Tuesday 21 August 2012

On Fermentation and Failure

I was really looking forward to writing this post. A post all about the time that I fermented a huge batch of delicious, full-sour pickles. I had it all planned out in my head - I would talk about how much I loved pickles, how I will never turn down a pickle, how I am that person that orders the deep fried pickles or the huge "Chilly Dilly" pickles on a stick from drive-in movie theatres or street festivals. I would touch upon how even though I have enjoyed my homemade vinegary canned pickles from the last two summers, they weren't the same as the sour dill pickles in cloudy brine that are my absolute favourite type of pickle. I would take beautiful, mouth-watering photographs of my finished product to show you, and try to inspire you to do this easy process at home yourself. It was going to be an all out pickle love-fest, and that's the kind of love-fest that I can fully get behind.

But my fermentation didn't work. Well, I mean, it did work. It only worked too well.

I did my research and most of my reading said that pickles should ferment in their saltwater brine solution for 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. I bought a bushel of small, young cucumbers, picked early that morning. I scrubbed all the cucumbers and removed the blossom ends with a sharp knife, as leaving it on can lead to rot. I used fresh dill, fresh Ontario garlic and a mixture of spices made up from mustard seed, coriander seed and whole peppercorns. I filled my 5 gallon fermenting crock with the correct proportions of water and coarse salt, and weighed everything down with a plate. On top of that, for extra weight, I placed a mason jar filled with water. I covered it all with a tea-towel and tied it with some twine. I sat back and waited for nature to do it's thing.

I was diligent and scraped the forming yeast off of the top of my crock each day, and tasted them every couple of days to see if they were ready yet. They gradually changed in colour from bright green to a faded olive and it seemed as if everything was going smoothly. The smell of dill filled our house. However, I had a vacation away from home coming up on the calendar, and as that neared closer, my pickles were still not quite there yet. I would be gone for week, a week that put the pickles from 2 weeks of fermentation to 3. I enlisted my sister who was house-sitting to be on scum-scraping duty and she was happy to help.

Upon returning from vacation,  I was ready to process and can the fermented pickles pretty much as soon as I walked in the door. But it was too late, I was gone too long. I inspected my batch and discovered that my pickles had turned to absolute mush on their insides while I was away. I had never anticipated that they would have spoiled so completely and so quickly within my estimated timeline. I tried one at the bottom of the batch that was not as gooey as the rest, and the flavour was incredible. A heart-breaking failure.

Not always succeeding is something we talk about within the Beehive often. I admittedly got pretty bummed out about having to discard my entire batch. I dramatically wailed to my husband in between tears "it's back to reality and it's all spoiled picklesssss!"

It's easy to become a defeatist and give up and think that every handmade or DIY project is not worth all the time, energy and effort when one that you put so much into turns out poorly. It's easy to not try at all when the possibility of failure is lurking just around the corner. Failing at something that you put your heart into is one of the worst feelings in the world, and can shatter everything you know to be true about yourself and your abilities in an instant.

But making mistakes is one of the best ways to really learn a lesson. All of the Bees try and lead lives where we make as much as we can by hand. It's one of the principles that brought us all together as a group. Making things by hand can often be tedious and requires patience, as it's not always about convenience. As many successes that we have with our DIY projects, we have just as many failures. After picking our self-confidence up off the floor, we take our new knowledge of our failure and try and turn it into inspiration to do a better job at it the next time around. Because when you do get it right, there's really nothing sweeter.

I recently took a dress-making class at Needlework where the wonderful instructor Mary confided in me that she was so surprised to see so many of the Bees signing up for her sewing classes. She had assumed that we were all proficient sewers.

We don't know everything. We make mistakes. The most important thing is that we try. Sometimes we have to try again. And hopefully, I'm not too late in the season to pick up another bushel of young cucumbers.


  1. Oh no! Is there anything more disappointing than a blown ferment?! I think not!

    I highly recommend grabbing a "pickle-it" type valve/s-lock that can be fitted onto jars and go with a couple of smaller batches. A long term ferment like a pickle really, really needs a complete air-free environment to do it's thing best.

    Plus, to avoid mushy pickles: wild grape leaves! Line the bottom of the crock, and the top, with wild grape leaves. The tannins will keep the crunchy snap in the pickle.

    I did garlic dills last summer for the first time and the garlic went copper blue-green after their 2 weeks on the counter! It totally freaked me out and I wouldn't even touch a pickle for a few more weeks. But when I got the courage, holy moly! They were soooo good!

    Do you do other ferments? I'm a big sauerkraut and beet fermenter :)

    1. Thanks for the tips, Leanne! I read about adding grape leaves or oak leaves, but didn't know where to find them (other than in the woods, for the oak). I will make sure to add next time around. And I never knew about "pickle-it" valves! There's always so much to learn.

      I've previously fermented apple scrap vinegar, but that's all. That was successful! I'm definitely going to try sauerkraut this year. I've don't think I've ever tasted fermented beets. Now I'm intrigued!

    2. Here is the link to pickled beets and turnips.http://gnowfglins.com/2009/06/03/lacto-fermented-naturally-pickled-turnips-and-beets/#

      YOu could just do beets on their own. I usually julienne the veg for this type of pickle - they are good on their own, as a salad topper, on a sandwich...

      Oh, and they'll smell like dirty feet and may froth up when you open them up for the first time (I open these inside a bowl because I've had them bubble over!) but they'll be good!

      I picked up some green beans at the market today and I'm going to do dilly beans tomorrow. Just wondering if I need some grape leaves for those, like you do with dill pickles?

  2. It's so nice to hear that I'm not the only one who has had a tragic fermentation failure! I made fermented pickles earlier in the season and they worked so well that I decided to try some other fermented veggies. We had a bunch of radishes from the farmer's market and knowing there was no way we were going to eat them all I decided to look up information on how to ferment them. It was about the same process as the pickles and I felt confident that they would be delicious. Radishes supposedly only take a couple days to ferment, maybe because they are thinly sliced vs. big veggies. After a couple days I pulled them down and gave one to my husband. The horror that came over his face as he bit down into it... I'll never forget! They were absolutely horrible! I'm not sure what went wrong, but I'm pretty scared to try them again after that. For now I'll just stick to the pickles.