Abstract: Cucumbers are preserved commercially by natural fermentations in 5% to 8% sodium chloride (NaCl) brines. Occasionally, fermented cucumbers spoil after the primary fermentation is complete. This spoilage has been characterized by decreases in lactic acid and a rise in brine pH caused by microbial instability. Objectives of this study were to determine the combined effects of NaCl and pH on fermented cucumber spoilage and to determine the ability of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) spoilage isolates to initiate lactic acid degradation in fermented cucumbers. Cucumbers fermented with 0%, 2%, 4%, and 6% NaCl were blended into slurries (FCS) and adjusted to pH 3.2, 3.8, 4.3, and 5.0 prior to centrifugation, sterile-filtration, and inoculation with spoilage organisms. Organic acids and pH were measured initially and after 3 wk, 2, 6, 12, and 18 mo anaerobic incubation at 25 °C. Anaerobic lactic acid degradation occurred in FCS at pH 3.8, 4.3, and 5.0 regardless of NaCl concentration. At pH 3.2, reduced NaCl concentrations resulted in increased susceptibility to spoilage, indicating that the pH limit for lactic acid utilization in reduced NaCl fermented cucumbers is 3.2 or lower. Over 18 mo incubation, only cucumbers fermented with 6% NaCl to pH 3.2 prevented anaerobic lactic acid degradation by spoilage bacteria. Among several LAB species isolated from fermented cucumber spoilage, Lactobacillus buchneri was unique in its ability to metabolize lactic acid in FCS with concurrent increases in acetic acid and 1,2-propanediol. Therefore, L. buchneri may be one of multiple organisms that contribute to development of fermented cucumber spoilage.
Practical Application: Microbial spoilage of fermented cucumbers during bulk storage causes economic losses for producers. Current knowledge is insufficient to predict or control these losses. This study demonstrated that in the absence of oxygen, cucumbers fermented with 6% sodium chloride to pH 3.2 were not subject to spoilage. However, lactic acid was degraded by spoilage microorganisms in reduced salt, even with pH as low as 3.2. Efforts to reduce salt in commercial brining operations will need to include control measures for this increased susceptibility to spoilage. Lactobacillus buchneri was identified as a potential causative agent and could be used as a target in development of such control measures.