“I'm so bummed out! My first ferment in the crock was a total fail!” wrote Colleen S.
Colleen's pickles turned soft and got moldy. 🙁
Oh, no… that bums me out, too!
How did this happen? How can she prevent it? Do these pickles need to be tossed… or not?
That's the topic for today's #AskWardee: troubleshooting mold (toss or not?), plus I'll share 5 tips for how to prevent mold during fermentation so you can ensure better results in the future.
The Question: Why Did My Pickles Get Soft & Moldy?
Colleen S. asks:
Hi Wardee. I loved your video about the fermented pickles. I was wondering if you had any insight as to what happened with my batch — my pickles went soft and moldy. It is the first time I used my crock. It is a 2-gallon one. Maybe it is too big?
I followed your directions, but doubled the amount of salt water since my crock was bigger. I'm so bummed out my first ferment in the crock was a total fail!
We keep our house a little warmer around 78, but I'm most concerned about the MOLD! Why would it be covered in mold? That can't be good?!
First, I'm thrilled you tried the pickles. And I want to encourage you to keep at it! Pickles are one of the harder ferments… but it's so worth it to get them right!
So let's talk about how to prevent mold during fermentation.
I have 5 tips for you! Some of this information comes from my friend Shannon's new book, Traditionally Fermented Foods.
Although we're going to cover tips to prevent mold, you will still experience it from time to time and you need to know if it's ok to consume your ferment or not…
As Shannon, author of Traditionally Fermented Foods, says “Before you panic at the sign of something in the white, fuzzy or funky department, remember this: Yeasts and molds are everywhere. Not all mold is bad.”
She goes on to say:
The key is not to panic and to know what to look for. […]
Please don't freak out and throw out whatever fermented food you found with this stuff on top! Unless you see some of the signs to worry about… it is fine. It is normal for yeast to develop in moist, oxygen-rich environments. Scrape off your vegetable ferment, shake it into your kvass and remove it from your milk kefir or sourdough starter. Mother cultures can be recultured and vegetables can be eaten, so you should rest assured that if everything else looks fine, your ferment does not need to go into the wastebasket. […]
Here is a checklist you can run through if you ever have a question about a ferment:
1. Smell it. The best way to discern the health of any ferment is simply to smell it. It can smell sour, pungent, very fermented and even very yeasty. But it should not smell putrid, rotten or incredibly disgusting. If it does not pass this test, throw it out and start over. If it does, move on to the next item.
2. Check the color of the surface yeast. Is it white*? Then it's probably fine, but you can do the smell test again. Is there any green, pink, yellow or blue? If so, I'd toss it. Even if it smells okay, this is a deal-breaker for me personally.
3. Taste it. If it smells strongly of tang or yeast, but does not smell rotten, and if it has no crazy colors to it, then it should be fine to taste it. […] It might be extra tangy or yeasty, or it might taste just as a fermented beverage or vegetable should taste. In either case, it is fine to consume. If the taste is too strong, then you may want to add it to the compost pile anyway. If it is a mother culture like milk kefir grains or sourdough starter, scrape off the mold and reculture it in fresh milk or with another feeding of flour and water.
*If the film is white and fairly flat, it is most likely kahm yeast which is a common occurrence and can be skimmed off or shaken in to the ferment.
I love Shannon's down-to-earth advice. It rings true for me and is exactly how I handle ferments and troubleshooting. (This kind of advice peppers her book, by the way.)
How To Prevent Mold During Fermentation
Okay, so now we know how to find out if a funky ferment can be eaten or not! Next what is the best way to prevent ferments from going off in the first place?
Here are 5 tips to prevent mold during fermentation.
#1 — The Right Temperature
With fruit and vegetable fermentation, we say the ideal temperate is “room temperature”. That is 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Going lower down to 65 degrees Fahrenheit or so, is also fine.
However, much higher than 72 degrees (especially heading toward the 80s) is too warm. In warmer temps, foods will get soft instead of developing a nice crunch. Also at warm temps, fuzzy or colored molds are more likely to develop.
#2 — Start With Clean, Organic Foods
It's really important to ferment clean, pesticide-free, herbicide-free, healthy fruits and vegetables. If the food is from your local farmer, maybe it's not “organic” — yet do they spray? Are there pesticide residues? These poisons will mess up safe and effective fermentation. Get the best quality fruits and vegetables to ensure the best fermentation result.
#3 — Clean Containers & Utensils
Mold and yeasts are everywhere; it's impossible to get away from them. Yet, how clean are your containers? No need to be sterile, but we do need to use clean and sanitary conditions.
Washing in hot, soapy water, rinsing in hot water, and then air-drying on a clean towel is usually sufficient. Or, use a hot cycle on the dishwasher or even boil your jars and utensils.
#4 — The Right Salt & The Right Amount Of It
My basic brine is 6 tablespoons of salt per half gallon of water. That's what I use unless the recipe specifies differently.
Ferments that don't call for brine? Follow the recipe instructions or get my free cheat sheet to learn basic amounts according to type of ferment.
You also need to follow recipes you can trust. Mine qualify 😉 as do Shannon's in her book Traditionally Fermented Foods.
#5 — Air-Tight Containers
If you still have issues with mold, you can invest in containers that are air-tight (or pretty air-tight). The less oxygen in the ferment, the better the result. Ideas for you:
- These Pickle Pro airlock lids fit on your Mason jars, turning them into relatively air-tight containers. I use these all the time!
- Use a fermentation crock with a water seal — like this 3-gallon stoneware crock from Ohio Stoneware. This is great when you want to make a BIG batch of kraut or pickles or other ferment.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it… how to troubleshoot mold (if it happens) and 5 tips to prevent it from happening too often! I hope this helps, Colleen!
Traditionally Fermented Foods — Now Available
Some of the tips and information you'll find in this post come from my good friend (and food chemist) Shannon Stonger of Nourishing Days, from her brand-new, utterly beautiful book Traditionally Fermented Foods.
Shannon's unpretentious and down-to-earth writing about the beautiful process of fermentation makes it do-able for beginners and oh-so-inspiring for advanced fermenters.
I love all her common sense tips! Only someone who has really had their hands in hundreds of ferments, as Shannon has, would know how to explain “when is it done?” (so you know what you're looking for) and “what's safe?” (so you can feel confident in what you make).
The recipes and mouth-watering photos from Shannon's simple homestead make me long for my own garden to be in summer harvest mode all year long.
I can't wait to make ALL her recipes! I will pour over this book again and again for fresh inspiration. A big thumbs up from me!
- Old-Fashioned, Crunchy, Garlic-Dill Pickles
- Traditionally Fermented Foods by Shannon Stonger — new book!
- Gluten-Free Sourdough Dinner Rolls — sample recipe from Shannon Stonger
- No-Pound Sauerkraut
- FREE Fermenting Formulas Cheat Sheet
- Lactofermentation 101 Video Series
- Pickle Pro airlock lids — fit on your mason jars, turning them into relatively air-tight containers
- 3-gallon stoneware crock from Ohio Stoneware — has a water seal to provide oxygen-free fermenting environment
- Real Salt or Himalayan Salt
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