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Can You Pickle Without Sugar? (Pros, Cons, How To, Recipe Included)

While trying to lead a healthy sugar-free life, most of us need to give up things we love to eat, whether it's chocolates or pickles. If you love pickles and want to keep savoring them without worrying about your sugar intake, don’t fret, I’ve got you. 

You can pickle foods without using sugar because it is not the main preservative used in pickling. It is an optional ingredient and is only used for flavor. If you want to sweeten your pickles without adding sugar, you can use an alternative like honey, maple syrup or other sweeteners. 

In this article, you will find the answer to:

  • why sugar is used in pickling
  • what substitutes you can use (if any)
  • a basic low sugar quick pickle recipe

Read on and explore the different steps of pickling without sugar...

A wooden spoon of sugar next to sugar cubes.

Why is Sugar Used in Pickling?

The sugar in your pickles balances out the acid from the vinegar. It neutralizes the flavor of vinegar and salt in the pickle and gives it a milder flavor. Along with vinegar and salt, it is the third preservative used in pickling.

Sugar is both a natural preservative and strong flavor enhancer. It also helps slow down the colonization of some microbes. But sugar’s antimicrobial action only happens when it is used in very high quantities, like in jams. In pickles though, sugar mainly acts as a flavor enhancer and reduces the harsh taste of vinegar and salt.  

Without sugar, the taste of vinegar and salt would make pickles way too tart and sour. Almost, to the point of being inedible for some.  

Sugar is a more preferred ingredient than an essential ingredient in pickles. You can choose to not add sugar in your pickle, but you cannot ignore the impact sugar has on your taste buds. 

Hence, if you want sugar free pickles, you need to find suitable alternatives to balance out the tartness of vinegar and salt. There are many sugar alternatives out there that are not as unhealthy but will put out the same results. Like honey, maple syrup, artificial sweeteners, etc. 

NOTE: If you don't want to use any kind of sweetener in your pickle, we'll cover that in this article later!

What are Some Natural Alternatives to Sugar for Pickling?

Honey, maple syrup, other artificial sweeteners or even water can be substitutes for sugar in pickling. Although these are not perfect substitutes for sugar, as you will not get the exact taste of sugar in pickles, these will help you make tasteful low sugar pickles. 

Let's take a look at how to go about using some of these alternatives...

Honey & Maple Syrup

Honey and maple syrup can work as sugar substitutes in sweetened pickle recipes. Since honey and maple syrup is sweeter than sugar and is liquid, you will have to change your recipe a little. 

  • If you are using maple syrup as a substitute, replace ¼ the amount of sugar you used to add in your old recipe.
  • If you are using honey, you should add ¾ cup of honey for every cup of white sugar.

Again, maple syrup and honey add liquid to your recipe. So, you will want to replace a ¼ cup of liquid with every cup of maple syrup or honey. 

Both honey and maple syrup will affect the texture, color and flavor of the sweetened pickles so bear this in mind.

QUICK TIP: Honey will also darken the sweetened pickle with time. So, it is better to use light colored and mild honey in low sugar pickling. 

2. Agave Nectar

If you don't want to use honey or maple syrup, you can opt for agave nectar. It not only sweetens, but also acts as a preservative in a pickle. It is made up of real sugars such as glucose and fructose. But it has less calories and thus, can be used to make quick low sugar pickles.

During pickling, agave nectar has to be added like honey.

  • In a sweetened pickle recipe, ⅔ cup of agave nectar should replace one cup of white sugar. Again, liquids have to be reduced by ¼ to ⅓ cup. 

In case of sour or vegetable pickles, adding more water to your vinegar will reduce the sourness of your pickle. Again, you can use apple cider vinegar instead of white vinegar to add a hint of sweetness. 

Honey and maple syrup can be used in vegetable pickles too. For example, in making onion and cucumber pickles, you can use maple syrup and honey respectively. But you will have to experiment with the recipe and add flavorings to make the low sugar pickle suit your taste buds. 

Can You Use Artificial Sweeteners for Pickling?

Yes, you can use selective artificial sweeteners for pickling. But, when replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners for pickling, one must tread carefully. Because most artificial sweeteners lose their sweetening power during the canning process and affect the flavor of the pickle. 

A few packets of artificial sweetener in a jar.
The heat from the canning process of pickling destroys the sweetening power of some artificial sweeteners

Moreover, artificial sweeteners used in making the pickle may change the flavor and leave an unpleasant aftertaste. 

Thus, many artificial sweeteners such as Saccharine, NutraSweet and Equal are not approved for pickling. But artificial sweeteners such as Stevia and Splenda are approved for pickling. Because both of them do not lose sweetness during the canning process. 

  • If you use Splenda packets in your pickles, one cup of sugar should be replaced with 24 packets of Splenda.
  • If you use Sweet Leaf Stevia packets for pickling, one cup sugar should be replaced with 18 to 24 packets. 

It is better to use artificial sweeteners in quick pickle recipes rather than regular ones. Although Splenda and Stevia can survive the canning process, there is no guarantee that the pickle will always turn out perfect. For example, Splenda can make the texture of sweetened pickles mushy

Another artificial sweetener you can consider using for pickling is xylitol. It is a white crystal-like substance that looks and tastes like sugar. It is a carbohydrate and polyol that can survive the canning process of pickling. 

  • What's more, with xylitol, there are no conversions to worry about because 1 cup of xylitol would replace 1 cup of sugar.

How Can You Pickle Without Sugar?

You can choose to make low sugar pickles using either the canning or refrigerating method. I suggest using the refrigerating or quick pickle method if you are trying to go on a sugar-free diet. 

Because if you use any sugar substitute, there is no telling how it will react when your jar is being canned with heat. Plus, quick pickling is easier to do. Here's a tried and tested step-by-step recipe for quick pickling without sugar:

Pros of Not Using Sugar in Pickle

If you are diabetic or trying to lose weight, pickles without sugar are perfect for you. Again, if you are trying to go on a keto diet, or just generally reduce you sugar intake, then quick pickling with no sugar is perfect. 

The usual bread and butter pickles you see on the market are rich with carbs. Hence, you cannot consume them if you need to reduce your sugar intake. But quick pickles contain no refined sugar, or carbs. You can satiate the pickle lover in you by eating no sugar quick-pickles while on a keto diet, or other low sugar diet. (Great low sugar recipe for you to try below!)

Generally, brines are used in making pickles without sugar. The water and sodium mixture in brines lower the sodium level in regular pickles. Hence, you do not worry about gaining water weight. Quick pickles with low sugar and low sodium levels are perfect for weight loss. 

Cons of Not Using Sugar in Pickle

Not using sugar in pickles makes a big difference in how it tastes. Although sugar does not give an obvious sweet taste to the pickled dish, it does make its flavor mild, whether we realize it or not.  

When you avoid using sugar in an old recipe, you will notice how different the taste is. So, not using sugar, changes the entire recipe. You will need to mix and match a lot with the water-salt ratio and different spices to make the sugar-free article palatable. 

Another down side of low sugar pickles is that any sugar substitutes do not consist of pectin. So, they are not great preservatives. Thus, low sugar pickles do not have a long shelf life and spoil faster than regular pickled food. 

However, we are still talking a couple of months at least. You should bear this in mind when deciding how much to make at a time. Here's a great tasting quick pickle recipe that doesn't use any sugar or sweetener of any kind...

Recipe for a Quick Pickle Without Sugar

1. Collect Ingredients

  • 8 Cups of Mixed Vegetables (Cauliflower Florets, Sweet Bell Peppers,1 Jalapeño Pepper)
  • 2 cups of Apple Cider Vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon of Fine Ground Salt 
  • 2 Cups of Water 
  • 2 tablespoon of Simple Pickling Spice Mix (Mustard seeds, Dill seeds, Red Pepper Flakes, Whole Cloves, Coriander Seeds, Allspice Berries)

2. Prepare and Sterilize Jars

Whether you make quick pickles or canned pickles, you must sterilize your jars. To sterilize your jars, first, you need to wash and rinse the jars and its cap thoroughly with soapy warm water. 

After washing, immerse the jar in a large pot of water and boil. The water should cover the jars by at least 2-inches. To sterilize the jars, boil them for 10 minutes. Leave the jars in the warm water, even after turning off the heat.

In a separate saucepan, boil and simmer the caps of the jars in water for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, you should remove the lids from the water and let it dry till ready to use. 

While preparing the jars, you need to choose the size and number of jars depending on your pickle recipe. For this recipe, you will need 4 pint-sized jars with a lid. 

Here are some great pickling jars available on Amazon that are suited for pickling and canning on a regular basis.

3. Prepare Vegetables 

Always pick fresh vegetables and fruits for pickling. You can choose any type of vegetables since most of them can be pickled. But avoid using slightly bruised vegetables or fruits for pickling. 

After you have picked your vegetables or fruits, get to washing and cutting them. You can cut them in any shape you want or according to the size of the jar you are using. For example, while storing your pickle in a mason jar, you can choose to slice your cucumbers into spears. 

A few jars of canned tomatoes without sugar.
Some vegetables like cherry tomatoes are better pickled as whole rather than sliced.

Carrots and cucumbers can be sliced in spear or coin shapes. Carrots can be peeled and sliced into matchstick-shape too. 

For this recipe, you have to slice your cauliflowers into florets. Then mix with the chopped sweet bell peppers and jalapeno peppers.

Then fill the jar with the mixed vegetables and pack tightly. Leave a half an inch head space from the opening of the jar and then set it aside.

NOTE: Certain vegetables need to be blanched in the preparation phase. Blanching is the process of boiling vegetables for 2-3 minutes to enhance their flavor for pickling. Brussel sprouts, carrots, asparagus, beets, beans, ginger and okra need to be blanched. 

After blanching, the vegetables have to be transferred to a large pot of cold water and then drained. Vegetables like cucumber, turnips and tomatoes should not be blanched

4. Add Flavors 

The secret to a unique home-made pickle is in the flavoring. In this step, you mix your choice of spices and herbs to create a pickling spice mix. 

For this recipe, you will need a basic mix of flavors that include:

  • coriander seeds
  • dill seeds
  • mustard seeds
  • whole cloves
  • red pepper flakes
  • Allspice berries

Mix these together and store in an air-tight jar. Your mix will last for about a year. For this serving of low sugar pickles, you will need only 2 tablespoons of this mix

Classic Flavorings/Spice Mixes for Different Pickles

If you're looking to try out some other flavors of pickles, here are some other classic pickle flavorings that make a tasty combination:

  • Green beans with fresh dill and garlic
  • Squash with garlic and onion
  • Cherry tomatoes with garlic and black peppercorns.
  • Cucumbers flavored with dill seeds, garlic, and red pepper flakes (classic dill pickle mix).
  • Carrot pickled with coriander, thyme, ginger and turmeric (have a wonderful exotic flavor to it.)

QUICK TIP: Adding bay leaves to your cucumber pickle, will keep the cucumbers nice and crispy!

Here are some other basic spices, herbs and other flavors for pickles that you could use:

  • Herbs: dill, thyme, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, marjoram
  • Garlic Cloves: smashed and sliced depending on mild to strong garlic flavor respectively
  • Ginger: peeled or sliced into thin strips
  • Spices: Turmeric, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorn etc.  

5. Make Brine 

A basic brine consists of an equal ratio of water and vinegar mix. It is a combination of water, vinegar, salt, sugar (optional) and spices (optional). Sugar will not be added in the brine mixture of a low sugar pickle recipe.

You can adjust the type and amount of vinegar, water and salt used in the brine depending on your recipe and taste. From white vinegar, white wine, apple cider to rice vinegar, you have a variety of options. But you should steer clear of concentrated or aged kinds of vinegar such as malt or balsamic vinegar

In this recipe, you will make a brine using apple cider. To make your brine you will have to mix water, ground salt, apple cider and your pickling spice in a saucepan. Then boil it over high heat and simmer for 10 minutes at medium heat. 

In case of a general low sugar vegetable pickle recipe, make the mix with your choice of vinegar, water and salt. Then boil and stir it until the salt has dissolved and let it simmer. 

6. Fill Jar with Brine and Seal Tight

The brine for pickling has to be ladled and filled carefully inside the pickle jar. With any jar you use, make sure there is some head space between the brine-vegetable mixture and the opening of the jar. After filling the jar up with brine, wipe the rims clean. 

In the case of this recipe, you need to ladle your piping hot brine into the pint-sized jars. Make sure the brine covers all the vegetables. Also, ensure that there is a half-inch head space between the brine mix and rim of the jar. 

TIP: Sometimes air bubbles appear after you are done filling the jar with brine. In that case, you have to tap the jars lightly on the counter, to get rid of the air bubbles.

After you have filled all four of your jars with brine, you should seal it tight. Place the caps on and screw them tight.

7. Refrigerate Jar 

The last step of making low sugar quick pickles is to cool and refrigerate the pickle jar. After you are done sealing the pickle jar, you need to let it sit and cool in normal room temperature.

Then you have to refrigerate your pickle jar. After an hour, your quick pickle will be ready for serving. But for better taste, you should wait for 48 hours because pickles taste better as they age. 

Unlike canned pickles, low sugar quick pickles do not last long. If you store and refrigerate this pickle, it will last you a few months at best.

Conclusion 

Pickling is all about experimentation. Whether you are trying to spice up your pickle mixture or make sugar-free pickles, you will need to experiment to get the perfect pickled dish.

The good news is that there is so much versatility in pickle making and the possibilities with flavorings are endless. So you will be sure to find a sugar free pickle recipe that you love! So, savor the journey, mix and match until you stumble upon your perfect sugar-free pickle.

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