What Is the Difference between Pickling and Fermenting?

Pickling and fermenting are methods of preserving food, each with its unique characteristics and benefits. They both produce a sour flavor, but pickles are sour because they are soaked in an acidic, vinegar-based brine, while fermented foods are sour because of a chemical reaction between naturally present sugars and bacteria known as lacto-fermentation. From creating gourmet charcuterie boards to adding tangy elements to your recipes, pickling and fermenting foods can elevate your menu above your competition.

Fermented vs Pickled

multiple mason jars filled with different colored fermented and pickled vegetables

Fermenting and pickling are two distinct flavoring and preserving processes. Fermentation relies on the naturally occurring bacteria or yeast present in the food or added as a starter culture. These microorganisms consume the sugars in the food and produce lactic acid or alcohol as byproducts. This acidification or alcohol production creates an environment that is inhospitable to harmful bacteria, effectively preserving the food.

Pickling preserves food in a solution of vinegar, salt, and sometimes sugar. This acidic environment prevents the growth of bacteria, making the pickled food safe to eat and extending its shelf life.

If you’re trying to decide whether to pickle or ferment your foods, the best preservation method for your application depends on your desired flavor profile and the type of food you're working with. If you're looking for a quick and tangy snack, pickling is the way to go. The acidic brine infuses the food with a sharp sourness within a relatively short period. If you're after a more nuanced and complex flavor, the natural fermentation process takes longer but results in a tanginess that is unique to each batch. Plus, fermented foods are known for their probiotic benefits, which can promote a healthy gut.

What Is Pickling?

banana peppers cauliflower and carrot medallions in square white ceramic bowl

Pickling is a centuries-old food preservation method that involves immersing food items in a solution of vinegar, water, and pickling salt. Optional pickling brine ingredients are flavor-enhancing pickling spices, sugar, or aromatics (fresh herbs, citrus rinds, and garlic). Pickling not only extends the shelf life of food but also imparts tang and flavor. While we often associate pickling with cucumbers, there are many different kinds of pickles.

What Is Pickling Salt?

Pickling salt, also known as canning salt or preserving salt, is a finely ground salt with zero additives that are specifically designed for pickling and canning purposes. The absence of additives in pickling salt, like iodine or anti-caking agents found in table salt, ensures that the flavors, colors, and textures of the fruits and vegetables are not altered during the pickling process. Another important characteristic of pickling salt is its fine grain size. The fine grains dissolve easily in water, allowing for a quick and even distribution of salt throughout the brine. This is crucial for ensuring that the fruits and vegetables are properly preserved and that the pickling process is successful.

Pickled Foods

red hardboiled beet eggs cut in half on piece of brown parchment paper

Discover a wide range of delicious pickled food options that will enhance and extend the shelf life of almost any ingredient. Explore our top picks for pickled food ideas below.

  • 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. Vegetables that you should stay away from for pickling are leafy greens like spinach and kale. You can also make giardiniera, which is a mix of pickled vegetables like red chilis, carrots, celery, and cauliflower. Giardiniera is commonly used to make Italian beef and muffuletta sandwiches.
  • Pickled Fruits - Pickling fruit is a great way to add a sweet and sour element to a dish. Mangoes, strawberries, cherries, plums, peaches, pears, apples, and grapes are great fruits for pickling 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 aromatic ingredients like mint and citrus rinds to complement the sweet fruits.
  • Pickled Eggs - Pickled eggs are very popular in the U.K., Germany, and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. To make them, chefs place hard-boiled eggs into a glass jar and top them with pickling liquid, herbs, and garlic. Another popular pickled egg add-in is beet juice, which gives the eggs a vibrant pinkish-purple color and the sweet, earthy flavor of beets.
  • Pickled 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.
  • Pickled Fish - Pickled fish is a delicacy in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Scandinavia. 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.

What Is Fermentation?

mason jar filled with fermented vegetables

Fermentation is a natural metabolic process in which microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, convert sugars into acids, gases, or alcohol. This acidification or alcohol production creates an environment that is inhospitable to harmful bacteria, effectively preserving the food. The metabolic activity of microorganisms during fermentation creates the characteristic tangy, sour, or umami flavors found in fermented foods.

Fermentation offers several benefits beyond preservation. It can enhance the nutritional value of food by increasing the availability of certain vitamins and minerals. For example, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi are rich in probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health. Fermentation also breaks down complex molecules, making the nutrients more easily digestible.

Types of Fermentation

There are three types of fermentation: lactic acid fermentation, alcoholic fermentation, and acetic acid fermentation. We explain how each works below.

  1. Lactic Acid Fermentation - Lactic acid 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).
  2. Alcoholic Fermentation - Alcoholic fermentation starts with grains and sugars that are broken down by yeast or bacteria, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol molecules. It's used to create beer, wine, cider, mead, and sake. There are two options for yeast in the fermentation process: naturally occurring yeast found on fruit's skin or cultivated yeast. Both can be used to initiate fermentation, but cultivated yeast works faster.
  3. Acetic Acid Fermentation - Acetic acid 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 a round glass bowl on wooden table with toasted baguette apples and cheese

Fermentation opens a world of possibilities for chefs, food manufacturers, and even bartenders. It allows them to create innovative and flavorful products that cater to the growing demand for unique and artisanal food and beverages. Fermented ingredients can be used to add depth and complexity to dishes, while fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir have gained popularity among health-conscious consumers.

  • Sourdough is bread leavened with bacteria and naturally occurring yeast. This unique method gives sourdough bread its characteristic tangy flavor and chewy texture. It also makes it easier to digest compared to other types of bread.
  • Kefir is a fermented milk drink made by adding kefir grains, which are a combination of bacteria and yeast, to milk. The grains ferment the liquid, resulting in a tangy and slightly fizzy beverage. With its creamy texture and refreshing flavor, kefir can be enjoyed on its own or used as an ingredient in smoothies, salad dressings, and baked goods.
  • Vinegar is made through a two-step fermentation process that converts alcohol into acetic acid, giving vinegar its distinct tangy flavor. Vinegar comes in various types, such as white distilled, apple cider, and red wine vinegar, each offering distinct flavors and applications.
  • Kimchi is a traditional Korean condiment made by fermenting vegetables, most commonly cabbage, with a combination of spices and seasonings. The fermentation process gives kimchi its distinct tangy and spicy flavor. Its versatility allows it to be used in a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to stir-fries and even as a topping for burgers or tacos.
  • Sauerkraut, a beloved staple in German cuisine, is a type of fermented cabbage. To make sauerkraut, shredded cabbage is fermented with salt, allowing the beneficial bacteria to naturally convert the sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid.
  • Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made from soybeans that have been fermented and formed into a cake-like patty, making it an excellent source of plant-based protein. During the fermentation process, a beneficial fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus is added to the soybeans, which helps to break down the proteins and make them more easily digestible. This fermentation also gives tempeh its unique nutty flavor and firm texture.
  • Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures, specifically Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. During the fermentation process, these bacteria convert lactose, the natural sugar in milk, into lactic acid, which gives yogurt its tangy flavor and creamy texture.
  • Lacto-fermented pickles are made through a natural fermentation process that involves the growth of beneficial bacteria called lactobacillus. As the lactobacillus consumes the sugars present in the vegetables, it produces lactic acid, which gives the pickles their tangy flavor and helps preserve them. Lacto-fermented pickles have a distinct texture and possess a sour flavor that isn’t acidic like traditional pickles.
  • Miso is a staple ingredient in Japan that's made from fermented soybeans that are ground into a paste. With its umami taste and distinct aroma, miso is commonly used in soups, marinades, dressings, and even desserts.

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

Pickling and Fermenting FAQ

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

Below we've cleared up confusing and frequently asked questions chefs have about pickling and fermenting foods:

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 its 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 produce acid, undergoing the acetic acid fermentation process.

How Long Do Pickled Foods Last?

Fresh pickled foods can last upwards of 75 days when unopened and stored in the fridge. Once opened, it's important to store any remaining pickles in the fridge, submerged in brine, to maintain freshness. According to the USDA, pickles stored this way can stay fresh for at least up to three months. So whether you're enjoying pickled cucumbers, onions, or even jalapenos, you can rest assured knowing that they'll stay delicious for quite some time.

Canning vs Pickling

Canning is a food preservation process that usually involves heating the food to kill bacteria and other microorganisms, and then sealing it in airtight containers, typically glass jars, to prevent spoilage. Properly canned goods can last for months or even years and still retain their nutritional value and flavor.

On the other hand, pickling is a preservation method that involves soaking food in a solution of vinegar, water, and salt (known as a brine) or fermenting it with beneficial bacteria. This process not only preserves the food but also imparts a tanginess and crunch to the pickled items.

Now that you know the difference between fermenting and 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: Kitchen & Cooking Tips|Menu Tips|By Val Goodrich
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