Is Pickling the Same as Fermenting?

Pickling and fermenting are two types of preserving methods that bring out even the most subtle of flavors in food. Bright, sour, and full of tang, pickled and fermented foods are sometimes thought of as one and the same. While they overlap in some areas, pickled and fermented foods are made a bit differently. Below we break down pickling vs fermenting and do a deep dive into each preserving method.

Pickling vs Fermenting

multiple mason jars filled with different colored fermented and pickled vegetables

The difference between pickling and fermenting is the process of how they achieve a sour flavor. Pickled foods are sour because they are soaked in acidic brine, while fermented foods are sour because of a chemical reaction between naturally present sugars and bacteria. However, there is a difference between quick pickles and lacto-fermented pickles—more on that below. Both fermenting and pickling can be done in canning or mason jars.

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What is Pickling?

Pickling is the method of preserving foods in acidic liquid. The basic ingredients of quick pickling are water, vinegar, pickling salt, and optional pickling spices or aromatics (fresh herbs, citrus rinds, and garlic) to give your pickled foods more flavor. If you're using the Lactic Acid Fermentation method, then your brine should not have an acid in it and should only be water, salt, and any other additional flavorings you'd like.

Pickled Foods

banana peppers cauliflower and carrot medallions in square white ceramic bowl

Because pickling is such a delicious way to eat food, there have been many different types of food that have undergone the pickling process. Below are a few foods that can be pickled:

  • Vegetables - The most common food to pickle is vegetables. You can pickle almost any vegetable, but it’s best to go for something with a firm texture, like cucumbers, beets, carrots, cauliflower, scallions, and onions. The pickling time depends on how big the vegetable is, so keep that in mind when considering your time. Vegetables that you should stay away from for pickling are leafy greens like spinach and kale. You can also make the classic giardiniera, which is a mix of pickled vegetables like red chilis, carrots, celery, and cauliflower. Giardiniera is most commonly used in Chicago on Italian beef sandwiches or a New Orleans muffuletta.
  • Fruits - Using pickled fruit is a great way to add a sour and sweet element to a dish. Mangoes, strawberries, cherries, plums, peaches, pears, apples, and grapes are great fruits to pickle with because of their firm structure. The acidic brine helps break down the strong structure so the fruit becomes a bit softer with an added brightness from the brine. Add in aromatics like mint and citrus rinds for complementing flavors to the sweet fruits. You can also pickle different types of tropical fruit to make your delicacies last longer.
  • red hardboiled beet eggs cut in half on piece of brown parchment paper
  • Eggs - The practice of pickling eggs is very popular in certain areas of the world. Hard-boiled eggs are placed into a glass jar and topped with a pickling liquid, herbs, and garlic. Another popular pickled egg add-in is beet juice, which gives the eggs a vibrant pinkish-purple color and tangy beet flavor.
  • Meat - Pickling meat is an excellent way to preserve specialty meats and lend a new, distinct flavor. Ideal meats to pickle are sausages, knockwursts, bologna, kielbasa, beef, and ham.
  • Fish - Pickled fish is a delicacy in countries with cold climates. The most popular pickled fish is pickled herring, and other practical fish options to use for pickling are perch, walleye, and other firm white fish.
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What Is Pickling Salt?

Pickling salt is a finely ground salt with zero additives. Pickling salt is also known as canning salt or preserving salt. It's made of pure sodium chloride and does not contain the iodine and anticaking agents that are traditionally added to table salt.

What Is Fermentation?

Fermentation is the process of chemically breaking down living organisms found in carbohydrates and glucose (such as starch or sugar) into alcohol or acids. Fermentation requires an anaerobic process, which means little to no oxygen is present when fermenting food. The result of fermenting is creating a desirable change in the food’s structure, flavor, and producing tons of healthy probiotics.

Three Types of Fermentation

mason jar filled with fermented vegetables

Below are the three different types of fermentation that your foods can undergo:

  • Lactic Acid Fermentation - This style of fermentation uses lactic acid-producing bacteria to break down and ferment the food. It only requires water, salt, and the naturally occurring sugars found in the food to change the starches and sugars into acid. The lactic acid fermentation method is used to create kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and pickles (as long as vinegar is not added).
  • Alcoholic Fermentation - This method of fermentation starts with grains and sugars that are broken down by yeast or bacteria, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol molecules. The yeast can either be the naturally occurring yeast that’s found on fruit’s skin or in cellars, or a cultivated yeast can be used to get the fermentation process going immediately. The alcoholic fermentation method is used to create beer, wine, cider, mead, and sake.
  • Acetic Acid Fermentation - This type of fermentation is also known as natural fermentation, and usually requires a SCOBY (symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast) or other starter culture made up of living organisms. The acetic acid fermentation method is used to create kombucha, sourdough, kefir, ginger beer, apple cider vinegar, and red or white wine vinegar.

Types of Fermented Foods

dill pickles in round glass bowl on wooden table with toasted baguette apples and cheese

Since the method of fermentation is so versatile, many different types of fermented foods have been created over time:

  • Sourdough - a bread that's leavened from bacteria and naturally occurring yeast
  • Kefir - a fermented milk drink that's often characterized as thin yogurt
  • Kimchi - a staple side dish in Korean cuisine that's made up of fermented vegetables with a variety of seasonings
  • Sauerkraut - shredded and fermented cabbage
  • Yogurt - a fermented milk product that combines milk with yogurt cultures to produce a thick, custard-like product
  • Lacto-Fermented Pickles - vegetables that have been submerged in a brine of water and salt and left at room temperature for a long period of time
  • Vinegar - an acidic liquid that's used as a condiment or flavor enhancer and made by fermenting fruit or wine
  • Tempeh - a traditional Indonesian protein base that's made from fermented soybeans bound into a cake-like form
  • Miso - a staple ingredient in Japan that's made from fermented soybeans that are ground into a paste
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Types of Fermented Drinks

people clinking glasses of red wine together

Food isn't the only thing that can be fermented! Fermentation extends to drinks too, and with so many types of fermented drinks, you may be surprised to see your favorite beverage on the list:

  • Ginger Beer - a non-alcoholic, bubbly drink that's made from fermented ginger, yeast, and sugar
  • Wine - an alcoholic drink that's traditionally made from fermented grapes
  • Beer - an alcoholic beverage that's made from yeast, hops, malt, and other cereal grains
  • Kombucha - a fizzy beverage made from tea, yeast, sugar, and bacteria
  • Cider - an alcoholic beverage made from apples
  • Mead - an alcoholic drink made from honey, water, and yeast
  • Sake - an alcoholic beverage made from bran-removed rice

Fermentation FAQ's:

Below we've cleared up confusing and frequently asked questions about fermentation:

Are Pickles Fermented?

Quick pickles are not fermented, but lacto-fermented pickles are fermented. Quick pickles, the most common type of pickle found in grocery stores, are not fermented because they use an acid, such as vinegar, in their pickling brine. However, lacto-fermented pickles are fermented because they follow the lactic acid fermentation method, which only uses water and salt in their brine.

Is Vinegar Fermented?

Yes, vinegar is fermented! Vinegar uses two fermentation processes: alcoholic fermentation and acetic acid fermentation. To start the process of fermenting vinegar, the yeast will consume the natural sugars. This process will excrete alcohol, causing alcoholic fermentation. Next, oxygen is fed to the alcohol, which causes bacteria to grow and produces acid, undergoing the acetic acid fermentation process.

Now that you know the difference between fermenting vs pickling, you can create your own pickled and fermented foods in your restaurant’s kitchen. There’s no better feeling than being able to write “housemade kimchi” or “jalapenos pickled in house” on your menu to truly show your guests how much you care about the quality of your food and how far you and your staff’s passion for cooking extends.

Posted in: Menu Tips | Kitchen & Cooking Tips | By Val Goodrich
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