Calcium Chloride is a firming agent used in pickling.
Many people like it and swear by the results; a few still say that nothing will ever replace the crispness of an actual limed pickle.
It’s easy to use; you just add it directly to each jar. You only need a small amount of it per jar, so a little bit goes a long way.
Ball and Bernardin sell it in green plastic canisters under the name of “Pickle Crisp®.” Unlike their other pickle mixtures, their Pickle Crisp is a pure ingredient (pure Calcium Chloride) with no added salt or extra flavourings, etc. It is a coarse powder consisting of small, white round balls.
Generally, use about 1/8th teaspoon per 1/2 litre (US pint) jar; 1/4 teaspoon per litre (US quart) jar.
But you can use more than than. For instance, the Bernardin recipe for Carrot and Daikon Pickle1 calls for 3/4 teaspoon of Pickle Crisp per 1/2 litre (US pint) jar. We queried this, and heard back from Bernardin’s chef Emerie Brine, who said that the 1/8th a teaspoon was just a guide, and that the full 3/4 teaspoon per jar should be tried.2
The authors of the Ball / Bernardin Complete Book advise,
Use Pickle Crisp to make fresh-pack pickles crisper. Add 3/4 tsp to pint (500 ml) jars and 1 1/2 tsp to quart (1 L) jars before processing.”3
Some people advise that if you want to try calcium chloride with fermented pickled products, add it into the jars when you are actually canning the pickles or sauerkraut, not into the vat during the fermentation process.
In addition to crisping up pickles, calcium chloride can also give a bit of a salty taste, while not adding any sodium to your food. It can also be used to help improve texture in canned apple slices, pears, peaches, etc. Some people also use it when canning whole tomatoes so that the tomatoes stay together better.
In the first incarnation of Pickle Crisp (see History below), Ball advised that you could use it as a pre-soak.
They don’t mention its use as a pre-soak now (2015), though I have been experimenting with soaking onions in it instead of salt to crisp them up before pickling as traditional English pickled onions and it has worked wonders producing very crunchy, crisp onions, even after the jars of onions had a proper water bath processing for safety (with an additional 1/8th teaspoon of Pickle Crisp per jar.) They were absolutely as crunchy as traditional commercial brands such as Haywards. [Ed: to be honest, though, I must do a round with the pickle crisp just in the jar rather than as a pre-soak as well, and see what the British critics round here think about that.]
Here’s what the “Putting Food By” people have to say about calcium chloride:
Calcium chloride, of course, food-grade. Some people find this more acceptable than alum, but we do not include it in any pickle recipe or canning instruction in this book. It is an ingredient often used by commercial canners, especially in tomatoes. If you feel impelled to use it, get it from a drugstore or internet source in a food-pure form—not as sold at farm- and garden-supply centers for settling dust on roads or for dehumidifying closets, etc., or for fireproofing. And, because too much of it could leave a bitter aftertaste, never substitute it measure-for-measure for regular salt (sodium chloride). Instead, figure how much salt you’ll need for a batch of, say, tomatoes, and in advance mix not more than 1 part calcium chloride with 2 parts regular salt. Then add the mixture in the amount of optional salt seasoning that the canning instructions call for.”4
Store your calcium chloride / Pickle Crisp in a tightly sealed jar to keep moisture out.
Calcium chloride (CaCl2) is a natural compound of calcium and chlorine derived from limestone. Mineral-wise, it’s technically a salt, though it’s not salt salt (sodium chloride.)
In Europe, it’s permitted to be used as a firming agent (E number E509), and has GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) status in America with the FDA.
It’s also used by wine makers, brewers, Molecular Gastronomy chefs and Modernist Cooking chefs.
If you do not purchase it as “Pickle Crisp” then make sure you are getting food grade calcium chloride and not industrial grade — you could try a brewer’s supply store.
History of Calcium Chloride / Pickle Crisp in preserving
Calcium chloride was apparently first used in preserving to help achieve higher canning temperatures in the days before reliable pressure canners (aka retorts) were invented: “[Appert] did experiment with pressure processing, but at that time ‘digesters’ were quite dangerous, and it was not the norm. Around 1863 processors used ‘chemical baths’, in which high concentrations of calcium chloride enabled ‘water’ to boil at up to 121 C. This allowed for significantly shorter cooking times. By 1870 basic retorts were being used to temperatures up to 121 C but they were still quite dangerous and hand operated.”5
Ball first sold calcium chloride as a crisping agent called “Pickle Crisp” starting somewhere around 2004 / 2005. They discontinued it by the end of 2007. By 2013, they had returned the product to the market.
They originally sold it in 26 gram foil packages, with each package being able to handle 4 to 5 quart jars.
The directions initially were 3/4 teaspoon per 1/2 litre (US pint) jar; 1 1/2 teaspoons per litre (US quart) jar. For use as a pre-soak, the directions were to dissolve one whole 26 g packet in 4 litres (a US gallon) of water.
The formulation must have been different, because people said you heard a fizz as you added it to a wet jar, or water, and some steam came off, and that doesn’t happen now (2015. )
As well, it was a powder in its 2004 to 2007 incarnation — it was reintroduced in 2013 in granular form.
Here is the original brochure for the product:
Views of the Pickle Crisp Jar
Here are two shots of the sides of the Pickle Crisp jar. Notice that it is pure calcium chloride, with nothing else added. Ball’s / Bernardin’s other bottled pickling mixes are very different: while Pickle Crisp is pure and salt free, the other pickling mixes contain a shocking amount of salt in them and in fact are mostly salt. Pickle Crisp is not.
Here’s the usage directions. Note that they are clear that just is just a crisper, and that you should in no way think that Pickle Crisp aids in proper preservation of your food products: responsibility for that is still on your shoulders!
Bernardin Guide 2013, page 86 ↩
Emerie Brine to Randal Oulton. 26 January 2015. Email on file. ↩
Kingry, Judi and Lauren Devine. Ball / Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving. Toronto: Robert Rose. 2015. Page 306 ↩
Hertzberg, Ruth; Greene, Janet; Vaughan, Beatrice (2010-05-25). Putting Food By: Fifth Edition (p. 42). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩
Featherstone, Susan. A Complete Course in Canning and Related Processes: Volume 2. Cambridge, England. Woodhead Publishing. 2014. Page xxxi. ↩