles can be a bit of a mystery. They’re purchased on the grocery shelf, but do you need to keep them in the refrigerator? Is it possible for pickles to go bad? If so, how can you tell? We’ll cover all of this below. So grab a dill spear and keep reading.

How to Tell If Pickles Have Gone Bad

You won’t have to guess whether a jar of pickles has gone bad: Your senses will tell you almost immediately upon opening the jar. Look for the following signs of spoilage to tell whether your pickles are okay to eat … and if you’re questioning whether any of them are passable, you should still discard the jar.

  • Bad smell in jar of pickles: Spoiled pickles will smell bad and unpleasantly sour. If the smell makes you recoil or is foul, the jar has gone bad.
  • Discolored pickles or brine: All pickles are stored in brine. If the pickles have gone bad, both the pickles themselves and the brine will be discolored and/or cloudy. Murky-looking brine and dull, brown, or faded-looking pickles are not safe to eat.
  • Visible mold on pickles: If you see any mold on the pickles or floating in the brine, they have gone bad and are unsafe to consume. 
  • Bulging jars or fizzing brine: Both of these are signs of unstable or out-of-control fermentation — which means pickles that are unsafe to consume. If the jar or lid has bulged, discard the pickles. Ditto if the liquid fizzes.

Is It Dangerous to Eat Past-Date Pickles?

It’s dangerous to eat pickles that have gone bad; consuming spoiled or bad pickles can result in serious health issues, as well as digestive distress. It’s important to note that if stored improperly, spoilage may happen before a best-by date. Like all foods affected by mold or bad smells, it’s not a good idea to cut or scrape away the spoiled portion. If you notice any signs of spoilage, discard the entire jar of pickles. If the pickles look and smell fine, but are past their expiration date, most food-safety experts agree you have a couple months’ grace period (especially if they have been stored properly). Opened pickles that have been hanging around in your refrigerator door for the better part of a decade should — hopefully obviously! — be thrown away.

Where Should You Store Pickles?

What’s the best way to store pickles? That depends on the type of pickles you have. (Here, we’re talking canned/jarred versus fresh — not dill vs. bread and butter.)

Storing Canned or Jarred Pickles at Room Temperature

“Canned” pickles encompass both home-canned pickles, as well as jarred pickles with an intact seal. Both varieties of pickles can be kept, unopened, at room temperature. This includes places like a pantry or cabinet. The same rule applies for homemade pickles which have been canned properly with sterilized jars (be sure that a seal has been created).

Pickles purchased from your grocer’s refrigerated section should be kept in your refrigerator; they are not canned and will spoil at room temperature. Homemade quick pickles, also called refrigerator pickles, should be kept — surprise — in the fridge.

Storing Pickles in the Refrigerator

Once you’ve opened a jar of pickles, you should store them in the refrigerator. Many cooks keep them in a condiment shelf on the door — that’s fine, as long as your fridge is kept to 40°F or below. You can also keep unopened, jarred pickles in the refrigerator, although it’s not necessary. The jar your pickles came in is fine for storing the pickles. Although specialty containers that strain away the brine with an insert can be helpful, they’re not necessary.

Storing Pickles in the Freezer

You can freeze pickles, although this is a “can” vs. “should” debate more than anything. Like all vegetables with high water content, pickled cucumbers will degrade in quality after freezing. They may taste watery, and will have an unpleasant crystallized texture. That said, if you do choose to freeze pickles, make sure you follow these rules: Transfer the pickles to a freezer-proof container (not all store-bought pickle jars are), cover them with the included brine, and leave at least 1 1/2 inch of headroom at the top to allow for the brine to expand as it freezes.

How Long Do Pickles Last? 

How long pickles last depends on where you store them, and if they are opened or unopened. But use these timelines as a guide, not a rule. If you see any of the signs of spoiling, discard the pickles — even if they’re before the “Best By” date.

How Long Do Canned/Jarred Pickles Last?

Unopened canned/jarred pickles will last indefinitely. If you’ve canned your own, be sure you have taken all the required safety measures to create a proper seal. 

How Long Do Pickles Last Once Opened?

Once you’ve opened a jar of pickles — homemade or store-bought — they’ll last for up to two years in the refrigerator. To ensure they stay fresh and don’t go bad, seal the jar completely after each use, and keep your fridge temperature set to between 34°F and 40°F.

How Long Do Frozen Pickles Last?

If you freeze pickles, they’ll last for up to nine months. However, due to the degradation in texture and the fact that pickles last a long time when refrigerated properly, it’s not advisable to keep them in the freezer.

More Tips on Storing Pickles and Making Them Last

To make a jar of pickles last longer, refrigerate it as soon as you open it. Any prepared food kept at temperatures above 40°F for longer than two hours becomes a breeding ground for bad bacteria, so it’s not a good idea to haul an entire jar of pickles to an all-day cookout or picnic, then put the opened jar back in the fridge at the end of the day.

You can also reduce the risk of spoiled pickles by using a fork to take pickles from the jar, instead of your fingers. This greatly diminishes the potential for harmful bacteria to populate within the jar.

One of the best things about pickles is that, when stored properly, they last a long time. If you need ideas for using pickles beyond adding a spear to your grilled cheese sandwich, check out these recipes for homemade tartar sauce, Big Mac salad (really), air fryer pickles (yep!), or cheeseburger pizza.