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.

 

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, says 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 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 Joy of Pickling. So a few weeks ago I tried 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 in 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.

*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.

After developing this recipe I checked the Web to see if other people are pickling chard. They are indeed. I found one 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.