You'll never throw away that old pickle jar again.
Whether they’re homemade or store bought, pickles are not only a terrific summer staple, but they’re a tasty treat year round. According to Pickle Packers International, Inc., the average American eats more than 9 pounds of pickles a year. Seeing how fast my family of three zips through a jar, I certainly believe it.
But once they’re gone, do you end up pouring all that salty-sweet brine down the drain? Such a waste!
Why save that pickle juice? Not only is it environmentally friendly (it’s the 2nd “R” in “reduce, reuse, recycle,” after all), but pickle juice has potential health benefits.
It’s good for the gut.
If you buy your pickles from the refrigerated section or produce department, rather than a shelf in the condiment aisle, you’re likely getting lacto-fermented pickles, rather than those solely brined in vinegar. Fermented pickles contain probiotics, which “have incredible benefits on gut health and boost immunity,” says Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, founder of Citrition, LLC.
Ingesting fermented foods, such as kimchi and kombucha, boosts good bacteria in your gut. “The balance of good bacteria and bad bacteria in most people’s gut is off,” says Greebel. As a whole, “we eat so many processed foods that we’re not getting enough good, probiotic bacteria,” she says. Too much of the bad bacteria can lead to stomach problems and getting sick more often. “Pickle juice is another way to get probiotics into your diet,” she adds.
It’s good for blood sugar.
Whether brined or fermented, most commercial pickles have vinegar as a base. A study out of Arizona State University showed that vinegar—and, by extension, vinegar-based pickle juice—may lower blood sugar levels in non-diabetic people when taken with a meal composed of complex carbohydrates (peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables).
“Controlling blood sugar can have important effects on appetite and hunger and, therefore, weight loss,” notes Greebel. “Stable blood sugar prevents cravings as well as overeating. It may also increase metabolism,” she says.
It’s good for muscle cramps.
Pickle juice has also been shown to decrease muscle cramps, which could benefit those who exercise frequently. Pickle juice is higher in sodium, which is an electrolyte that helps restore your body after a workout. “It’s very important to replace electrolytes when you do intense activity and lose a lot of fluids through sweat,” says Greebel.
“Sports drinks provide electrolytes, but usually come with a lot of calories, sugar, and food dyes,” she adds. Though most people who exercise can rehydrate simply with water, Greebel says pickle juice offers a way to get similar benefits that’s “healthier and less expensive” than sports drinks.
There is also anecdotal evidence that pickle juice helps with menstrual cramps. “Since many women crave salt during their menstrual cycle,” says Greebel, “pickle juice is definitely worth a try if you suffer from monthly cramps.”
What about the sodium?
If you’re concerned about sodium intake, Greebel suggests discussing it with your doctor. For healthy individuals, however, foods higher in sodium are “less of a concern, especially if you’re exercising, drinking a lot of water, and eating a diet composed primarily of whole, unprocessed foods,” she says. “Your body naturally regulates salt, when not consumed in excessive amounts. If you’re drinking a lot of water, and eating foods high in potassium, your body will flush it out.”
Sodium is much more of a concern for people who eat a lot of fast and processed foods. Still, Greebel cautions, “Don’t eat things with pickle juice every day. But as part of a healthy diet, every now and then is okay.”
While it’s difficult to determine how much sodium is in the brine of commercial pickles, since the labels refer to the pickles, not the brine, you can buy pickle juice. One product contains 94 mg sodium per tablespoon; another has 125 mg per tablespoon. Not all product labels, however, come with nutritional information.
If you make the pickles yourself, you can play with lower-sodium recipes. But even if you use a more standard recipe, bear in mind that different brands of kosher salt have different-size crystals. In other words,1 teaspoon of one brand might have more sodium compared to another brand. Always check the labels.
Calculating the sodium in your brine is pretty straightforward. For example, 1 teaspoon kosher salt has 1,920 mg sodium. Dissolved in 1 cup liquid (equal parts water and vinegar), that’s 16 tablespoons brine at 120 mg sodium each.
For reference, the daily upper limits for sodium is 2,300 mg, and 1,500 mg for people over 50. When using leftover brine as a marinade or to pickle something else, the amount of juice you use is less worrisome, since you’re not ingesting all of it. But for uses where you’re taking it straight, pay attention to how much you use.
Uses for leftover pickle juice
As a pickler
You can reuse pickle juice to pickle vegetables almost indefinitely. Add more water and vinegar (in equal parts), if needed to cover the vegetables with the brine. Since this starts to mess with the pH of the pickling solution—and its ability to safely preserve food—it is not recommended for canning or dry-storing pickles. Opt instead for quick pickles, which can be stored in the fridge. Gently heat the liquid before pouring over the veggies.
RELATED: Recipes for Pickled Vegetables
As a vinegar replacement
If you’re going to replace some or all of the vinegar (or lemon juice) in a recipe, first consider what else goes into the dish. If there are high-sodium ingredients—condiments (mustard, mayo, BBQ sauce, ketchup, hot sauce, soy sauce, tartar sauce, relish), commercial salad dressings, commercial seasoning mixes, commercial pasta sauce, vegetable juice, olives, shrimp, canned tuna, ham, deli meats, sausage, most cheeses, flour tortillas—skip any added salt, or maybe try another recipe. Depending on your pickle juice, aim for no more than 1 or 2 tablespoons of pickle juice per serving, or no more than ¼ cup to ½ cup for 4 people. Try replacing vinegar in dishes such as potato salad, gazpacho, or even cole slaw with pickle juice for extra zing.
On its own
Often, a little goes a long way. With all its herbal and salty notes, pickle juice becomes its own instant ingredient, especially when homemade. Try pickle juice as a meat marinade, use it as the base of a bloody mary, or freeze it in ice cube trays and pop a cube into seltzer water for a post-workout pick-me-up.
You can even use it as a weed killer. “One of the most important organic herbicides is a group of products under the big name horticultural vinegars,” says Mike McGrath, host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden.” While pickling vinegar isn’t full strength, “it can be very effective,” he says. Spray it on big leaves, but wait until a hot and sunny day when there hasn’t been a lot of rain, he says, then pull the weed once it’s brown. You can also pour it right around the roots of a problematic plant that’s resisting pulling (just not poison ivy!) during a hot, dry spell. “You’ll give it a hurtin,’” says McGrath.
While he’d rather use it in the kitchen, McGrath notes “it would be a sin to throw away” that pickle juice. We couldn’t agree more.