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This might seem like a dumb question, but I am going to make a pickled pepper relish of sorts that is really just chopped carrot, onion, and habanero pepper cooked briefly in a pickling solution and jarred. In reviewing several recipes for pickled peppers, all use vinegar and salt, and some but not all use sugar. I'd rather just count on the natural sweetness of the habaneros and carrots for flavor.

My specific question is: does the sugar do anything to the texture of the vegetables or affect the preservative qualities of the brine in pickling recipes, or is it just for flavor?

UPDATE: I just cracked open the first jar of the pickled peppers, and I have to say that I don't think the sugar would have added anything to the flavor of them. The carrots and habaneros are both naturally pretty sweet (if you can taste it past the habanero's capsaicin bonfire). The onions also mellowed with just the vinegar brine. I've made pickled onions and jalepenos (which are less naturally sweet), and even there I've had to be careful to avoid making the pickling solution cloying. All in all, in this case I'm glad I didn't use it. Thanks everyone for the info!

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4 Answers

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The sugar is mostly just for flavor. I use sugar when making pickled beets and eggs, but don't use it in my dill pickles or pickled peppers and onions. It just depends on if you are trying for a sour, sweet and sour, or sweet pickle (note that there is no vinegar in many fruit pickles).

Before you decide to run off and leave out the vinegar, however, I would note that for pickling safety purposes there has to be enough acid to keep botulism causing bacteria from forming and peppers are a low acid vegetable. If you wanted to eliminate the vinegar, you'd have to move to pressure canning.

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Sugar does also act as a preserver, but if you don't want the added sweetness (though I would think you would want it, for balance against the salt and vinegar) the salt and vinegar should be sufficient preservatives on their own.

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Thanks for this, and to @adebaumann for his answer too. I'm going to try this batch without the sugar and hope that the carrots and peppers have enough natural sugar to offset the sour and salt. Probably my use of the word relish was misleading. The brine won't be consumed at all, so I don't think it needs to be sweetened by itself, but I'll update in a couple of weeks when done. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 6 '11 at 20:23
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Sugar is also a powerful flavour enhancer. Added in small quantities to, say, a tomato sauce, doesn't add noticeable sweetness, but intensifies the original flavour of the tomatoes. I'd assume it would work for peppers as well.

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As mentioned above, sugar has its own preservation qualities.

But don't dismiss the effect of sugar on our buds.

Sugar balances out the acidity from the vinegar. It's part of the reason why carbonic acid is added to colas.

Flavones are complex things. A little bit of sweetness with acidity works wonders. Different acids and different types of sugars adds huge layers of complexity.

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