Pickles are a beloved condiment for burgers, sandwiches, and snacking. The tart, tangy flavor of brined cucumbers adds a delicious flavor contrast to many foods. But what if you discover an open jar of pickles in the back of your fridge past its expiration date? Are they still safe to eat?
Dill pickles that are refrigerated after opening can last one to two years past the printed expiration date on the jar. There are a few signs to look for to determine if your expired dill pickles are still good to eat or if they have spoiled and should be discarded. This article will cover how to tell if dill pickles are expired, health risks of eating expired pickles, and shelf life information.
What Happens When Pickles Expire?
When dill pickles expire, a few changes can happen to the appearance, texture, smell and taste:
- Soft or mushy texture
- Noticeable dulling of the green color
- Strong acidic or rancid smell
- Undesirable changes in flavor, such as bitter, yeasty, or moldy taste
- White film on the brine or pickle surfaces
- Slimy feeling or slippery texture
- Gas bubbles in the brine
- Growth of mold, commonly white or blue in color
These changes occur because the natural fermentation process that created the pickles can continue over time, as well as potential growth of yeast, mold, and bacteria. Refrigeration helps slow this process in an unopened jar.
How To Tell If Dill Pickles Are Bad
Follow these steps to evaluate if your expired dill pickles have spoiled and should be thrown out:
- Check the “best by” or expiration date on the jar. If it has been less than 1-2 years past that date, the pickles are likely still good if stored properly in the refrigerator. Discard pickles more than 2 years past the printed date.
- Examine the lid and seal. If the safety button on the lid is popped up, the lid bulging or rusty, or the seal compromised, throw the pickles away.
- Look at the brine (liquid) closely. It should be clear with no cloudiness or film on the surface. Greenish or black discoloration, sliminess, or observable mold means spoiled pickles.
- Smell the pickles. They should smell pleasantly acidic without any rancid, rotten, or off odors. An ammonia-like smell indicates spoilage.
- Remove a pickle from the jar and feel the texture. It should be firm and crunchy. Soft or mushy pickles have spoiled.
- Taste a small amount of one pickle. The flavor should be refreshing and acidic without bad tastes like bitterness, yeastiness, mustiness, or mold.
Even one moldy pickle can be a sign that the entire jar has spoiled and should be discarded. When examining your expired pickles, if you observe any of the above warning signs of pickle spoilage, throw the jar away to be safe.
Health Risks of Eating Expired Pickles
Eating spoiled, expired pickles can cause foodborne illness. Potential health risks include:
- Botulism – Pickles stored improperly at room temperature can allow bacteria Clostridium botulinum to grow and produce dangerous toxins, causing severe and life-threatening illness.
- Listeriosis – Bacteria Listeria monocytogenes can grow on expired, moldy pickles and lead to fever, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in severe cases.
- Salmonella – Salmonella bacteria is another possible contaminant of spoiled pickles that can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
- E. Coli – Similarly, brined pickles can be contaminated with E. coli bacteria that also lead to severe stomach illness symptoms.
- Mold – Some molds that grow on pickles produce mycotoxins that can cause allergic reactions or respiratory irritation.
Pregnant women, small children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk of developing serious complications from these foodborne pathogens. That is why it is critical to properly identify expired, spoiled pickles and discard them to avoid food poisoning.
How Long Do Pickles Last?
Below are general guidelines for dill pickle shelf life, if the jar is continuously refrigerated after opening:
|Commercially Packed Dill Pickles||18-24 months|
|Pickles in Vinegar Brine||12-18 months|
|Naturally Fermented Pickles||6-12 months|
For shelf-stable, unopened jars stored in a cool, dry pantry, commercially canned dill pickles typically last 2-3 years before quality degrades noticeably. Homemade pickles and naturally fermented pickles generally have a shorter shelf life of about 1 year.
Some signs that the pickles may expire before these timeframes include bulging lids, rust on the lid or rings, leakage, or pickles not fully submerged in brine. These conditions can allow more air exposure and spoilage.
Tips to Extend Pickle Shelf Life
Pickles last longer when properly stored. Here are some tips for maximizing the shelf life of your dill pickles:
- Refrigerate pickles after opening and keep chilled at all times, between 35-40°F (1.6-4.4°C).
- Ensure pickles remain fully immersed in brine during storage.
- Keep the lid tightly sealed on the jar.
- Store pickles away from direct sunlight or heat sources.
- Keep different varieties of opened pickles in separate containers.
- Use clean utensils to remove pickles each time to avoid introducing bacteria.
- Do not store pickles at room temperature or return them to the pantry after refrigeration.
Discard pickles if the lid is loose or bulging, if any mold develops, or if they have an unappealing odor or appearance. Following proper storage methods and watching for signs of spoilage can help you safely enjoy pickles past the “best by” date.
What To Do With Expired Pickles
If your dill pickles have expired and seem unappealing to eat, here are some options besides throwing them away:
- Pickle Relish – Chop up mushy pickles into a relish to use as a condiment or topping.
- Pickle Spears – Cut soft pickles into pickle spears to use in Bloody Mary cocktails.
- Vinegar – Strain the vinegar brine and use it for recipes or cleaning.
- Compost – Add expired pickles to a compost pile or bin; avoid using moldy ones.
- Pickle Juice Brine – Use the brine to brine chicken or other vegetables.
- Pickle Chips – If still crunchy, use pickles slices as a snack or on nachos.
Don’t let expired dills go to waste! Get creative with ways to use up pickles that are past their prime before tossing them in the trash.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you eat expired pickles if the jar is unopened?
Unopened, commercially packaged pickles can often be safely consumed within 1-2 years past the printed “best by” date. However, quality slowly declines over time so pickles more than 2-3 years old are not recommended for eating.
Do pickles go bad if the jar isn’t refrigerated after opening?
Yes, leaving opened pickles at room temperature can make them go bad much faster. Refrigeration is necessary for preservation once exposed to air. Pickles left out after opening can get moldy or develop bacterial growth within 1-2 weeks.
Can you freeze pickles to extend the shelf life?
Freezing is not recommended for food safety reasons. The low acidity and high moisture content of pickles makes it easy for dangerous bacteria like botulism to grow. Pickles are best preserved by continuous refrigeration in their original brine.
What temperature should you store pickles at?
For best preservation, store opened pickles between 35°F and 40°F (1.6°C – 4.4°C), which is typical refrigerator temperature. Colder freezing temperatures could damage pickle texture over time.
Can you eat pickles after the brine gets cloudy?
No, cloudiness in the brine is a warning sign pickles may be spoiled or contaminated. Discard pickles if the liquid becomes discolored, slimy, or cloudy.
The Bottom Line
Properly stored dill pickles can remain safe and tasty to eat 1-2 years past their printed expiration date. However, you should inspect the jar carefully before digging in. Be on the lookout for any signs of spoilage like mold, softening, or odor changes, which mean they should be discarded. When in doubt, remember it is better to be safe than sorry to avoid foodborne illness from eating spoiled pickles. However, with careful examination and storage, those last few kosher dills hiding in the back of the refrigerator may be able to be safely enjoyed.