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Pickle Problems

Earlier in the week, I had a post that was intended to be my simplified recipe for wild, lacto-fermented dill pickles. It went a little long and still I feel like there are questions to answer so this post is intended as a sort of troubleshooting guide for that recipe. Unless you’re familiar with the process, that I adapted from Sandor Katz’s recipe in Wild Fermentation it’s best to read the original post before this one.

That seems like a lot of cucumbers. Well, yes, half a bushel, or a couple ounces shy of twenty-four pounds is a lot of cucumbers. I’ll update this post later in the year if this turns out to be more than we can eat but this is really where the volume discounts kick in. Two years ago when I bought the cucumbers from the same market vendor by the basket I paid roughly $4/kg ($10 for 2,670 g) but the pre-ordered half bushel worked out to more like $2/kg ($20 for 10,858 g). A full bushel is an even better deal at $35.

I’ll leave the commentary on how this difference illustrates a big hole in the economic model of farmers’ markets for another post.

Cukes like hot weather but also benefit flavour-wise from cooler nights so if you have the choice, like we do in Toronto, between warmer sources (Niagara) or cooler ones (north of the city) go with the latter. I’ve had very good luck with Willowtree Farms from Port Perry, ON and all the prices here are from them.

Has my garlic gone moldy? When it’s exposed to acid garlic can turn a greenish-blue. I find this happens more often with long-shipped Chinese garlic and also more often with distilled vinegar than in this sort of application. Either way the blue garlic is not harmful.

Why has my brine gone cloudy? The photo at the top of the post is a little extreme (because the brine was just poured into the jar before the photo was taken, the cloudiness will settle with time) but it’s a good illustration of this phenomenon. Clouding is to be expected with fermented pickles and is harmless. It may be the result of using iodized salt.

What the hell is this stuff on the top of my brine? The scum is a byproduct of the fermentation happening under the brine’s surface. It’s harmless but it’s best to skim it off every couple of days so that more sinister molds (that are recognisably blue or green) don’t use it as a floating platform to grow on. Generally, it’s important to keep everything below the brine’s surface and this is best accomplished with a couple of dinner plates. Some go to the trouble of weighting the plates with a plastic bottle full of water or a resealable bag filled with brine but if the plates are properly positioned, friction with the sides of the crock will do the job just as well.

Skim every couple days and wash or rotate out the dinner plates almost as often. (But be sure to skim before you remove the plates or the cucumbers will float to the top and the scum will stick to them.)

When I open a jar of pickles it fizzes or the pickles taste fizzy. Here we cross into the territory where I advise you to err on the side of caution and not eat anything unpleasant. The fermentation process produces some gas but if the brine fizzes, your jars (if they weren’t heat processed) may have been stored at an improperly warm temperature.

My pickles have a hollow centre. The most likely culprit here is using over-ripe cucumbers but this could also be a sign of spoilage. I try to aim for the early part of the cucumber season (before August 15 most years) to avoid this problem.

My pickles have an unpleasant slimy or mushy texture. This could be because some of them were bruised while in the brine-filled crock (and that’s one reason why I no longer weight the plates that keep them submerged) but it’s probably due to spoilage and they should be discarded. This goes also for pickles that otherwise look or smell spoiled or unappetising.

Why aren’t my pickles as crisp as I want them to be? This is usually the result of the action of an enzyme in the cucumber blossom. Some go to the trouble of taking a thin slice off the end of every cucumber to make sure that every trace of blossom is removed.

I prefer to count on a careful scrubbing and the tannins in oak leaves as an inhibitor. I add maybe twenty or thirty leaves to the crock and this year will put one in each jar when the pickles are repacked. As far as I can tell all species of oak will work but because red oak acorns are more tannic I’m hoping the same applies to the leaves. In Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz notes that grape, sour cherry, and horseradish leaves also work.

The conventional method during the twentieth century for crisping pickles was to add a small amount of alum to the brine. The current thinking is that while not harmful this isn’t necessary. Another option is to soak cucumbers for 12 to 24 hours before pickling in a water and calcium solution. I’ve never used either method so please read further, elsewhere, before attempting it yourself.

Where can I read more? The University of Minnesota extension has a good technical resource for pickling here. It’s long but definitely worth a read at least before your first attempt at fermented pickles. The site pickyourown.org also has this helpful page that includes a troubleshooting chart.

Feel free to post any further questions as comments and I’ll try to answer them.

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Posted in: Fermenting, Pickling.

12 Comments

  1. So David,

    Can I use either a stainless steel, food safe plastic, or glass container to do this in with equal results?

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Good question Darryl, thanks. All three are safe. Of the three listed I’d prefer to use glass but that’s because I can be paranoid about plastic. Be sure the stainless pot is solid stainless or does not have any chips or scratches in the coating because the salty brine will react with other metals.

  3. Tasuki says:

    Hello, my question is rather unrelated, but it seems from your picture you’re using Quattro Stagioni caps on your Mason jars. I had heard they are compatible but woud be glad to have a confirmation.

    The reason I’m asking is that here in France we don’t have the Mason-sized canning jars and our supplies are way more expensive. No reusable options such as the Tattler lids exist either.

    However the Bormioli “Quattro Stagioni” jars are available at a reasonable price, so if you could confirm their intended lids are the same size as those on mason jars, I should be able to purchase Tattler lids and use them together.

    Thank you!

  4. Mary H says:

    It’s my understanding that garlic turns blue due to the minerals in tap water. I usually use distilled water for pickles and my garlic has never turned blue. Just FYI

  5. Tina says:

    Ok, is using iodized salt a problem when it comes to taste and quality, or is cloudy brine just not as attractive?

    Because it is only now, after preparing 1/2 a bushel and having to scramble around my cupboards to find extra containers that I realize that the ‘sea salt’, is actually ‘iodized sea salt’. Argggghhhhh!

    Thanks.

  6. Lucas says:

    Wow, great job David! This is such a encyclopedia for pickles! I’ve learned so much about what I used to dislike :p, I used to think pickle will over-flavour all other food if I eat them with a pickle, until this weekend I had a Montreal steak poutine and the waitress persuaded me to eat it with a dill pickle, and some mustard on the side. It actually turned out great! Glad to stumbled upon your post, definitely starting to like pickles a lot more!

  7. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Tasuki: I’m afraid I’m not an expert on either Quattro Stagioni or Tattler jars and lids. Here in Canada lids and jars are marked with a mm number to indicate their size. Standard is 70 mm, wide mouth is 86 mm, and the much-derided and little-used GEM are 78 mm. If the size of a lid matches the size of a jar from another company they should work together but I’ve noticed a slightly higher seal failure rate when mixing.

    Mary H: That could be. I don’t use distilled water for fermentation pickling both because it costs money and because I’m worried that it would throw off the microbial balance. Thanks for the tip, though.

    Tina: Some people say they can taste the difference. If I’m contemplatively chewing a piece of bread, seasoning fresh mozzarella, or eating it straight maybe I can taste a hint of iodine but in this case it will have to compete with funky lactic acid, garlic, black pepper, and dill so don’t worry about it. Your pickles will be fine with the iodized salt.

  8. [...] thing you’ll want to see my recipe for wild (a.k.a. lacto-fermented) kosher dill pickles; and my troubleshooting guide for that [...]

  9. casey says:

    I made refrigerator pickles and just opened them up & they were fizzing. I thought it was weird but proceeded to eat them & they tasted good. I can’t get a clear answer as to whether or not fizzing means the pickles are bad- like don’t eat them you are gonna die bad OR bad- like they taste bad. You’re help would be greatly appreciated. Basically I wanna know if I’m gonna die.

  10. David Ort says:

    Hi Casey,

    I’m quite confident that fizzy pickles aren’t going to kill you. Personally, I might throw the rest of them out, based on your answers to the questions below.

    Can you tell me more about what you mean by refrigerator pickles? Did the recipe use vinegar?

    Let’s talk about the “fizzy” part too. Is it that brine has bubbles in it? Or do the pickles taste noticeably fizzy? If it’s the latter I’d start to lean towards throwing them out. This could indicate that fermentation is happening inside the pickles.

    Finally, help me understand how they tasted good. Funky good? Better and definitely different than store-bought pickles good? Or just like bought pickles good?

  11. casey says:

    Whew. Glad go to know I’m not gonna die.

    Refrigerator pickles meaning that I didn’t actually go through the canning process. I did use vinegar.

    The brine was fizzy. One of the pickles I ate seemed a little fizzy but that might have just been the brine.

    They tasted good like I ate 4 of them good. Like I’m not gonna die after eating them good.

    I know that botulism is big scare when it comes to canning things. Even though we didn’t can them I just want to make sure. I definitely don’t want botulism so I just want to know if fizzing pickles means danger danger or ewww gross they are gonna ferment and you are gonna throw up in your mouth b/c they taste bad.

  12. Russia says:

    Yes, fizzing indicates ongoing fermentation.
    For many years in Russia we try to slow the fermentation by placing pickles in an underground refrigerator before the fermentation is complete, because we like the fizzing.
    The fizzing is not an indicator of spoilage – we very often eat this without problem and it is extremely tasty.

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