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Is Pickling and Fermenting the Same Thing?

Pickling or fermenting are commonly used to preserve foods, but are they the same? If not, which one should you choose?

Pickling is not the same as fermenting, even though they both preserve foods. The pickling process involves using vinegar to kill the microorganisms and bacteria in food. Fermentation is an anaerobic process where lactic acid destroys bacteria while also releasing probiotics.   

Humans have been using both pickling and fermentation to preserve food for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the word pickling is often misused, which leads to confusion. Read on to learn how the two are different and which one has more nutritional benefit.

Why There Is a Lot of Confusion Between Pickling and Fermenting

The reason why there's so much confusion between pickling and fermenting is because people mean different things when using the same words.

Both are terms that describe different ways to preserve food. But if you aren’t well-versed in the nuances of food preservation, it’s understandable that you might confuse the two — especially because both processes can involve submerging the food in a liquid. 

Pickling, for example, is often used when talking about preserving food in general, and it also refers to one particular method for preserving food (i.e. pickling).   

To confuse things even more, pickles (as opposed to 'pickling') are also foods, and they can be either pickled or fermented. Not enough confusion? Here's some more...

The vinegar used in pickling is fermented. As well as other things like sourdough and beer. Often, people say that some fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, start off being pickled but then become fermented, which is incorrect. 

But I guess you have to be forgiving, because as you can see from the discussion above, it's not always easy to decipher what's what when it comes to pickling and fermenting.

Let's take a look at what both pickling and fermenting actually are and where they differ. By the end of this article you'll know the differences between the two, and be able to tell with certainty which one is which!

We'll start with the easier of the two; Pickling...

What Is Pickling?

Both pickling and fermentation destroy bacteria that could cause food to spoil. But pickling does so by immersing the cucumbers (or any vegetable you wish to pickle) in a vinegar solution. The acetic acid in vinegar prevents spoilage by raising the acid in foods, which kills off microorganisms in the food.

Today, people often use the canning process to pickle their veggies, but people have pickled food for thousands of years, long before any modern canning equipment. Instead of putting the vinegar and water mixture into cans and bringing the jars to a boil, they poured boiling vinegar over the vegetables instead, which had the same affect.

Many recipes call for the addition of salt in canned pickles, but salt is not necessary if you are canning. The vinegar prevents spoilage while the salt is added for flavor (you'll get why I'm mentioning the salt when we get to fermenting!).

The same is true for sugar. Ancient recipes could not have called for sugar as it wasn't used as a sweetener in Europe before the 16th century. Both sugar and salt is used purely for flavor when it comes to true pickling of foods.

This is not the same for fermenting where the salt is absolutely a necessity, as you'll see later on in this article. If a fermenting recipe calls for salt, it should not be omitted!

Can Any Vinegar Be Used for Pickling?

When it comes to pickling, there has to be a certain amount of acetic acid in the vinegar for it to be able to pickle, otherwise you will simply end up with vinegar flavored veggies!

If a vinegar has at least 5% acetic acid, you can use it in pickling. Almost all kinds of vinegar used for cooking have 5% acid and will clearly indicate so on the packaging.

But a few types of vinegar, such as this Marukan Rice Vinegar (link to product on Amazon), have a lower acidity level and should not be used for pickling.

Vinegar is a fermented product historically made from foods available in the region where it was produced. The process begins when yeast ferments sugars in the food to alcohol, and then acetic acid bacteria go to work, turning the alcohol into acetic acid. Most white vinegar sold in the United States is made from ethanol or corn.

DID YOU KNOW? That when you're making kombucha and you left it to ferment for too long, it will turn into vinegar? Here's an article I wrote about what happens when kombucha over-ferments, how to avoid it, and what to do with he over-fermented kombucha.

Here are some tips when it comes to the type of vinegar you can use in pickling:

  • Some recipes call for apple cider vinegar, which will impart a less vinegary flavor to foods you pickle. It will darken the pickles somewhat.
  • Although you might like the flavor of balsamic vinegar, it might overpower the foods that you pickle. Consider using a 50/50 mix of balsamic vinegar. Not only will you still have the balsamic vinegar, but you will save some money as well. Keep in mind that some kinds of balsamic vinegar do not have 5% vinegar, so check this out on the packaging!
  • Rice vinegar often does not meet the 5% threshold, and the same is true for flavored vinegars.
Different vinegars contain different amounts of acetic acid.

Not all is lost if you want to use a vinegar that doesn't have enough acetic acid. You can use less potent vinegars to make refrigerated pickles that you plan to eat in a few weeks. But this isn't considered true pickling, as you'll read in a second...

Does the Vinegar have to be Boiled when Pickling?

You will find recipes that don't require you to boil the vinegar or use a canner. Recipes like that typically tell you to refrigerate your veggies and eat them within several weeks. We call them pickled foods because they have vinegar, but true pickled foods are canned and can last for months.

Some recipes tell you that you only need to pickle your vegetables for 30 minutes or so. This is NOT pickling, rather a vinegar based dressing! Of course that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it, just know that you're not really eating pickled food.

The Benefits of Pickling Foods

Eating pickled foods as a condiment with your meals actually acts as a digestive aid. The acidic nature of the pickle encourages the body to release it's own digestive juices, which helps with digestion in general.

So adding a pickle to the side of your meal helps more than just adding variety and flavor to your plate!

We've talked about what truly is and isn't pickled, now let's move onto the rather fascinating area of fermentation...

What Is Fermentation?

Remember that the acetic acid used in pickling destroys microorganisms. It actually kills all microorganisms. It doesn't distinguish between good and harmful microorganisms.

Fermentation however, does almost the opposite. Unlike pickling, where the acid destroys bacteria and other microorganisms, fermentation increases the level of microorganisms in food.  

Microorganisms like bacteria or yeast, turn carbohydrates into alcohol or acids (these acids/alcohol are what will kill the harmful bacteria). It's a process that occurs without oxygen present (called an anaerobic process).

The vegetable or other food to be fermented is covered with a salty brine to prevent oxygen from allowing molds to grow on the food. Once the acid is present (mainly lactic acid), it goes to work destroying organisms that could spoil the food.  

While it is going about its business, lactic acid converts some of the sugar into B vitamins and probiotics as a by product of the process. So fermentation actually adds beneficial organisms to the food.

There are few different types of fermentation too; let's take a look...

The 3 Types of Fermentation

  • Lactic acid fermentation: A broad range of foods and drinks, from sauerkraut to sourdough bread, are created using lactic acid fermentation. Yeast and bacteria work together to turn sugar or other starches into lactic acid, which acts as a preservative.   
  • Acetic acid fermentation: This process is used to create vinegar.
  • Alcohol fermentation: The sugars and starches from fruits, grains, or starchy foods are broken down by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide molecules. The result is wine, beer, and alcohol.

Interesting fact: Very few foods cannot be fermented. Techniques and recipes exist for fermenting beans, grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, fish, meat, honey, and tea.  

What Are the Benefits of Fermentation?

We've already touched on this a little earlier, but because the fermentation process kills off harmful bacteria while increasing healthy ones, a host of benefits are associated with fermented foods.  

The probiotics improve the health of your digestive system. Healthy bacteria can reduce digestive problems, including bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. Some studies suggest that probiotics can lessen symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Fermented foods can also be easier to digest and increase how well our bodies absorb nutrients. That is why those who are lactose intolerant can often consume fermented dairy such as yogurt or kefir.

  1. Firstly - there is less lactose in as it has been consumed by the fermentation process.
  2. Secondly - the nutrients become easier to digest through the fermentation process.

Those who eat tempeh for example, are getting more nutrients from the soybeans than those who eat tofu (tempeh is fermented and tofu is not).

Can Food Be Both Pickled and Fermented?

Once you know what both are, you end up asking yourself if a food can be both fermented and pickled at the same time. (I wondered this anyway!)

Well, some foods that you might typically think of as being pickled can also be fermented. For example, you can buy fermented pickles.

If they were pickled, you would find them in the refrigerated section of a grocery store. And people usually purchase them either for the difference in taste, or the added nutritional benefit from the fermentation.

The same is true of sauerkraut. If it’s refrigerated, then you are buying fermented sauerkraut which contains probiotics. Canned sauerkraut would have been either pickled, or, if it was fermented then it has been pasteurized to make it shelf stable, which would mean the probiotics have been destroyed.

Soybeans are another food that can be pickled and/or fermented.  Tofu can be pickled in a salty brine so it can be kept safely in the refrigerator, and fermented soybeans are used to make tempeh and miso.    

Both pickled and fermented foods are used to preserve food, but the similarities stop there. Pickled foods rely on vinegar to kill off all microorganisms and bacteria. Fermentation uses lactic acid to convert sugar into bacteria that kill off mold while also adding probiotics to the food.

Remember, though, that when you search online, many of the recipes will confuse the terms. The easiest way to distinguish the two is that food preserved in a vinegar solution is pickled while a food covered in a salt brine solution leads to fermentation.

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