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Pickled in Alcohol

  1. Jul 22, 2010 #1
    Recently I've been thinking about old, preserved scientific specimens in alcohol.

    While the preservation mechanisms are simple, it's really quite extraordinary if you think about it. There are dead animals filed away in jars of alcohol that never rot. Never. Some of them, in cramped archives of old European universites, have to be around three centuries old. Unlike with formalin "preserved" specimens, their DNA is still intact; only cosmic radiation will break the chemical bonds over time.

    Just for the novelty, I thought I'd preserve some meat in a 70% solution for a lengthy period, then cook it up and eat it.

    A few of Napoleon's starving troops raided specimen cabinets for food after the military boondoggle in Russia.

    If there's any chance I could give myself botulism, or some other fun food poisoning, I don't want to do it. Can anything survive in 70% alcohol? I wouldn't think so, but those extremophilic bacteria are pretty surprising. It's a good thing Deinococcus radiodurans doesn't cause anything, because sterilizing food with radiation wouldn't be as easy.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2010 #2
    70% alcohol? No, that would kill ANYTHING, and I mean anything. Um... don't eat specimens though, we're past the Napoleonic era. :wink:
  4. Jul 22, 2010 #3
    Hopefully this goes without saying, but if you do this make sure you use an alcohol that meant for human consumption. Any alcohol that isn't meant to be consumed (e.g. rubbing alcohol) is going to have additives that make it poisonous. Everclear is grain alcohol that is either 95% or 75% depending on your state's laws.

    I have no idea if this will be safe as far as the meat not spoiling.
  5. Jul 23, 2010 #4


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    Just a thought here, but what would happen if you pulled it out, and then lit it with a (probably really long) lighter? Insta-BBQ?
  6. Jul 23, 2010 #5
    If the alcohol is clean ethanol (not adulterated with meths etc) and the meat is OK, then there is no reason it should do you much harm as long as most of the ethanol is boiled off in the cooking. (Remember that 70% ethanol is roughly 140 proof; you cannot routinely buy any liquor of that concentration).

    What it will taste like is your problem...

    However, if the meat is not safe, then the alcohol is not likely to make it safe. The alcohol certainly will not destroy botulin toxin for a start, nor most other microbial toxins, and will not destroy most microbial spores. Remember too that the preservation process applied by competent zoologists generally is a little more sophisticated than you describe, and involves graded changes of preservatives according to the size and nature of the specimen.

    So, watch it!

  7. Jul 23, 2010 #6
    Did people miss that the OP was referring to Napoleon's troops, and by no means was he suggesting that he was about to crack open an ancient specimen? Hell, now you'd most likely get a mouthful of Formalin, so the issue is moot, and if not you're probably desecrating a very important or historically relevant sample.

    MATLABdude: Always be careful with alcohol and flames; it can be difficult to see the flames, and it is the fumes which light. You wouldn't have much luck cooking the sample, for the reason mentioned before, much as the old trick of soaking a rag in water and alcohol, then lighting it takes time to consume the rag. I'll say it again, joke or not, respect the volatility of alcohol.
  8. Jul 24, 2010 #7
    Ok great, thanks. :)

    Actually, depending on where one lives, 190 proof is available. A liquor store ten miles from home carries it in bottles as big as 1.75 liters. I bought a liter bottle today.

    I don't drink any alcohol, so it's amazing to me that someone would want to drink something strong enough to fuel cars. I know the 190 proof is generally used to make mixed drinks, so it doesn't stay that strong, but some people do shots of it straight in drinking contests.
  9. Jul 24, 2010 #8
    Good grief SJ! My stomach heaves at the thought!

    Actually, come to think of it, drinking more than a shot or so of that stuff, apart from being even stupider than necessary, is not particularly heroic; your stomach cannot absorb very strong alcohol, hence the observation by strong drinkers that after a night of spirits-boozing, they wake up dead thirsty and get drunk again as soon as they drink water.

    Oh well!

    The good news is that, not counting the ethanol, such booze would be a reasonably safely non-toxic medium for your cooking experiment, if you actually bother to carry it out. No doubt the stuff you mention comes in various flavours, which might make the whole business slightly less nauseating.

    Mind you, those who cautioned you against flammability were not kidding!


    Go well,

  10. Jul 24, 2010 #9
    Generally such alcohol is used not in a mixed drink, but as a "spike" in punches or lemonade when the desired effect is to not taste the alcohol. It can be useful in making tinctures that are food-grade, but I'll say it again as Jon did: be careful!

    If you're going to cook with this, do not use any open flames, do so in a room that is moderately lit so that you have a chance of seeing any flames, do so at low temp (170 F is relatively safe) and keep a thermometer on hand. I for one, recommend the use of a double-boiler, either one purchased or just a bowl on a pot with some water in it. Above all:

    Alcohol FUMES burn, and do so with a faint bluish flame if they are visible at all. If you need to put out such a fire, don't use water: smother it with salt, baking soda, or a pot-lid. Please, be careful.
  11. Jul 25, 2010 #10
    Pot lid for preference. It would take a lot of salt or other powder.

    Consider doing it outside, preparing only a small quantity, one that you can drop whole into water (which then would extinguish it properly) or skipping the whole experiment!

    Mind you, perhaps we are taking things out of perspective. You weren't necessarily thinking of boiling it in ethanol were you? Only preserving it then cooking it. That shouldn't be especially hazardous as long as you don't let it catch fire before you put it into the cooking water.


    Last edited: Jul 25, 2010
  12. Jul 25, 2010 #11
    Good advice, still if he does that he should give the specimen time to allow the alcohol to fully evaporate... I don't know... this whole thing just feels like a bad idea. I'll grant that your methodology is safe, but it just seems like a needless risk for no reward.
  13. Jul 25, 2010 #12
    I agree rather, but when I think of all the dumb things I have done in labs at one time or another, for no better reason than idle curiosity, I don't feel licensed to come on all paternalistic! :rolleyes:

    Anyway, from time to time I learned more from such activities than what I was supposed to be doing. You never can tell!


  14. Jul 25, 2010 #13
    Yeah, given my admission in another thread regarding some pranks, I don't exactly have a pedestal from which to preach. That said, I'm at a loss for thoughts of what can be learned from eating specimens, except a harsh lesson in GI discomfort.
  15. Jul 25, 2010 #14
    Yeessss... There was some Victorian VIP whose name currently escapes me, who had a private zoo, and wanted to have eaten a specimen of every possible animal. (I don't know what opportunities he had for experiencing fugu!) According to various accounts he even exhumed a jaguar that had died in his absence so that he could sample it. Asked which had been the nastiest, he was variously reported to have said "Bluebottle pie" or "Mole."

    Me? I just keep tight-lipped! Mind you, I do eat calamari and the like, but cephalopoda are so cute that I have to think about other things as I chew on my seafood pizza. :cry:
  16. Jul 25, 2010 #15
    I know what you mean, cephalopods are so clever and adorable... but fry them in a bit of cornmeal and panko and they taste so good. Nature can be cruel; I prefer to eat crab or lobster, they're basically waterlogged insects, or some kind of fish that doesn't have much going on upstairs. Thankfully the Corvidae family of birds doesn't find its way on our plate, I would feel pretty miserable eating something that smart. This gives me issues eating pork as well, delicious as it is.

    For the jaguar-eater... damn. That is one committed gourmet who should probably have been committed. I've heard of jaguars eating the occasional person who disturbs their kill, but man eating jaguar... it would pretty much already have to be in the ground. You have to wonder what motivates someone to eat a but of literally EVERYTHING. I don't think I ever want to eat anything that has been exhumed... ever... EVEEEEERRRRRR. *blegh*
  17. Oct 16, 2010 #16
    Ok, I've had some meat hanging out in 95% alcohol since the 7th of August, and I'm having an issue with evaporation.

    The container was sealed with a generous amount of hot glue and it still lost around 3mm, before I resealed it with a ridiculous amount of glue on Oct. 6th.

    There's no observable loss the last ten days (I've marked the level both times), but I think I can still smell it seeping out. Going to add more glue.

    Alcohol's vapor pressure is nuts. I sealed a container of turpentine four years ago with electrical tape, and it hasn't seeped out any. What can hold this stuff in?!
  18. Oct 16, 2010 #17


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    I think this is a bad idea. First of all let me say that the statement in the OP is not correct: that DNA present in tissues that are preserved in alcohol remains intact. It is often observed that the DNA stored in such a manner degrades quickly.

    Second, how big is the piece of meat that you are trying to preserve? How sure are you that the alcohol is efficiently profusing the whole tissue? Have you changed the alcohol after putting the meat in there? Alcohol fixes a tissue by the process of dehydration, this is not an efficient process for large samples. Often tissues are preserved with a cross-linker such as formalin first, after which the medium is replaced to ethanol.
  19. Oct 16, 2010 #18
    Do you have a citation?

    Every scientific source I've read on it says otherwise, that ethanol is specifically favored for the preservation of genetic material in specimens.

    Eventually, an average-sized chicken breast. I haven't preserved that yet. I just used some peperoni slices in the evaporation test.

    How large is large? I've seen some old, pretty big eels and other creatures preserved in alcohol, and that's all that was used until the early 20th Century, right? I guess they would've changed the solution out a couple of times?
  20. Oct 16, 2010 #19


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    Is the adhesive soluble in the alcohol you're using?

    Maybe you should try epoxy.
  21. Oct 16, 2010 #20


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    Skeptic, there may be a good reason alcohol has never been chosen to preserve meat for consumption. Why do you want to do this?
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