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What Happened Here?

Last year I made lacto-fermented hot sauce and really enjoyed the results.  The Coles Notes on the process is: Vegetables if put in a brine and left there for a time ranging from days to months (depending on the strength of the brine and temperature of the space) will pickle.  This happens because wild lactobacilli eat the sugar in the vegetables (often cucumbers, sometimes cabbage, and in this case hot peppers) and convert it into vinegar.  Between the salt (which gives the right lactobacilli a head start) and the resulting vinegar the concoction will keep at refrigerator temperatures for a long time.

There is a group of people who have strong feelings about the digestion-improving healthiness of the products of this type of pickling.  (It is the bastardisation of these beliefs that has inspired yogurt companies to: a. patent proprietary strains of lactobacilli; and b. make disturbing commercials that feature graphics transposed over the stomachs of their consumers who always seem to be dancing.)  As with all things, I’m skeptical that this is some sort of silver bullet but I do use it because: a. It has a long history of safety and utility; b. it’s even cheaper than pickling with bought vinegar; and c. the results are delicious.

A recent commenter on last year’s post offered the suggestion that instead of fermenting, pureeing, and adding vinegar I alter the process and puree first and skip the vinegar.  Seems reasonable so I gave it a shot.  Five percent brine, a mix of washed hot peppers, went from the blender (after a couple minutes on the “liquefy” setting) into a clean mason jar.  I affixed a clean, dry dishcloth with a rubber band over the jar’s opening.

The jar's contents settled into three layers

The first sign that something odd was going on came when I noticed, after a couple hours that the proto-sauce had settled into three phases.  The top was a sort of coarse pulp, filled with seeds and the occasional air bubble.  The middle layer was almost clear–obviously peppery brine.  To the bottom settled a finer pulp that looked smoother and I imagine denser than water.

I offered the concern to the commenter that it would be difficult to impossible to keep pureed peppers submerged and I have found with other lacto-fermented vegetables that what floats forms mold.  I’m sure this setup, and the photos have made it obvious that that’s just what happened.

Disc of moldy pulp

But it’s the strangest mold formation I’ve ever encountered on brined vegetables.  These is a sort of puck of the coarse pulp on the top surface that is covered in very wispy white mold.  The puck’s diameter is roughly the same as the jar’s opening.  The weird part is that the surface of the pulp beside the puck is almost mold-free.  It’s hard to tell from the pictures but that circle of mold is three dimensional–it’s about a centimeter tall.  As if the mold started eating from the top down and sides in but stopped when it got to a particularly capsacin-rich or moisture-deprived section.

The smell is not really unpleasant.  Sniffing directly from the jar all I can detect is hot peppers and the room the jar is in (coolish and dark) has taken on an odour that reminds me of slightly-aged beef.

Obviously I’m leaning towards throwing this batch out and starting another while I can still get local hot peppers.  Does any one think it’s salvageable?  Does the contained location of the mold mean that it could be carefully removed and the rest would be edible?  More to the point what went wrong?  If I had blended for longer would the coarser pulp on top eventually become fine enough that it would have settled to the bottom, safely below the brine?

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  1. Sheryl says:

    David, did you make it around the same time last year? The ambient mold count is extremely high right now (particularly compared to last year), because the weather has been warm and wet since early August. I’m guessing, but you might simply have encountered more mold in the air, and there were enough spores to propagate on your product.

  2. SarahBHood says:

    DON’T EAT IT, DAVID! I know your devotion to the interests of food science, but there are limits to all thngs. This reminds me of a bunch of my girlhood experiments, including the time I tried to make dandelion wine from an antique recipe that I’m almost certain left out some crucial pointers having to do with sterilization, and the time I just for interest left a glass of chocolate milk on a shelf in our mudroom for six months. In fact, it reminds me especially of that milk, which I am here now to tell you about because I DID NOT EAT IT.

    I’m going to guess your acid level was not initially high enough, but I find the thing about the puck distrubing. I do not like the idea that the mold may be thinking about what it’s up to.

    My vote? Start over.


  3. SarahBHood says:

    PS I like that your headline (“What Happened Here?”) could equally apply to the partially-severed pig head.

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Sheryl: I hadn’t considered the possibility of a higher ambient mold count. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Sarah: I definitely take your concenred advice seriously. I’m going to err on the side of caution and dumpt his batch. Others faced with a similar choice are encouraged to do the same.

    Going to start a new batch but undecided on whether I’ll give the puree and then ferment method another shot or just return to putting whole peppers in the brine.

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