How can you ensure that your homemade pickles are bacteria-free and safe to eat?
Just really sterilize your jars; sterilize your lids. Wash and scrub whatever produce you're using. The worst is to bite into a cucumber that has dirt on it. Sometimes you can tell they didn't wash it. The risk of botulism for home pickling is so low ... if you don't get a proper seal on the lid, you will get a white cloudy effect. The jars need to be heated to 190 degrees to get a proper seal. You can look at it and know if you've done it right.
How long should you let the pickles "pickle" before cracking open the jar for a taste?
I keep them in dry storage for a month. Osmosis is happening inside the jar; it's also pulling in all the flavors. The longer you let it sit, the better it tastes. I'd let it sit two weeks to a month. If you're doing refrigerated pickle, it will expedite that process.
How is the process different for a refrigerated pickle?
With refrigerated pickle, you have your brine and just dump it over vegetables and put it in the fridge. You heat the brine just to incorporate the sugar and salt — you don't have to worry about the temperature. I'd recommend refrigerating for instant gratification.
Any more tips for novice picklers?
Pay attention to the freshness of the produce that you're using. Go to a greenmarket and know that you're going to be pickling whatever you buy that day. No one wants a limp pickle.