Another Cause of Soft Pickles

cuke beetle scars on Agnes
Cucumber beetle scars on Agnes cucumbers

I threw out half of my first crock of brined cucumbers this year, because the cucumbers were strangely soft. Much more upsetting than the loss was the fact that I couldn’t explain it. I am supposed to understand such things!

Now I’ve figured it out. The spotted cucumber beetles have been more numerous than ever this summer. For a week or two, stepping into the vegetable garden was like entering a bee swarm, except that I could swat the yellow devils with impunity. Early in the season, many cucumbers were scarred from the beetles’ bites. These scars looked like scars, not open wounds, not rotten spots. I’d seen them many times before, though never in such quantity. As usual, I ignored the scars as I filled the first crock.

A cucumber beetle scar on another variety
A cucumber beetle scar on another variety

The most scarred cucumbers, it turned out, were of the Agnes variety. In fact, few other cucumbers had any scarring at all. Nearly all the cucumbers I ended up throwing out were Agnes. Their skins rubbed off at the scar sites. When I’d press on a scar, the soft flesh below would spurt out. Where a scar had touched the smooth skin of a neighboring cucumber in the crock, the second cucumber sometimes suffered a bit of softening, too.

Agnes, developed in Holland, is always bitter-free, so I doubt that the bitter-loving beetles are especially attracted by its flavor. I suspect that they like this variety, or at least can most easily injure it, because its skin is especially thin.

I’m still pickling Agnes cucumbers, but I’m taking care to cut away every bit of beetle damage. And I’ll do that in the future no matter what cucumber variety I’m pickling.

Uses for Pickle Brine, Part II

As American bartenders have grown increasingly inventive in recent years, some have taken inspiration from the pickle jar on the bar. The dirty martini—a martini with a bit of olive brine added—has long been a bartending favorite. But now, all over the United States, bars are serving new drinks with names like pickleback, dirty pickle, picklet, and pickletini.

Joe and Bob McClure, who learned to make pickles from their Michigan grandparents and now produce them commercially in Detroit, claim that the pickleback originated in Brooklyn, New York, in 2006, when the two brothers were storing early batches of their pickles in the cellar of a gritty bar called the Bushwick Country Club. The story goes that one of the bartenders drank some pickle brine just after downing a shot of whiskey, and he liked the combination. So he tried it on customers, and they liked it, too. Soon the pickleback spread to other Brooklyn bars.

In the spring of 2010, the world of cocktail journalism was abuzz with news of the pickleback. One bartender, T. J. Lynch, told a reporter that he usually offered a chaser of house-made pickle brine whenever anyone ordered Jameson Irish whiskey.  Not every customer was grateful; “It’s fun to watch them suffer if they don’t like it,” Lynch said. He’d been serving so many picklebacks, he told another reporter, that he’d had to start giving away the pickles.

What’s the attraction of a pickle-brine chaser for whiskey? Blogger Jake Jamieson was initially disgusted at the thought, but he later found a pickleback to be “pretty excellent” with the brine of Claussen half-sours. Pickle juice “does a remarkably smooth job of cutting the fire off straight Jameson,” wrote Justin Rocket Silverman. Toby Cecchini, after following a shot of Old Crow bourbon with a shot of brine from a jar of McClure’s dills, wrote that the taste was “shockingly good”; the brine left “a snappy, savory tang that curled about the last remnants of the smoky bourbon.” Lance Mayhew, a Portland bartender, liked the “rich, umami flavor” pickle juice left on his palate after a shot of Jameson’s but warned that a pickleback with any other whiskey was “disastrous” (Lance drank his picklebacks along with light lager beer). In the Washington Post, finally, Jason Wilson concluded that that“brine and whiskey made one of those mysteriously wonderful combinations, and it doesn’t hurt that pickle juice is second to none in preventing dehydration.” If nothing else, then, drinking pickle brine along with hard liquor helps to prevent a hangover.

Since all that excited press in 2010, picklebacks and pickle-juice cocktails have become ordinary barroom drinks. David Buchanan, who suggested the topic of this post, says they are particularly popular in casinos.

Fermented Brine in Bar Drinks?

Apparently, the pickle juice in a pickleback is normally vinegar-based. Considering the growing popularity of fermented vegetables, I wondered if some bartenders had begun using the cloudy brines naturally soured by lactic-acid-producing bacteria. In fact, by 2010 Erica Christ of the Black Forest Inn, in Minneapolis, was making krautinis, using sauerkraut brine combined with mild frozen gin and kümmel, a sweet liqueur flavored with caraway, cumin, and fennel. I’d have a hard time getting kümmel if I wanted to duplicate this weird concoction, which I don’t. I’m more interested in fermented cucumber brine. How does it taste in picklebacks and cocktails? Are any bartenders using it?

A search of the Web didn’t turn up any examples, so I decided to experiment at home. Because I’ve drunk cocktails about three times in my life, I needed a more qualified taster. I sent my husband to the liquor store for gin, vermouth, and vodka. Then I poured him a spoonful of fermented cucumber brine, and he had himself a—

Dirty Pickle Martini

3 ounces (6 tablespons) gin
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) dry vermouth
1 teaspoon chilled brine from fermented cucumber pickles

Combine the gin, vermouth, and pickle brine in a cocktail glass, and stir. Garnish with a small cucumber pickle.

That was delightful, Robert said. With his help I next devised a—

Bloody Mary Mixer with Fermented Pickle Brine
Makes 8 servings

For this recipe, you want tomato purée that’s just slightly thicker than it usually comes from fresh tomatoes. The purée of meaty tomatoes, such as Romas, would be perfect. If your purée is thinner and separated, you might pour off the clear liquid and use just the thicker stuff that remains. Commercially canned tomato “juice” (unreduced purée) would serve well enough, too.

1 quart unreduced but moderately thick tomato purée
¾ cup brine from fermented cucumbers
2 tablespoons brine from fermented hot peppers, or substitute hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons finely grated horseradish
1 teaspoon celery seeds

In a jar or pitcher, stir together the tomato purée, cucumber brine, hot pepper brine (or hot pepper sauce), Worcestershire sauce, and black pepper. Tie the horseradish and celery seeds in a spice bag or scrap of cheesecloth, and immerse it in the mixture. Cover the container, and refrigerate it for one to two days.

When you’re ready to serve the drinks, squeeze and remove the spice bag, and stir the mixer. Fill each highball glass halfway with ice. Add 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of vodka and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of Bloody Mary mixer to each glass. Stir, garnish with a long pickle spear, and serve.

I would have liked this drink well enough, I think, without the vodka. Robert had to empty my glass after finishing his own.

Now the question is this: Does the probiotic bacteria in the pickle brine survive the poisonous alcohol long enough to do your tummy any good? Only Robert’s intestinal flora know for sure.