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I recently learned about Indian lemon pickles.

There is a lot of variation between recipes but the ones I am trying consist of chopping lemons or limes, adding salt, and letting them ferment for a period of time before adding spices.

lime pickles

A large number of recipes have included a warning that the lemons, utensils, and jar must be completely dry or else the pickles will spoil quickly.

Here is one example
"Even a small drop of water makes this pickle spoil soon."

This doesn't make sense to me for several reasons:

  1. There is, of course, already water in the fruit
  2. A tiny amount of water won't be enough to significantly dilute the acid or salt
  3. I have never seen such a warning in fermented pickles from other cultures

Admittedly none of these recipes have come from an authoritative food chemist. They are all traditional recipes.

Can water actually spoil fermented pickles or is this an Indian old wives tale?

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3 Answers

The keeping qualities will be dependent on the combination of the salt/acidity of the product (preventing growth of some micro-organism) and the heat treatment that it and the packaging receives (removal of others). However it is possible that if there is a small quantity of water introduced in a particular area of the product or packaging - for example condensing on a cold lid - it may interfere with this balance and lead to localised spoilage. So the jars and lids should be clean and dried in the oven before use and filled while hot. For what it's worth, my grandmother used to put a disc of greaseproof paper on top of her home-made jams to avoid condensation.

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This sounds like an old wives' tale to me. The only basis I can think of for it is that a certain amount of not-especially-clean water, especially fermenting in a hot region, would promote undesirable fungal growth before the juice from the fruit has a chance to form an inhibiting brine with the salt (the acid also, of course, has anti-microbial possiblities). The chance of that happening has grown into a universal proscription against any water contacting the fruit.

I've seen and used fermented lemon recipes that put the lemons into a brine, rather than just covering them with dry salt. The water is boiled to create the brine, so tiny organisms that were in the water should all be dead. I have seen no mold or fungal growth when using these; the water itself can't be the issue.

I suggest science (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof): sterilize some water by boiling and set up three batches, one with a sprinkling of the boiled water, one with tap or rain water, and one scrupulously dry.

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ANY amount of water on the jar or the ingredients does result in the formation of whitish fungus at the affected spot. This will later turn black and the pickle will sour giving off a fermented smell.

The only exception is if that spot is well immersed in oil- but no guarantee it is off! The "water" in the fruit, being juice, fights formation of fungus and mold.

I'd tried to cheat but the punishment by the pickle is heavy!! -and I am a cookaholic going on 60 years.

Note: This precaution applies especially to hot climates where the reaction is in hours and max in a couple of days--- hv observed it in u.s in Florida and California. Try your bravery.

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@param- Thanks for your experience! I tried to clarify your post a little but there were a couple sentences that I didn't quite get. –  Sobachatina Jul 20 '12 at 23:02
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