Pickling is enjoying a comeback in American cuisine. Once a standard kitchen practice, home food preservation dwindled in the pro-industrial, pro-consumer climate that reigned over the last half of the 20th century. Today however, small-batch artisanal pickled products are popping up at specialty food shops and farmers markets across the country. These next-generation picklers offer everything from classic sour pickles to spicy pickled okra. The DIY community has also jumped in the proverbial pickle barrel, filling their crafty, food-focused blogs with odes and how-to recipes for all things briny and stuffed into mason jars.
The recent pickling craze is a natural offshoot of the eat local movement. Pickling along with jamming, canning and otherwise "putting up" fresh foods to maximize the summer’s bounty through the winter is the next logical step after committing to eat locally grown produce. But after the pickles are gone, there's yet another opportunity to keep the sustainability chain going: Cook with the leftover pickle brine.
While the majority of pickle jar juice likely gets poured down the drain, the tangy liquid is a remarkably versatile ingredient. It also boasts nutritional benefits, including enough electrolytes to make it an increasingly popular alternative sports drink. [Editor's note: A helpful reader called to say please be wary of broad statements about using pickle juice as a sports drink. Pickle juice, which contains potassium, will prevent muscle cramping, but it doesn't contain carbohydrates.] When cooking, the trick is to think of it as a substitute for other acidic liquids like lemon juice or vinegar (many pickle brands actually contain good amounts of vinegar) — only amplified in flavor with garlic, dill and other spices.
Try spooning a few teaspoons of pickle juice into picnic favorites like potato salad, egg salad, coleslaw and pasta salad. And take the edge off of fresh chopped onions by steeping them in pickle juice for 15 minutes before adding them to bean salads. Stir some brine into homemade vinaigrette-style salad dressings and into saucy marinades for grilled chicken, fish or tofu. Drizzle a few tablespoons into borscht, gazpacho or other soups, and add extra zing to sauteed green beans, kale or beets by tossing some brine in right before serving. Serious pickle fanatics can dip potato chips directly into pickle juice, or stir it into yogurt for a tangy ranch-style dip.
And then, of course, there are the drinks. Pickle juice makes a natural substitute for olive juice in a dirty martini and a pleasingly sour addition to a Bloody Mary. The folks at artisanal pickle company McClure's Pickles launched a Bloody Mary Mix that gets its spicy kick from the company’s own cayenne and habañero pepper-laced brine.
The Pickle Back — a shot of whiskey followed immediately by a shot of pickle brine — is another drink that has gained favor at hipster-friendly bars. Downing one (or three) is an "only the strong survive" kind of experience, but devotees swear that brine makes the perfect neutralizer for whiskey’s burn. Luckily, according to Linda Ziedrich’s “The Joy of Pickling” (2009), pickle juice doubles as its own hangover cure: "[In Poland, hangover sufferers] fill a glass with equal parts chilled pickle brine and ice-cold club soda, and drink the mixture down at once."
Brine novices might want to start slowly with a recipe that features pickle juice as a flavoring, instead of the main ingredient — like this Pickle-Kissed Bean Salad.
Pickle Kissed Bean Salad
- 1/2 red onion, chopped fine
- 1/4 cup + 2 teaspoons dill pickle brine
- 1 15 ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 15 ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 15 ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sugar or honey
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Combine red onion and 1/4 cup pickle brine in a small bowl; stir and set aside for 10-15 minutes to allow the onion to mellow.
Meanwhile, add all three beans and celery to a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the parsley, olive oil, remaining 2 teaspoons of brine, sugar, salt and pepper. Add the dressing and the red onion mixture to the beans and toss to coat.