What's the Difference Between Fermenting and Pickling?

What's the Difference Between Fermenting and Pickling?

There’s growing interest in the documented health benefits of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha. But what about plain old cucumber pickles? Are those good for you? And isn’t sauerkraut a kind of pickle? To untangle the differences between pickling and fermenting, we turned to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.

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Both fermenting and pickling are ancient food preservation techniques. The confusion arises because the categories actually overlap with each other. Some fermented foods are pickled, and some pickles are fermented.

A pickle is simply a food that’s been preserved in a brine (salt or salty water) or an acid like vinegar or lemon juice.

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A fermented food has been preserved and transformed by benign bacteria. Usually, that means that the sugars and carbohydrates present in the food have been eaten by the good bacteria (often lactic acid bacteria). The bacteria then convert that sugar into other substances, like acids, carbon dioxide, and alcohol. Those substances, in term, preserve the food (and add to its flavor). So when you eat, say, kimchi, you consume the flourishing colony of good bacteria that has preserved the cabbage for you. Circle of life.

Where they overlap: You know how we just said that a pickle is just a food that’s been preserved with a brine? Well, many fermented foods start with exactly that: A brine. So they’re also pickles. Fermented pickles. Sauerkraut, for instance, is made by packing cabbage with salt and letting it ferment. Traditional dill pickles are made by fermenting cucumbers in salty water. Kimchi can be made with a bunch of delicious things, like cabbage, radish, garlic, anchovy and chile, but salt is the essential.

Why do traditional dill pickles and sauerkraut taste so tart if they’re not made with vinegar? One of the substances bacteria produce during fermentation is acid. That means that many fermented foods end up tasting very acidic.

But not all fermented foods are pickles! For instance, you would never think of sourdough bread, or beer, or yogurt as a pickle.

And: Not all pickles are fermented! You can also make pickles by pouring hot vinegar over vegetables. Those quick pickles, which include many commercial varieties, are usually not fermented.

The upshot: Fermented foods have lots of proven health benefits thanks to good bacteria, and the fermentation process also results in wonderfully complex flavor. When you can, seek out artisanal producers that make pickles the old-fashioned, fermented way. They’ll taste better and be better for you. You can also make them yourself.

The 9 Best Fermentation Crocks in 2021

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Fermenting is an ancient food preservation technique that has recently experienced a widespread resurgence in popularity, in part due to the many health benefits of fermented foods. It’s easy to ferment your own sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, olives, hot sauce, and more at home. Lacto-fermentation requires nothing more than fresh produce, some salt, and water because it relies on sugars and bacteria naturally present in these foods. While the process is simple, it helps to have the right tools. You’ll need a large, wide-mouth container and something to weigh down your ingredients to make sure they stay submerged in their brine as they ferment and pickle.

The most traditional type of container used for fermenting is a ceramic crock, and there are two main types available: water-sealed or open. The lid of water-sealed crocks sits in a shallow “moat” around the mouth of the crock. Straight-walled open crocks are sold with or without a lid and weights. Each type has its pluses and minuses and there are many options available. Here are our top picks to help you narrow down the choices and find the best setup for your fermenting needs.


What’s the difference: in procedure?

Fermentation occurs when food is treated with yeast and bacteria which converts the sugars and carbohydrates of foods into organic acids.

What’s the difference: in taste?

Fermentation is a good way to produce foods which need bacteria to form, such as yogurt, or to make salty foods tangy, such as sauerkraut and kimchi.

What’s the difference: in nutrition?

High levels of protein, amino acids and vitamins, as well as fewer antinutrients means fermentation is a great way to eat healthily without sacrificing big flavours. The added yeast may be a slight problem for coeliacs and those with digestive issues.

40 Fermentation Recipes

Fermentation is a time-honored tradition that dates back to the mid-1800’s when the study of yeast first began. Since then, we have created recipes that ferment everything from milk to pickles. And of course, we can’t forget about good ol’ sauerkraut!

So what’s the difference between canning and fermentation? Well for one, canning requires vinegar, either hot or cold, to be poured over your vegetables, typically with some spices. Fermentation, on the other hand, is typically just a salt bath of sorts.

In some ways, fermentation and canning are quite opposite, wherein fermentation promotes the growth of healthy bacteria, while canning works to eliminate the growth of any sorts of bacteria, hence the vinegar. Fermentation typically gets a lot of credit for cultivating probiotics, especially in Keifer and yogurt.

Whether you’re using a fermentation crock or some mason jars, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best fermentation recipes available. Some are traditional recipes that you’ll recognize, while others are a modern take on a classic family favorite. So get out your fermenting tools, do a little experimentation and let us know how it goes!

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Psalm 16:1 Preserve me, O God: for in Thee do I put my trust.

When we trust the Lord, He preserves us. He keeps us in His tender care and shows us the way we should go. If we trust the Lord with our homestead and homeschool, He will guide us and
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I LOVE how each age group is broken down. This allows each of my kids to participate and learn all at once.

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Pickled vs Fermented Foods

Alex Lewin, author of Real Food Fermentation explains that the confusion comes from the overlap in definition. In a nutshell, not all fermented foods are pickled and not all pickles are fermented.

In other words, foods that are pickled are those that have been preserved in an acidic medium. In the case of various types of supermarket pickles on the shelf, the pickling comes from vinegar.

These vegetables, however, are not fermented (even though vinegar itself is the product of fermentation) and hence do not offer the probiotic and enzymatic value of homemade fermented vegetables.

Vegetables that you ferment in your kitchen using a starter, salt, and some filtered water create their own self-preserving, acidic liquid that is a by-product of the fermentation process. This lactic acid is incredibly beneficial to digestion when consumed along with the fermented vegetables or even when sipped alone as anyone on the GAPS Intro Diet has discovered (cabbage juice anyone?). In other words, homemade fermented veggies are both fermented and pickled.

Alcoholic Fermentation

What about alcoholic fermentation?

In the case of wine and unpasteurized beers, fermentation occurs as the result of certain yeasts converting sugars into alcohol but there is no pickling that takes place despite the common expression that a person who has had too much to drink is &ldquopickled&rdquo.

4 Benefits of Culturing without Heat or Pressure

Home fermentation of vegetables preserves without the use of any pressure or heat unlike supermarket versions of the same foods. It allows the ubiquitous and beneficial lactobacilli present on the surface of all living things &ndash yes, even your own skin &ndash to proliferate creating lactic acid which not only pickles and preserves the vegetables, but also promotes the health of those that consume it in the following ways:

  • Enhances the vitamin content of the food.
  • Preserves and sometimes enhances the enzyme content of the food.
  • Improves nutrient bio-availability in the body.
  • Improves the digestibility of the food and even cooked foods that are consumed along with it!

Pickled vs Fermented Foods: How to Choose (Plus Recipes!)

Pickling and fermenting are both popular ways to preserve foods. The techniques make food last much longer and produce a delicious result. But, comparing pickled vs fermented foods can sometimes be confusing.

What exactly is the difference? And, is one type better than the other?

In this post, we’re taking a look at the two areas, along with some powerful recipes for each. After all, healthy food should taste good too.

Pickled vs Fermented Foods – Basic Differences

The main difference between pickled and fermented foods is how they’re made.

  • With pickling, you’re immersing the ingredients in something acidic – like vinegar. The process alters the texture and the taste of food, creating a sour flavor.
  • Fermenting doesn’t involve any extra acid. Instead, the sour taste comes from the reaction between compounds in the food and bacteria that are naturally present.

Basically, pickled foods are preserved through the acidity, while fermented foods are preserved through the bacteria and the fermentation processes.

Pickling is a general term, simply referring to preserving foods with an acidic medium. Fermentation is a specific type of pickling, where the acidic aspect comes from a chemical reaction, rather than being added.

More About Pickled Foods

There are various ways to pickle foods. But, you’ll always be using some type of acidic solution. Most pickling approaches rely on heat too. That heat helps destroy any dangerous microbes and helps the food last longer.

When you think of pickling – you might imagine a long process, involving large amounts of vegetables, along with canning. Pickling that way is great if you have plenty of produce to preserve. But, there are faster approaches too.

For example, The Kitchen provides details about how to quick pickle vegetables.

  • The process involves a solution of vinegar, salt and water. Vegetables are pickled in it and can be stored in the fridge as-is (no need for canning).
  • It only takes a few days before your pickled vegetables can be enjoyed.
  • You can choose the type and shape of vegetable to focus on.
  • Most types of vinegar will work well, including apple cider vinegar.
  • You can also add in whatever herbs and spices you like to adjust the flavor. Ginger, garlic, black pepper, turmeric and oregano are all examples.

You can also check out Epicurious. They offer a great guide that teaches you how to pickle pretty much anything. The piece includes details about ways to play around with flavors and create your own unique recipes.

Regardless of the approach you take, pickling should always focus on fresh vegetables. The goal is to preserve the freshness and flavor of the food when it is at its best. If the food is old, the finished product won’t be very good.

Pickling Recipes

Once you get familiar with pickling, you may not need a recipe at all. But, the three examples here are all great places to begin. They might also offer you some inspiration.

1. Quick Pickled Vegetables

Feasting at Home developed this Quick Pickled Vegetables recipe, which is most powerful for its versatility. You can use the recipe with any vegetable or combination of vegetables. There are also various links to individual recipes, like Moroccan Eggplant Pickles, if you want something more specific.

2. Quick 10 Minute Pickled Jalapenos

These Quick 10 Minute Pickled Jalapenos come from Gimme Delicious and they do look both fast and delicious. The recipe describes them as tangy, sweet and crunchy, which seems like a perfect combination. As Layla mentions, you can use the same principles with other vegetables as well, like sliced pickles or bell peppers.

3. Best Pickled Asparagus

This Best Pickled Asparagus recipe is from The Elliott Homestead and it’s perfect for any asparagus fans. The recipe is a great way to make asparagus taste better and last longer. Unlike the other examples, the emphasis here is canning, so it may not suit everyone. But, the recipe is still worth checking out.

More About Fermented Foods

In fermentation, the sour flavor is produced by the action of bacteria, like the species lactobacilli. This organism converts starches and sugars into other components, such as lactic acid.

When you consume a fermented food, you’re eating the transformed food, along with the colonies of bacteria. The process doesn’t sound appealing, but fermented foods are safe and a common part of our diets. Plus, the bacteria are all good for you. They can help support the healthy bacteria that live in your gut.

Fermented foods can be broken down into a few general types:

  • Fermented fruits and vegetables – like fermented apples or sauerkraut
  • Fermented liquids – like kefir (fermented milk) or kombucha (fermented tea)
  • Fermented alcohol products – like beer

Each type has a different style and taste profile. For this discussion, fermented fruits and vegetables are the most interesting, as these have the same sour flavor that you find with pickled foods.

Another important aspect is that fermentation takes time. You can pickle something within a few days. But, fermented foods often take 10 days or more, depending on the recipe.

Fermenting Recipes

Fermenting is a versatile process and there are many great recipes to try. Each type of fermented food will have its own advantages – and some are easier than others to make.

These recipes are some of our favorites. They’re also a good way to begin your fermented foods journey.

1. Easy Vegan Kimchi

This Easy Vegan Kimchi recipe comes from Dana at Minimalist Baker and it is surprisingly simple to make. Kimchi often seems difficult or confusing, especially if you’ve never tried it before. The dish is certainly unusual but it is well worth the effort. As Dana points out, you can add kimchi to many different meals, like veggie bowls or a stir-fry.

2. Fermented Carrots

This Fermented Carrots recipe is from Raising Generation Nourished and was developed with kids in mind. The recipe is very easy to prepare, requiring only a few ingredients. The finished carrots also taste appealing enough that kids should eat them without much hesitation. This is also a nice and simple way to get started with fermentation.

3. Vegan Coconut Milk Yogurt

Detoxinista hosts this Vegan Coconut Milk Yogurt recipe, but you don’t need to be a vegan to try it. The recipe is simply an alternative to regular yogurt and has an interesting flavor profile. The recipe focuses on making the yogurt in an Instant Pot, which simplifies the process considerably. There are also instructions for people who don’t have an Instant Pot.

Pickled vs Fermented – The Nitty Gritty

The distinction between pickled and fermented sounds like it should be simple. But, that’s not entirely true.

Pickling is basically just preserving food in brine. Still, many fermented food recipes have the same starting point.

  • For example, sauerkraut involves pickling cabbages and letting the resulting mixture ferment. That makes sauerkraut both pickled and fermented.
  • A similar pattern is true for dill pickles, where cucumbers are fermented in a salty solution. You’ll also find that some dill pickles have only been pickled, not fermented.

On the other hand, many other fermented foods aren’t pickled, like sourdough.

Buying Fermented Foods

If that wasn’t confusing enough – try shopping for the products. Companies often don’t use the term fermented, making it hard to figure out which products are fermented and which ones aren’t.

In some cases, foods may be fermented and heat treated. The heat treatment kills any bacteria (good or bad), so you don’t get probiotic benefits.

One key guide is the product labels. Look for terms like ‘live cultures’ or ‘source of probiotics’. Some brands will even list the species of bacteria that they use. These are key indications that the product is fermented.

Product labels are particularly important for yogurt. Many yogurt brands will contain live bacteria but not all of them. The species included also vary. Checking the labels gives you a good indication of what you’ll be eating.

You can also look for common fermented food, such as sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir. But remember, some of these will be heat treated – so check the labels carefully.

Health Differences

Fermentation and pickling are both healthy. They’re ways to preserve food without the use of concerning chemicals. You also end up with something that tastes really good and relies on whole foods.

But, the two approaches have different health implications.

With pickled foods, any health benefits simply come from the ingredients that are included. For example, eating pickled cabbage means you’re consuming various nutrients and healthy compounds from cabbage.

Fermented foods have something extra – the bacteria. As a result, the foods act as a source of probiotics. Probiotics help to promote a healthy balance of bacteria in our gut, a practice that has many important outcomes.

  • Research suggests a connection between mental health and gut health. Probiotics may even play a role in decreasing depression risk or in treating the condition.
  • Probiotics can help improve glycemic control and HbA1c levels for diabetics (1,2,3).
  • They could be relevant for conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (4,5). Fermented foods are also important for overall digestive health.
  • There may be many more advantages as well, including anti-inflammatory impacts and the potential to lower the risk of disease (6,7).

Overall, fermented foods are much more relevant for health than pickled foods. Fermented foods should be a part of your diet for this reason alone.

Final Thoughts

In the comparison of pickling vs fermenting, fermenting is the clear winner. There are many more potential health benefits and fermented foods also taste good.

Fermented foods are also becoming easier to find as their popularity increases. You’ll often find products like these at grocery stores and health food stores. Some cafés and restaurants are even beginning to offer fermented foods.

So, even if you don’t want to do fermentation yourself, there are plenty of options for eating fermented foods regularly.

Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers … or maybe they were fermented. Can’t tell the difference? Here’s how.

Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When it comes to choosing an item from my pantry or refrigerator to snack on, sauerkraut and pickles quickly make their way to the top of my list. These foods offer the saltiness and crispness I crave in an afternoon snack with added health benefits not found in bagged potato chips. One benefit that particularly fascinates me is the presence of natural probiotics in fermented food that promote gut health.

So how do you know when your sauerkraut, dill pickle, or other pickled or fermented food offers these helpful microorganisms? This question often confuses me, as it might you, because there isn’t a clear distinction between the two—though there is a definite difference!

“Pickling is a more general term that refers to various ways of making pickled foods, whether through fermentation or quick pickling,” says Kasey Christian, project assistant at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

In pickle preparation, its’ necessary to acidify the food to a pH of 4.6 or lower so it can safely be canned in a water bath. You can acidify the food a number of ways, including the addition of vinegar (quick pickling) or a curing process (fermentation). Generally, when people refer to pickles, they mean a product made with the former method. Also called fresh-pack or quick-process pickling, this is the method of covering the fruit or vegetable in hot vinegar, spices and seasonings. While quick pickling will preserve the food and allow you to can it for long-term storage, it does not offer the probiotic benefits of fermentation.

During fermentation, a fruit or vegetable is cured in a salt-and-water brine for one week or longer, altering its color, flavor and texture—no vinegar is added. Instead, the brine reacts with natural bacteria already present on the food to produce lactic acid, which helps preserve the product but is also a natural probiotic that aids in digestion.

“Home fermentation of vegetables preserves without the use of any pressure or heat, unlike supermarket versions of the same foods,” says Sarah Pope, blogger at “The Healthy Home Economist” and board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to returning nutrient-dense foods to the human diet.

While you can go on to process fermented foods in a water bath for shelf-storage, the high temperatures can kill off the good bacteria, thus nulling their probiotic effects, so many people opt for shorter-term storage in the fridge—though if you’re like me, they won’t be in there long.

Why Are Fermented Foods More Healthy than Pickled?

It is sometimes said that pickled foods are not healthy because they are preserved with the use of high pressure or heat. And so vegetables and fruits lose all their beneficial nutrients. It is the truth.

But you can make your own pickled foods at home without the help of high pressure or heat. And they won’t be very healthy.

So, if you want to eat healthy pickles you should make your own “fermented pickles” or buy them in the refrigerator section of some healthfood stores.
  • More expensive than most jars and other vessels for fermentation.
  • Water seal needs to be monitored and topped up as necessary.
  • Opening is usually slightly narrower because of the water seal gutter.

The great thing about fermenting your own produce is that you can use or re purpose most jars that you have around the house. If you happen to buy jars of food from the store you could save these jars and buy fermentation lids like we reviewed above.

Or, you can use regular mason style jars with screw lids. You will need to keep the jars vented as carbon dioxide created during fermentation will build up pressure inside a sealed jar. If you don’t vent pressure periodically for the first few weeks of fermentation there is a risk the jar or lid will fail.

You can leave the lid slightly loose so pressure can’t build up and seal it later when fermentation slows.

Apart from having to vent the jars there is no real difference in using a mason or kilner jar than a dedicated fermentation jar or crock. You always have the option of upgrading later on buy purchasing fermentation lids for your jars should you wish.

When using a jar the only real consideration you need to make is the size of the jar and the opening size. The size of the jar determines how many vegetables or produce you can actually fit in and the opening size is important for the ease of packing the vegetables and also being able to fit a fermentation weight in the top.

Watch the video: Gær (October 2021).