Rice Vinegar for Home Canning

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
5 pinches pepper flakes
5 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.

Innovations in Canning Tools

A company called Progressive is about to release to the market a set of five new tools for home canners, and I’ve had an early opportunity to try them out. Here’s what I’ve found.

The stainless-steel wire jar rack, 10½ inches in diameter, has petal-like loops that flare upward from the center, to 1/2 inch above the base. The rack holds seven pint or half-pint standard mason jars, narrow- or wide-mouth, more securely than has any other wire rack I’ve used. Here you see the rack in my 16-quart stockpot with jars of various sizes. Flip the rack over, and it will hold four standard quart jars.

The peculiar shape of the red and white plastic ladle allows you to scoop nearly all of a batch of hot jam quickly into jars instead of having to pour and scrape it from the pot when you’ve given up on your round-bottomed ladle. One scoop fills a half-pint jar. Although the plastic looks as if it would melt in a dishwasher, Progressive says it will stand heat of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The ladle suffered no harm, in fact, when I used it to stir a pot of hot chili on the stove. The ladle has both a hook for hanging from the side of a pot and a loop for hanging from a rack.

The plastic funnel is made up of two parts, an inner red part that fits into the mouth of a mason jar and an outer white part marked in fractions of an inch for measuring headspace. This works well for liquids, but to see clearly whether vegetable or fruit pieces are floating up into the headspace you’ll still have to look into the top of the jar.

Because the white part of the funnel extends lower than the red part, you can set the funnel on a dirty counter without contaminating the part that will enter your jars. The handle on the side makes the funnel extra bulky, but it helps keep fingers out of the interior, and you can hang the funnel by the handle, if you like, instead of stuffing it in a drawer. (The pickle pictured here, by the way, is cauliflower colored by red cabbage. I don’t actually process this pickle or heat any of the ingredients.)

The jar lifter is the only one of these tools that doesn’t strike me as special. Its spring-loaded hinges keep the lifter open until you grasp the top, and this feature is supposed to make the lifter easy to use one-handed. But I’ve never had any trouble using my thirty-some-year-old jar lifter with one hand. I like my old jar lifter better, in fact, because it takes up less room in a drawer.

The magnetized lid lifter has a swollen rim that makes it easy to release a lid with one hand. Just turn the handle downward, and the magnet comes free, leaving the lid in place. The lid lifter has a loop at the top so you can hang it—a good idea, because no lid lifter is worth bothering with if you can’t find it quickly. (Keep in mind that this writer has fingers of asbestos.)

Although I don’t care for the plasticky look of these tools (excepting the stainless rack), I admire their clever designs, which originate in Progressive’s offices in Kent, Washington. But Progressive tools, sadly, are manufactured in China. If only the company would live up to its name by moving the factory to the USA! I’d pay more for American-made canning tools; wouldn’t you?

More Evidence that Alcoholic Drinks Are Good for You

Here’s to the man who drinks water pure and goes to bed quite sober.
Here’s to the man who drinks water pure and goes to bed quite sober.
He falls as the leaves do fall, falls as the leaves do fall, falls as the leaves do fall.
He’ll die before October.                                                                                                                                                                                                           –Traditional English drinking song

A deep sense of peace settles over our place each autumn once the last of the apples and grapes are picked, crushed, and pressed and bubbling away in the garage. Making wine or cider requires a lot of labor for a few hours, but the work is pleasant and sociable, and amazingly productive when you consider how long it would take to can or dry all that fruit. With fermentation as with pregnancy, anticipating the outcome lends a quiet excitement to life. The first taste is a celebration, for the product of each pressing is unique and nearly always good, if not great. Like a new lamb, a kitten, or a child.

So I always like having scientists confirm that drinking alcoholic beverages is good for us. Carolyn Aldwin and her colleagues at Oregon State University have recently done just that, in reporting results of their eighteen-year study of stress and mortality in middle-aged and older men. The moderate drinkers, the scientists found, lived substantially longer than the teetotalers. What the drinkers drank—wine? beer? cocktails?—apparently wasn’t reported. Maybe the alcohol alone extended their lives, by frequently anesthetizing them against life’s little torments. Maybe the teetotalers shortened their lives by contracting or even skipping the calming ritual involved with having a drink—the sitting at table, the sharing of food, the conversation with friends or family. In any case, says Carolyn Aldwin, “Perhaps trying to keep your major stress events to a minimum, being married, and having a glass of wine every night is the secret to a long life.”

For men, at least. Other studies have found that women are best off without marriage, and that even moderate drinking may increase the risk of female breast cancer. But I trust the wisdom of our ancestors: A little wine or hard cider each day will do you more good than harm. And taking the time to make that wine or cider yourself can only make life sweeter, if not longer.