Tools for Measuring Brine Strength

In making fermented pickles, brine strength is critical. A too-salty pickle can be entirely unpalatable, although what’s too salty for one person can be just right for another, and what’s too salty for a person one day can be perfect for the same person a day later (if salt raises your blood pressure high, fermented pickles aren’t for you at all, because you can’t make them without salt). By regulating the growth of various microbes that are naturally present on the vegetables in the pickle crock, salt minimizes the risk of spoilage and maximizes your chance of producing firm and delicious pickles with a complex, sour taste.

Salt varies in density depending on its coarseness, so in mixing brine you can correctly measure salt by volume only if your salt has the same density as the recipe writer’s. This is why, in The Joy of Pickling, I always call for pickling salt—fine, pure sodium chloride. If you’re using another kind of salt—for example, kosher (which is generally less dense than pickling salt, no matter what the package says)—you may need to measure it by weight rather than by volume. The Joy of Pickling includes tables for translating between volume and weight.

Now, what if you’ve made up some brine and then wondered whether you’ve done it right? Maybe the salt looks fine to you, but it isn’t labeled as pickling salt, and your kitchen scale is broken. Maybe you’re not sure that you counted cups or tablespoons correctly, or that your scale is accurate. Can you check the brine strength?

You can, indeed, and my in-house Science Guy wanted to be sure I had the tools to do so. So he bought me a refractometer and a hydrometer. I used them recently while making up brine for beef tongue.

A hydrometer for measuring brine strength is also called, confusingly, a salinometer, a salimeter, a salometer, and a brinometer. My husband bought one from Butcher and Packer (search for “salinometer”). Priced at only $15.75, it’s a glass tube sealed at both ends. The swollen bottom end has a lump of lead enclosed at the tip, and the narrow top end has a precisely placed slip of paper printed with a scale. The hydrometer works by the same principle as the egg that picklers once floated to check brine strength, except that the hydrometer tells you not simply that your brine is quite strong but exactly how strong it is.

To use the hydrometer, float it in a tall container of brine. My hydrometer came in a thin, narrow plastic storage tube which is meant to double as a cylinder for floating the hydrometer, but my husband recommends buying a regular hydrometer cylinder, or “jar,” in the size of 500 milliliters. With your hydrometer floating in brine, look for the number at the top of the brine. What does the number mean? To find out, you need a table like the one at Meats and Sausages (an amazingly complete and authoritative source of information on meat curing). Look down the column for your hydrometer reading, and then find the corresponding figure under “Pounds of Salt per Gallon of Water” or “Percent of Sodium Chloride (Salt) by Weight.” To adjust your brine, add salt or water until you get the hydrometer reading that matches the salt percentage or weight you’re aiming for.

Note that a salinity hydrometer is scaled for brine at a certain temperature—normally 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, my hydrometer came with a table of adjustments in case the brine is warmer or colder.

Note also that, if you’re adding sugar to a brine (as is generally done for meat curing, though not for fermenting vegetables), you can accurately measure the brine strength only before you’ve added sugar. Once you’ve added sugar, the hydrometer will measure the density of the solution, not the salinity of the brine.

A refractometer is fancier and more expensive than a hydrometer. The same basic instrument that grape growers use to determine the sugar content of their grapes, a refractometer looks like a little telescope. You drip a drop of brine onto the plate at one end and then look into the eyepiece at the other end, aiming the device toward a lighted window or other light source. You see the brine strength clearly indicated on a scale before your eye.

My husband got my refractometer at Cole-Palmer, where old-fashioned salinity refractometers range from $105 to $116. (Cheaper refractometers, intended for home aquarium use, are available from Amazon, though I can’t vouch for them. There are also digital refractometers, which cost more.) One model measures salt content in parts per thousand; others measure the percentage of salt by weight of the solution. You can translate percentage of salt to either weight or volume by using the tables in The Joy of Pickling.

Like a hydrometer, a refractometer is temperature-specific (in this case it’s the temperature of the air, not the brine, that matters), but you can calibrate the instrument before performing your test.

Do home picklers really need either of these instruments? Generally no, in my opinion, but either one can be useful at times, and a hydrometer costs so little that you may want to have one on hand just in case you need it, as well as for science lessons for the kids or grandkids. A refractometer, of course, is a bigger investment. You may want one if you go into pickling or meat curing as a business.

Updated January 2022.

0 thoughts on “Tools for Measuring Brine Strength”

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I have been searching for instructions on how to use a hydrometer and happened onto your blog. You not only explained it completely but you gave the source which was completely informative. I was unsure whether to add the sugar into the brine before or after testing the salinity. I’m also going to subscribe because you have so many tasty items on here. I want to make the grape jelly too!

    1. You’re very welcome Teri, and thank you for subscribing to the blog. But do you know that Oregon grapes aren’t really grapes? If you want to make true grape jelly and need a recipe, let me know what kind of grapes you have.

      1. Linda I have a question that you may be able to help with. We are trying to figure out the nutritional content of the veggies that we soaked in the brine. If we use a brine solution how do we know the amount of sodium our veggies have in them? I hope the question makes sense and thank you in advance.

  2. Thank you!!! Linda, I am SO glad I found this. Very helpful. Though I was searching the www looking for a way of calculating brine strength. I’ve availed myself of the brine strength table on p 38 of your wonderful book “The Joy of Pickling” but my mission was actually to find a formula for doing this. I’m working my way through a variety of vegetable fermentation recipes and trying to determine which have sufficient brine strength to be canned in a boiling water bath once the fermenting process is done. ( I will note here my disappointment that all the fermentation recipes in the “Ball” book (except for sauerkraut) have vinegar and sugar. Ditto the U Georgia’s “So Easy to Preserve”. )

  3. Hi, an accurate refractometer can be had for under $30. I bought one off Amazon and have tested it to be very accurate. It’s much less hassle than dealing with a hydrometer.

    1. Thanks for that information, S2F. I see there are now a bunch of cheap refractometers available through Amazon, and some even cost less than twenty dollars. The reviews are mostly positive, so these refractometers may well be good for at least occasional home use.

  4. Linda I was wondering if you could shed some light on a question I am having difficulty answering. I pickle peppers at home and I am trying to figure out the amount of sodium my veggies have once they soak in a brine. How does the sodium level correlate to the amount of salt used in the brine / % of salt in the water? Thank you!

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