Today’s post is inspired by a reader question that came in from Dawn. Dawn wrote:
I recently received a gift of home canned dilly green beans. After they were eaten I couldn’t get myself to throw out the pickling liquid with dill and garlic. I blanched some cauliflower and filled the jar back up. In no time I was enjoying pickled cauliflower. Is there any reason to not reuse the pickling liquid? How many times can I reuse it?
Can you reuse pickling brine? The answer is yes, and no.
Let’s start with what you can’t do first, and why, and then move on to the zillion things you can do with your tasty leftover pickle brine.
Never Reuse Pickling Brine To Can A New Batch of Pickles
First, you cannot reuse pickling brine to make more canned pickles. By this I mean, vegetables, preserved in brine and processed in a water bath canner so they can be kept in the pantry at room temperature.
Always preserve your canned pickled vegetables with freshly made brine that’s made based on an approved recipe. Making home canned pickles with reused pickle brine is unsafe.
Here’s why. A safe brine for pickling and canning has a certain salt and vinegar percentage that ensures the vegetable – cucumbers, green beans, beets, whatever – will be properly acidulated to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum and other nasty microbes.
When a vegetable is pickled, the vinegar and the salt draw water out of the cells of the vegetable and, through osmotic action, the salt and acid levels stabilize between the brine and the vegetable being pickled.
In other words, the vegetables soak up some of the salt and vinegar, and the brine is diluted. This isn’t a problem when you first make canned pickles because tested brines account for the dilution that occurs when the brine interacts with the vegetables.
However, once the brine has been used to successfully pickle one batch of vegetables, it is no longer at the original salinity or acidity level that allowed it to safely can that first batch of pickles.
If you attempt to can a second batch of pickles with reused brine, you could be setting yourself up for some really bad microbial growth you do not want.
So that’s what you can’t do: never reuse pickle brine to can an additional batch of pickles.
A Safer Option To Reuse Pickling Brine
Here’s what you can do: make refrigerator pickles!
Refrigerator pickles – also called quick pickles – are just raw or lightly blanched vegetables seasoned with a soak in a flavorful brine in the fridge. They’re called quick pickles because they are so fast to make. In some cases quick pickles might soak in a brine for just an hour before you eat them, in other cases several days or even a few weeks.
Generally, you leave your fridge pickles in their brine until they taste nice and flavorful. Three days usually does the trick.
Because refrigerator pickles are not being sealed up in a jar and left at room temperature, the preservative quality of the brine and the acid and salt levels are less critical, so you can go ahead and make refrigerator pickles with tasty delicious reused brine.
But even here there are a few caveats. A dilute brine will not be as effective at preventing bacterial growth, even at cool fridge temperatures. And your fridge pickles with reused brine will not last as long as pickles made with full strength brine. Watch closely for signs of contamination, such as a murky brine, yeast or mold growth, scum on the surface of the brine, or pickles which are mushy.
What Vegetables Can You Quick Pickle?
Any vegetable that is appropriate to pickle with a full-strength brine will be fine to use for quick refrigerator pickles with leftover brine. The best candidates tend to be vegetables that will retain their shape and crispness.
Strong flavored brassicas like broccoli, collard greens and kale can become unpleasant as a pickle. Carrots, cauliflower, beets and other dense vegetables may be blanched if desired. Particularly watery vegetables like cucumbers can be pre-salted as described below.
I’m particularly fond of quick pickles of onions and daikon.
What Is The Best Way To Reuse Pickling Brine For Quick Pickles?
Is there one best way to make quick pickles with reused brine? Probably not – pickles being a subjective thing. But Cook’s Illustrated, which takes a fairly scientific approach to testing various cooking techniques, tested making quick pickles with cucumbers and reused brine two ways.
The first method was to drop fresh cucumber slices right into leftover brine and leave the slices in the brine, refrigerated, for 24 hours.
The second method was to lightly toss the cucumber slices with 1 – 1/2 teaspoons fine salt per pound of cucumbers to draw out excess water. The Cook’s Illustrated team allowed the salted cucumbers to sit in a colander and drain for an hour. They then transferred the salted cucumber slices to a jar, brought their re-used pickle brine to a boil and poured it over the salted cucumber slices. This batch was also kept in the fridge for 24 hours.
The results were far better for the second method. Cook’s Illustrated says lightly pre-salting the vegetable and boiling the brine when reusing pickle brine results in quick pickles that are “the right dense texture and deeper color, and [are] brightly flavored and well seasoned with garlic and dill from the brine.” (Source)
How Many Times Can You Reuse Pickle Brine?
I strongly advise against the “infinite pickle” approach to your brine. With every round of vegetables that you cycle through, you are further diluting the salt and acidity level of your brine. Which means every batch gets riskier in terms of bacterial growth, molds, etc.
I think it’s pretty damn safe to reuse your brine for a batch of quick pickles once. You might be able to get away with it twice, but it would depend on the moisture content of the vegetables you’re quick pickling, the starting salinity and acidity of your original brine, and whether you salt your vegetables before reusing your brine.
That’s a lot of variables, so I can’t really recommend using your brine for quick refrigerator pickles more than once. Instead, check below for ideas on how to use that flavorful brine in other ways.
A Zillion Other Ways To Use Pickle Brine
Beyond quick pickles, there are plenty of ways to use up a jar of pickle brine. Think of it as a pre-seasoned vinegar substitute that’s adaptable for use in soups, braises, dips, dressings and even drinks.
There is no limit to the ways to use leftover pickle brine in your kitchen, but here are a few ideas to get you started.
Salads, Sauces, Dips and Dressings
- Toss warm pickle brine over warm potatoes when making potato salad. The brine will season the potatoes. This works for pasta salad as well.
- Substitute pickle brine for the vinegar in almost any salad dressing. Coleslaw dressing and 1000 Island are particularly good flavor matches here.
- Add pickle brine to tartar sauce, seafood dips, or aiolis.
- Make an easy dip for veggies with mayo or yogurt, fresh dill and pickle brine.
- Add pickle brine to tuna, ham, egg or chicken salad.
- Use as a salad dressing all by itself – just toss thinly sliced cucumbers, radishes, onions or other crisp vegetables together with a little pickle brine for a snack.
- Substitute pickle brine for vinegar in barbecue sauce recipes.
- Mix with cream cheese for a dip or sandwich spread.
- Add to hummus instead of the more traditional lemon juice.
- Use pickle brine – especially from spicy pickled peppers – as the storage liquid for feta or other brined cheese.
- Use pickle brine to marinate goat cheese, soft cheese, or mozzarella rounds.
Main and Side Dishes
- Marinade chicken or pork cutlets in pickle brine overnight for extra flavor and tenderness. Finish the meat on the grill, or lightly bread it and pan-fry.
- Add pickle brine to burger or meatloaf mix for extra flavor and moisture.
- Add pickle brine to the braising liquid for meats for an easy alternative to sauerbraten.
- Use pickle brine to poach, steam or braise seafood. Dill is traditional in many seafood dishes for a reason!
- Freeze pickle brine, then pulse in a food processor until slushy. Top raw oysters with a spoonful of this cold and briny granita.
- Add pickle brine to flavor the yolks for deviled eggs.
- Make pickle soup, a traditional Eastern European dish with pickle brine, pickles, potatoes and often meat. Here’s a vegetarian version.
- Another Eastern European soup that benefits from pickle brine? Borscht.
- Toss hot beans or lentils with pickle brine to season. Add thinly sliced onion or shallot. Serve as a side dish either warm or at room temperature.
- Hard cook eggs, then peel, halve, and toss gently with pickle brine.
- Add a few tablespoons of pickle brine to Mac and Cheese.
- Use pickle brine for some of the liquid in bread for an easy, hearty dill bread.
Beverages and Booze
- Drink pickle brine straight or slightly diluted as a hydration tonic.
- Add pickle brine to V8 or tomato juice.
- Add pickle brine to a Bloody Mary or Bloody Caesar. Alternatively, freeze extra pickle brine and use these briny ice cubes in your Bloody Mary.
- Try a pickletini – a dirty martini made with pickle brine.
- Pour a pickleback – a shot of bourbon served with a shot of pickle brine. (Not my thing, but you do you.)
What do you do with your pickle brine once all the pickles have been eaten?
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This question originally came to me in my recurring role as an Expert Council Member on The Survival Podcast. My Expert Council answers to productive homekeeping and food preservation questions can be found on selected Survival Podcast episodes.