As you might have heard already, I have 15 pounds of sauerkraut, made from cheap WalMart cabbage, fermenting away in…say, have you ever heard of “bath tub gin?” Well, my sauerkraut is in a 15-gallon ceramic crock (whew!), but that crock is in a bath tub, so it is technically “bath tub sauerkraut.” My second bathroom is rarely used (I’d like to say the first one is too, but at 67 years of age that is, sadly, no longer the case) so I’ve converted it into an all-purpose general curing/fermenting room.
At the moment, I have no other pickling projects extant (except the eternal nuka) , but am enjoying the fruits of my previous labors, including kimchi and pickled root vegetables. Since I want to keep my lactobacillus friends alive, though somewhat dormant, I have moved the end products to large jars in the refrigerator. To minimize storage space, the pickled vegetables were strained and packed tightly into glass jars which were then vacuum-sealed with a FoodSaver. As a result of the straining, I had about 5 cups of pickle juice left over.
I could not throw that out. In the past, when canning cucumber pickles or sauerkraut, I’d sterilize leftover juice by boiling and use it to fill the jars and cover whatever was packed inside. The canning process (10 minutes for pints, 15 for quarts) sterilizes the pickles themselves, but there are costs for this: the pickles are cooked and those lactobacilli are actually good for you. Take a listen to Klaus Kaufmann and Annelies Schöneck, authors of Making Sauerkraut and pickled vegetables at home:
(Whenever I quote ol' Klaus, I always make it a point to include the picture which accompanies this explanation, because not many cookbooks include a diagram of the food’s route after it has been chewed and swallowed.) Lactic acid bacteria prevent decay not only in food products but in the bowels as well. Acetylcholine, which is produced in fermentation, stimulates the peristaltic movement of the intestines. It assists the circulation of the blood and prevents constipation by promoting bowel movements. Lactic acid-fermented products have a harmonizing effect on the stomach: they strengthen the acidity of the gastric juice when hydrochloric acid production lags, and reduce acidity when production is up. Lactic acid acts like a key that fits neatly into the secretion glands of the stomach – to lock and unlock the glands according to the needs of the organism. Lactic acid maintains the balance between acids and alkalis. Lactic acid also encourages the function of the pancreas, which in turn stimulates the secretions of all the digestive organs.
The real problem with pickle/sauerkraut juice is not nutritional, but aesthetic. It is cloudy from the outset and after the pickle jars sit in the larder a spell, a nasty sediment forms on the bottom. It ain’t pretty at all. So, when I read about gelatin filtration a couple weeks back, I got very excited. Then I ran across agar filtration in my eternal quest to make the perfect ginger ale. Agar filtration is superior in a couple of regards: It is not necessary to boil the solution to be filtered and the filtration itself can be done at room temperature.
Excited bythe process of agar filtration, I shared the information I had found with super-sleuth Sister Ruth. The part of the Khymos procedure that had us baffled was the closing paragraph: “Tip from Ideas in food: Circumvent freezing and speed up process by vacuuming the set agar gel, then filter to obtain clear juice in no time.” What was that vacuuming bit? Before Sister Ruth found the blog it referred to (D’oh! – it was called Ideas in Food), I went ahead and ordered a Buchner funnel with the idea of hooking it up to my FoodSaver.
Okay, digression. When the Buchner funnel came, the vacuum connection required a 5/16” ID hose. The FoodSaver hose was 3/16” OD. I needed some kinda conversion, so I trucked on over to Lowe’s and looked at their plastic tubing and connectors. Both pieces of tubing I required were under 25 cents a foot and I only needed enough to make a short conversion. Connectors, OTOH, cost a couple dollars each and I needed two. When the department employee came over to cut the hose, I was going to ask about converters, then I thought, “Wait a minute…”and we tried fitting the two pieces of tubing together (one 3/16” ID to connect to the Food Saver tubing, the other 5/16” ID to connect to the Buchner funnel). They fit perfectly – no connector needed! Unfortunately the whole Buchner funnel thing was a red herring to begin with, but I’ll use it someday, I’m sure.
Another blog article found by Sister Ruth, from Cooking Issues, shed even more light on the mysterious vacuum: It is completely unnecessary! Dave Arnold describes his “Eureka!” moment thusly: “All the bag was doing was slapping the agar silly. I could do that with a whisk! It was 3am. I jumped out of bed trying not to wake my wife, got dressed, jumped on my bike and dashed off to The FCI to get agar, OJ, and cheesecloth.” Other critical points: Agar begins to solidify below 35°C (95° F), so while the juice to be filtered does not have to boil, it does need to be warmed to above room temperature to begin. These chemist dudes are hot into their grams and milliliters, but that is not practical in the kitchen (a very good digital kitchen scale, measuring 1 gram, can be off by as much as 50%), so I use a more practical ¼ teaspoon agar per 2 cups of liquid. Finally, agar needs to simmer a bit to completely hydrate. You can sacrifice a cup of juice for this part of the process, or just add a cup or so to the total volume and use water. So for my 5 cups of warmed pickle juice, I boiled one cup of water and whisked in ¾ teaspoon agar off the heat, let it cool slightly, and whisked it into the pickle juice.
Little did I know what I was getting into. I was on Facebook last Wednesday and noticed that it was my friend Patty’s birthday. So I sent the obligatory “Happy Birthday, Patty!” to her and moments later my phone rang. It was Patty and she was going out to celebrate at The Armadillo. Would I meet her there? Of course! While we were chatting, she happened to mention being at the Dead Mule Club a few days earlier and her friend orders up a shot of whisky and a shot of pickle juice. Patty says “What?” and then, never being one of the faint of heart, she orders one up for herself. She liked it!
I mentioned this to Sister Ruth and she began to spam me with links. This combination, called a “pickle-back” (or sometimes “pisky whickle”). First, from the previous Sunday’s New York Times, The Man Behind the Ace Hotel Empire: “Some people, in fact, hate the Ace – although that doesn’t necessarily keep them away. One couple told me the Ace was too hip for them, but they loved the pickle-backs. 'This would be a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle juice,' the young man said, observing the lobby scene with disdain. 'and the pickle juice here is house-made, therefore it is the best pickle juice.'”
zOMG – We’re on to something! That article refers to Jameson’s as the whisky, but others say that’s just too darned good for the combo. For example: “Jameson’s tastes good. You can shoot it by itself. Why would you need the pickle juice?” he wondered. “We used Old Crow because you need the juice to wipe away the taste.” Over at Huffington Post, Max Watman mixes up a Bourbon and Brine using Old Crow and the juice from McClure’s Spicy Dills (no controversy there, it’s the number one choice, unless the bar makes its own pickles).
Well, I refrigerated my homemade pickle juice a few hours and waited for the agar to set. I got a little under a quart of juice after filtering it through muslin (which took about 5 more hours). The filtrate was clear and ever-so-slightly viscous. That highlights another advantage of agar filtration over gelatin. Substances that are solid in the refrigerator (including gelatin itself) but liquid at room temperature make their way into the filtrate, potentially enhancing both flavor and texture.
Originally, it was my goal to carbonate the pickle juice with the SodaStream. They tell you not to carbonate anything but water but the truth is you can carbonate any liquid that doesn’t foam up (such as sugary water). For laughs, I poured a little pickle juice into a wine glass and took a sniff and then a sip. Remember that this is complex pickle juice, made from a a wide variety of vegetables including carrots, celeriac, turnips, rutabagas, and daikon. Needless to say, the flavor was heavenly and the aroma surprisingly delicate. This is too good to pre-flavor with whisky or ruin with carbonation. Maybe the next batch.
Finally, I sent an email to my friend Greg back in Columbus, Ohio. Greg is a musician and a member of the Irish Brigade which specializes in Irish music and instruments. Greg once described his job to me as being “a professional drinker” and, as I remember it, there was always a bottle of Jameson’s available onstage and many, many toasts. So I wondered what he might think of a pickle-back and sent him an email. Here is his response:
There are too many problems in this world to attempt to solve those which do not exist. I have tried the Irish Hawaiian: Jameson’s and Kailua. Taste okay except for the Kailua. Irish Coffee? Tastes okay, except for the coffee.
As one of the ...Dubliners was known for saying, “When I drinks whiskey, I drinks whiskey! And when I drinks water, I drinks water!” And another of his bandmates, “Madame, I wish to drink, I do not wish to bathe!”
It is widely believed that Eskimos and other Northern natives have hundreds of words for snow. The Irish and Scottish have thousands of words for “whiskey.” There is none better than the ancient root of the word “whiskey” itself: Uisge Beatha, or Ischabaha , meaning “Water of Life.” I perhaps deserve a PhD. This then is my thesis. A lifelong pursuit to understand the supreme importance of Irish Whiskey, the Water of Life.
Once again to quote the Dubliners, “Ladies and gentlemen, the subject is whiskey! And the song is called “Whiskey In the Jar!”