Fermenting. Pickling. What is the difference?

Posted by Kim on 2021 May 12th

Posted by Kim on 2021 May 12th

Fermented and pickled foods remind us of our mother’s kitchen. They conjure up a time when we were young and the food pickings were easy. We’d see our mothers prepare and preserve vegetables without giving a second thought to how she was doing it. It was if by magic we’d have pickles, dill carrots, and sauerkraut to eat.

Then one day, decades later, curiosity would get the better of us. How did mom make those delicious veggies? It was time to find out. It was time to explore the worlds of fermenting and pickling.

Let’s start with the similarities

Fermenting and pickling are both forms of food preservation. Both add a tasty, tangy, acidic taste to food. If you’re in the mood for something sour, go with a fermented or pickled vegetable.

Both involve increasing the acidity (decreasing the pH) of food to safely preserve it.

Both fermented and pickled vegetables look the same, but don’t be fooled—the science and process is different.

Onto the differences

You pickle food by adding it to an acidic brine, or liquid. It’s this acidity that kills off microbes and acts as a food preservative. The common acid of choice for pickling is vinegar.

By contrast, you ferment foods by giving them an environment that promotes the growth of helpful acid-producing bacteria (probiotics). Fermentation uses salt that encourages lactic acid to develop. It’s this acid that preserves the food.

But wait, there’s more!

Pickling requires sterilization. Sterilization promotes shelf life which means pickled foods can stay unrefrigerated until they’re opened. Heat and vinegar are used to sterilize.

Fermentation, on the other hand, doesn't require sterilization. Yes, you need clean tools to ferment, but the lactic acid and the naturally-occurring bacteria in the environment do the rest. Once the fermentation process is complete and you’ve opened the jar, fermented vegetables are best refrigerated.

Overall, preparing vegetables for fermentation is fast but then the fermentation process takes time for mother nature to do her thing. Pickling vegetables, on the other hand, is a slower and fussier undertaking. Once vegetables are canned, however, they are ready to eat.

Health and taste

The differences between pickled and fermented foods also extend to health benefits.

Fermentation preserves the nutrients of the original ingredients. Pickling, on the other hand, kills some of the nutrients.

Fermented foods win heavily in the categories of probiotics, bio-availability of nutrients, vitamins (especially vitamin K), enzymes, and beneficial acid levels, and taste.

Where taste is concerned, the chemical reaction of a fermentation gives a taste profile that’s more complex and flavourful than that of pickling. Like a good bottle of wine, fermented foods offer your palate a more exciting flavour profile.

Moral of the story

Fermented and pickled foods are two types of food preservation. Both transform vegetables into deliciously tangy, acidic variations of their original selves. One invites healthy bacteria (fermenting) and the other kills off most bacteria (pickling). They vary in their prep versus ready time (fermenting is fast/slow and pickling is slow/fast) as well as in their health benefits and flavour complexity.

The takeaway: whichever you choose, fermented and pickled foods are an excellent choice if you want to spruce up a meal or want a healthy snack.

Don’t be surprised if eating them also causes you to daydream about your youth. 

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