What’s the Difference Between Pickling and Fermenting?

updated Dec 8, 2022
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Pickling and fermenting are two methods for naturally preserving foods, and both produce some delicious, tangy results. Do you know what sets them apart?

The Difference Between Pickling and Fermenting

While both pickling and fermenting produce different results, there are some areas of overlap that can easily spark some confusion. Here’s what you need to remember: Pickling involves soaking foods in an acidic liquid to achieve a sour flavor; when foods are fermented, the sour flavor is a result of a chemical reaction between a food’s sugars and naturally present bacteria — no added acid required.

More About Pickling

Pickling is a method of food preservation that works by immersing foods in an acidic solution, like vinegar, that changes both the taste and texture of the food. It also involves the use of heat, which serves to destroy and inhibit the growth of any microorganisms.

The fastest and easiest way is quick pickling, in which vinegar along with sugar, salt, and sometimes various herbs or spices are brought to a boil and then poured over fruits or vegetables that are left to soak for a short time.

And even though vinegar is a product of fermentation, pickled vegetables or foods are not fermented by default, as they don’t produce the same probiotic and enzymatic qualities of fermented foods.

Get Your Pickle On

More About Fermenting

Fermentation, on the other hand, doesn’t require an added acidic liquid or heat, and can be accomplished with as little as a container and salt (although more typically goes into it). It’s one of the oldest and most basic means of preserving food. The process typically takes longer than pickling and ultimately alters the food’s color, flavor, and texture.

Fruits and vegetables contain natural bacteria that, when deprived of air, can suppress and inhibit the growth of other microbes that would cause spoilage. During the fermentation process, these natural bacteria convert the carbs and sugars in whole food items, like vegetables or even milk, into an acid which then becomes the ideal environment to preserve that food.

Lacto-fermentation, a process brought on through the presence of lactobacillus, gives fermented foods and drinks their signature tangy and sour taste, but also creates probiotics that aids in digestion.

Given the presence of an acid brought on through the process of fermentation, homemade fermented foods can then be categorized as pickled and fermented. Fermented foods and drinks include things like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, coconut yogurt, miso, and tempeh.

Recipes for Fermented Foods