What do you do with the brine when you empty your pickle jar? At my house, we go through so many pickles that I often guiltily dump the brine down the drain.
Pickle brine has seldom gone to waste in Eastern Europe. Russians have long used it as a wrinkle-preventing skin treatment. In A Taste of Russia, Darra Goldstein writes that her grandmother rubbed pickle brine into her unlined face every morning. In Polish Heritage Cookery, Robert and Maria Strybel offer various Polish recipes that call for pickle brine, including a barszcz (borscht) made of grated pickles sautéed in butter and combined with bouillon, smoked kielbasa, grated baked beets, and sour cream, and another soup of pickles, potatoes, and pork stock with sour cream. Pickle brine is a traditional Polish hangover remedy as well, say the Strybels: Fill a glass with equal parts chilled pickle brine and ice-cold club soda, and drink the mixture down at once.
Goldstein and the Strybels are referring, of course, to fermented pickles, which are suddenly more popular than ever before in the United States. Like many of today’s fermentation faddists, chef Monica Corrado believes that the lactobacilli in pickle brine can keep a person healthy. “So if you get a stomach ache or a flu bug, DRINK your probiotics! . . . Don’t get (or give) a flu shot! DRINK the (FERMENTED) PICKLE JUICE!!!”
Most pickles consumed in America, of course, aren’t fermented at all; the pickles are simply bathed in flavored vinegar. Are vinegar brines good for you, too? Recent studies show that vinegar both reduces appetite and, in people with diabetes or insulin resistance, lowers blood sugar after meals. Tradition credits vinegar with many more medicinal uses. According to Emily Thacker, author of The Vinegar Book, cider vinegar externally applied is said to preserve hair color, conquer the frizzies, end dandruff, soothe aching feet, cure fungal infections, and relieve welts, hives, and varicose veins. Administered by mouth, vinegar made from apples is supposed to cure a sore throat, relieve arthritis, settle the stomach, ease gas pains, cure hiccups, melt fat from the bones, and prevent food poisoning and ulcers, not to mention dementia. Drunk with water at dinnertime, cider vinegar is said to prevent nighttime leg cramps.
The belief in vinegar as a cure for muscle cramps has spread through the world of sports. Kevin C. Miller, a sports-science researcher at North Dakota State University, found that a quarter of athletic trainers have used “pickle juice” to treat muscle cramps. This “juice” needn’t come from pressed apples at all; Miller and his colleagues have tested the belief using the distilled-vinegar-based liquid from jars of Vlasic dill pickles. After the scientists electrically induced cramps in the big toes of exhausted athletes, they found that athletes fed pickle juice recovered 37 percent faster than those who drank de-ionized water, and 45 percent faster than those who drank nothing. Neither the salt nor the potassium metabisulfite in the pickle juice could explain this difference, the researchers concluded; the cure was too sudden. Miller postulated that something in the acidic liquid must have affected neural receptors in the throat or stomach, and those receptors must have sent signals that somehow disrupted the muscle cramps.
Or maybe the athletes could taste the different between pickle juice and water, and so the placebo effect came into play?
No matter—the faith in pickle juice in the gym bag has grown so strong that an enterprising Texan named Brandon Brooks is marketing a pickle-brine-like liquid to compete with Gatorade. No cucumber or other vegetable has ever touched this mix of water, salt, vinegar of an unidentified sort, nutritional additives, preservatives, yellow dye, and “natural dill flavoring,” and Brooks admits that “nothing on the package tastes good.” But taste is not the point—after all, how many people actually like Gatorade? For pickier athletes, Brooks is developing a version of his product made with pomegranate extract; a little sugar should help the medicine go down.
Another entrepreneur from the Lone Star State, John Howard, says drinking pickle brine is an old Texan habit. He likes his pickle brine cold—ice-cold. Having begun freezing leftover pickle juice for customers at his roller rink, he now sells his frozen Pickle Pops through the Internet, to Walmart, and even to public schools. Free of added sugar, Pickle Pops, his website brags, are not a “food of minimal nutritional value.”
Tomorrow I’ll continue this article, with the focus on pickle brine in bar drinks.