Tom Reynolds, director of food service and industrial marketing for Marukan, wants to sell the company’s rice vinegar to home canners. Apparently he has a ready market; more than three hundred home canners “liked” Marukan rice vinegar on the company’s Facebook page, Tom told me. “They prefer the flavor of our rice vinegar,” he said, “to that of white or apple cider vinegars for delicate vegetables, herbs, chutneys, salsas, pickles, etc.”
A lot of cooks find that rice vinegar has a milder flavor than either cider vinegar or distilled vinegar. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the rice vinegar sold in stores contains less of the main component of all vinegar, acetic acid. Formulated for making sushi, Marukan rice vinegar has an acetic acid level of 4.3 percent. Other Japanese-style rice vinegars have acid levels as low as 4.0 percent.* In the United States, distilled and cider vinegars are always sold at 5.0 percent acidity. Wine vinegar has acid levels as high as 7.0.
The milder flavor of rice vinegar may result not only from its lower acidity but also from its balanced complexity. This complexity may stem from its biologically complicated manufacture: Aspergillus oryzae, a kind of mold, is added to steamed rice and water to convert the starch in the rice to sugar. As in wine and beer making, sugar-loving yeast in the genus Saccharomyces converts the sugar to alcohol. The product is sake, but this sake isn’t for drinking. Over a period of thirty days, in the traditional method to which Marukan adheres, Acetobacter bacteria turn the sake to vinegar. Through this carefully controlled process, rice vinegar ends up containing not only acetic acid but also amino acids, citric acid, and other minor components.
Tom Reynolds knew that USDA pickling recipes, and other pickling recipes written to USDA standards, called for 5.0-percent vinegar. He wondered if Marukan should produce 5.0-percent rice vinegar specifically for home canners. To explore this possibility, he sent sample gallons of 5.0-percent rice vinegar to me and a few other people who write about pickling.
My package arrived in February, when I had little garden produce to work with. I decided to make canned pickled carrots, one jar each with distilled vinegar, 5.0-percent white wine vinegar (Four Monks brand), and 5.0-percent Marukan rice vinegar.
In my experiments for The Joy of Pickling I had used carrots only in refrigerator and freezer pickles. I’d been so repelled by the USDA recipe for canned pickle carrots, which calls for one part water to two parts sugar and five and a half parts distilled vinegar, that I hadn’t even tried it. But if rice vinegar really tastes so mild, I now figured, perhaps it could make a tolerable pickle with such a slight dilution as the USDA allowed. And I could cut the shocking amount of sugar in the USDA recipe; as Extension agents explain, the purpose of the sugar in such recipes isn’t to ensure safety but to balance the sharpness of the vinegar.
I made a few other alternations to the USDA recipe. The half-inch carrot chunks called for looked silly to me–too small for finger food and too big for relish–so I sliced the carrots ¼ inch thick. The mustard and celery seed in the recipe might overwhelm the flavor of the vinegar, so I decided to use just a little ginger and hot pepper instead. Boiling the pickling liquid for three minutes before adding the carrots seemed pointless, so I didn’t do it.
This, then, was my recipe:
Canned Carrots Pickled in 5.0-percent Rice Vinegar (by the pint)
1¼ cup 5.0-percent vinegar
¼ cup water
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon pickling salt
1 pinch pepper flakes
1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger
11 ounces peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into a clean pint mason jar.
Add the carrots to the jar, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on a two-piece cap, and process the jar for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
A couple of weeks later, during a family party, I put some of the carrots into bowls for a blind tasting. Here’s what my tasters concluded: The distilled vinegar seemed to heighten both the sweetness of the sugar and the heat of the pepper and ginger. The wine vinegar contributed a little fruitiness and covered up some of the carrot flavor. The rice vinegar tasted most mild. With a slightly earthy note, it let the flavor of the carrots shine through. The pickles in all three jars were tasty, but the carrots in rice vinegar were just a bit more to everyone’s liking.
I reported to Tom that a motley assortment of my relatives had joined his rice-vinegar fan club. Now, when would that 5.0-percent rice vinegar be available in stores? Probably not any time soon, Tom said; assuming that stores would want to carry it, the vinegar couldn’t be economically priced at less than ten dollars per gallon. If it were sold by mail order, the price might be as high as twenty dollars per gallon.
As Tom had considered, though, nearly all the USDA pickle recipes call for diluting 5.0-percent vinegar with water. So, why couldn’t you convert the quantities to use 4.3-percent vinegar? This was a matter of simple arithmetic, I said. For those with rusty sixth-grade math skills, Marukan could provide recipes for canned pickles using 4.3-percent rice vinegar.
Realizing that I’m rusty with my sixth-grade grade math skills, I turned to the guy I call Doctor Science. He came up with these rules for converting a recipe using 5.0-percent vinegar to one using 4.3-percent vinegar:
● Multiply the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe by 1.16 (because 5.0 divided by 4.3 equals 1.1627906). The result is the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe.
● Subtract the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe from the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe. Reduce the volume of water in the revised recipe by this amount.
Here’s the pickled-carrot recipe revised for a bigger batch using 4.3-percent vinegar. Because I had liquid left over in the single-jar recipe, I increased the liquid volume four times but the weight of the carrots five times, for a yield of five pints.
Canned Carrots Pickled in 4.3-percent Rice Vinegar (to make 5 pints)
If you like a lot of ginger and chile, increase their amounts. Or use different spices, if you prefer. And consider cutting the carrots into sticks or diagonal pieces rather than rounds.
5 ¾ cups 4.3-percent vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pickling salt
4 pinches pepper flakes
4 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
3 1/2 pounds peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into five clean pint mason jars.
Add the carrots to the jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on two-piece caps, and process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
A final note: When you’re buying rice vinegar for pickling, make sure that it’s unseasoned. Rice vinegar is often sold with sugar and salt added, in the proportions that the manufacturer considers appropriate for sushi rice. In some supermarkets the only rice vinegar available is the seasoned kind. Even if you’re buying rice vinegar for sushi, you may prefer to season it to suit your own taste.
*Beware: Some “Japanese rice vinegar” is actually made in China. This labeling isn’t entirely dishonest; Chinese rice vinegar is traditionally red or black, not clear. Marukan has been making its rice vinegar in Japan since 1649. For the American market, the company has made vinegar in California, from U.S. grown rice, since 1975.