Uses for Pickle Brine, Part I

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.

Check That Vinegar Label

Until recently, cider and distilled vinegar sold in the United States was dependably diluted to 5-percent acetic acid. All U.S. Department of Agriculture home-canning recipes that call for vinegar specify a strength of 5 percent, and in writing recipes myself I’ve assumed that cider or distilled vinegar will have this strength. When I’ve called for wine vinegar, I’ve assumed a strength of at least 5 percent, since wine vinegars on the market sometimes range in strength as high as 7 percent. Only when I’ve specified rice vinegar have I allowed for less acidity, because rice vinegars are typically sold at 4 to 4.3 percent acid.

At a class I recently taught at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City, a student told me she’d bought a bottle of Four Monks cider vinegar labeled as 4 percent acid. I was perplexed, especially because Four Monks is one of the country’s leading producers of vinegar for home canning, if not the leading producer. And then another student pointed out that the wine vinegar we’d just used for pickling plums was also labeled, by a company I’d never heard of, as 4 percent acid.

At home a few days later, I checked the Food and Drug Administration’s “standard of identity” for vinegar. This regulation requires a minimum acidity of only 4 percent, for vinegar of any sort. So Mizkan, the Japanese company that owns Four Monks, and other 4-percent producers are staying within the law, while hoping consumers won’t notice the change. Or maybe they’re hoping we’ll die quietly?

Actually, if you’ve accidentally pickled with 4-percent vinegar, your family is highly unlikely to die of botulism. USDA pickle recipes, and most of my own, produce pickles far lower in pH (and therefore higher in acid) than the 4.6 percent that’s considered the safe limit for avoiding botulism. If you’re worried, you can buy yourself a pH meter and check your pickles, after the jars have sat on the shelf for several weeks (grind up a jarful in a blender, add distilled water if the slurry is very thick, and calibrate your pH meter before taking the measurement).

If you’re using old family recipes, though, your pickles canned with 4-percent vinegar may possibly be dangerously low in acid. At the very least, you probably didn’t get what you thought you’d paid for.

If you have 4-percent vinegar sitting on your shelf right now, you can still use it for pickling if you follow the formula I published earlier this year for rice vinegar.

The next time you go shopping for vinegar, be sure to read the label carefully. Look for the percentage of acid, and while you’re at it make sure you don’t buy “apple cider flavored vinegar”—distilled vinegar with flavor chemicals added—in place of true cider vinegar. That ugly bit of marketing trickery has been going on for about fifteen years now.


Chard Stems for Winter Pickling

The rain is back today, but we’ve just been through a spate of icy weather here in the Willamette Valley. All that I’ve been able to harvest from the garden, besides half-frozen parsley, are vegetables growing under plastic sheeting. Even under the plastic the lettuce has frozen. The lone survivors are kale, turnips, mizuna, arugula, peas, and Swiss chard.

Though in summer I always have some chard growing, this hardy plant, from which you can harvest continually for months, is much more valuable to me in cooler seasons. I happily use the leaves in many of the same ways I use spinach.

But I have never quite known what to do with the stems. Spaniards boil them, roll them in flour and egg, and fry them, but the results, to my mind, fail to justify the mess. Italians boil the stalks nearly to mush—for thirty minutes, according to Marcella Hazan—and then sauté them with garlic or bake them with butter and cheese. In parts of France, say the authors of Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, chard stems are traditionally fermented in a weak brine without seasonings. After trying the recipe, though, I made a one-word marginal note: “Yuck.”

I do like chard stems raw. They’re crisp like celery but juicier, and pleasantly sweet. Even more so than celery, though, they’re stringy, especially if they’re big. To avoid ending up chewing on a wad of string, you have to string each stem before you eat it, by loosening the outer fibers at one cut end and gently stripping them down the length. Fortunately, this is a quick and easy task.

If chard stems are this good raw, they ought to be good pickled in vinegar, right? I had overlooked this possibility in developing recipes for the first edition of The Joy of Pickling. So a few weeks ago I tried making a quick chard pickle, using a minimal quantity of good, mild wine vinegar to enhance rather than overwhelm the delicate flavor of the vegetable. Here’s my recipe:

Pickled Chard Stems

¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
1 pinch of hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
About ¾ pound chard stems, cut into lengths of about 4 inches, sliced lengthwise if they’re broad, and strung*

Combine all of the ingredients except the chard in a small saucepan, and cover the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool.

While the pickling liquid cools, pack the chard sticks into the pint jar. Trim them, if necessary, to allow about ½ inch headspace. Pour the cooled liquid and spices over the chard, covering it completely. Close the jar, and store it in the refrigerator.

The pickled chard is delicious after twelve hours and even better after a week or two. It will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

After developing this recipe I checked the Web to see if other people are pickling chard. They are indeed. I found Kaela’s recipe, with a heavy use of vinegar, and another with large proportions of sugar and hot sauce as well as vinegar. I also found one, from Jennifer Burns Levin, that’s more moderately flavored, with the 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water that the USDA recommends for canning. Although the USDA hasn’t developed its own chard pickle recipe or suggested a processing time for such a pickle, Jennifer’s recipe would be a good starting point if you’re determined to can your pickled chard.

Both Jennifer’s and Kaela’s recipes are worth looking at if only for the photos, because the chard is so beautifully colored. My chard pickles, made from white-stemmed chard, look so plain that I didn’t bother to photograph them. Next spring I’ll plant some red-stemmed chard—or maybe Bright Lights, a 1998 AAS winner with mixed yellow, orange, and pink stems—just so I can make chard pickles that look as lovely as they taste.


*Note that stringing chard stems is even more important when you’re pickling them than when you’re eating them raw, because the strings tend to separate from the flesh during pickling and become immediately noticeable in the mouth.

How to Titrate Wine, Vinegar, Verjuice, or Lemon Juice

Although I’m providing these instructions now because I promised to do so in my recent discussion of lemon juice (“Real Lemon versus ReaLemon,” April 19, 2011), I took most of the pictures you see here more than a year ago, after someone asked me for advice in using the strong cider vinegar from her boyfriend’s orchard. The vinegar had tested at 10-percent acid. I checked with an Extension agent I know: “To use 10-percent vinegar in a pickle recipe calling for 5-percent vinegar, you cut the vinegar with an equal amount of water, right?” No, said the agent. She would never tell anyone that it was okay to use any vinegar not commercially labeled as 5-percent acid. How could the woman know her boyfriend’s vinegar was 10-percent acid? I pressed, but the agent was firm. People should always get their pickling vinegar from a store. You just can’t trust regular people to know how to titrate vinegar. Well, my husband does titration, as do a lot of home winemakers. The process is simple, and the equipment and supplies—a graduated 100- or 250-milliliter cylinder, a graduated 10-millilter pipette, a 250-millimeter buret and stand, a 250-millimeter flask, distilled water, phenolphthalein indicator, and .2N or .1N sodium hydroxide—together cost only about $120, or less if you choose plastic instead of glassware. The chemicals are available at brewing- and winemaking-supply shops, and the glassware from science suppliers.

Here are the steps in titration:

1. Bring some distilled water to a boil to drive off any carbon dioxide. You’ll need a little less than ½ cup water per test. Measure 100 milliliters water in a graduated cylinder. Then pour the water into a small flask.

2. Draw 5 milliliters wine, vinegar, or juice into a pipette—a glass tube with a very narrow opening at the bottom and a wider one at the top. You can draw up the fluid either by putting the top of the tube in your mouth and sucking or by using a rubber bulb made for the purpose. Then put your finger firmly over the top opening, and check the fluid level. Do you have a little more than 5 millimeters? If so, lift your finger to drain a bit out. Because the pipette is so skinny, this is a very precise way of measuring.

3. Hold the pipette over the flask of water, and lift your finger to let the wine, vinegar, or juice drain out. Add three drops of phenolphthalein indicator solution. Phenolphathalein is the ingredient that made Ex-Lax useful for acid-base experiments when you were a child.

4. Now you’re going to use the buret. It’s a graduated glass tube, on a stand, with a small lower aperture and a stopcock. Pour .2N sodium hydroxide into the buret to near the top of the numbered scale. (Scientists read the N as “normal.” If you’re using .1N sodium hydroxide instead of .2N, see the paragraph following this. Also, keep in mind that sodium hydroxide, however normal, is very corrosive. You don’t want to suck it up with a pipette.)

5. See how the surface of the fluid in the buret curves, like a contact lens? This curve is called a meniscus. Record the number at the bottom of the meniscus. 

6. Now turn the stopcock so the base solution in the buret slowly drips into the indicator solution while, with your other hand, you swirl the flask. As each drop of base solution falls into the flask, a spot of pink may briefly appear. As you continue adding the base solution, the pinkness will take a little longer to dissipate. Add the drops slowly, and keep swirling. As soon as the liquid in the flask turns a uniform pale pink, stop adding drops. If you wait for the fluid to turn hot pink you’ll have gone too far, and your results won’t be accurate.

7. Record the level of the fluid remaining in the buret. Then record the difference between this number and the one you recorded in step 5.

8. If you’re measuring acetic acid (in vinegar), divide the difference by 4.16. If you’re measuring citric acid (in lemon or other citrus juice), divide the difference by 3.90. If you’re measuring tartaric acid (in wine or verjuice), divide the difference by 3.33. The result is the percentage of acid in your sample.

I could give you formulas for figuring out the percentage of acid regardless of the size of your sample or the normality of your sodium hydroxide, but the formulas might confuse you as much as they confuse me. If you can’t find .2N sodium hydroxide, you’re likely to find .1N instead. In this case, just double the divisor in step 8. If you start with a 10-milliliter sample instead of a 5-millimeter sample, do the same: Double the divisor. If you use .1N sodium hydroxide and a 10-millimeter sample, multiply the divisor by 4.

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, for practice and to ensure accuracy, repeat the titration, preferably twice. If you have any trouble, watch the very detailed video on titration technique at

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