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Pickling and fermenting are two words that are often used interchangeably. But there are subtle differences between pickles and ferments. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of the difference between pickles and ferments and know which food preservation option is the best for you.
Pickles and ferments are preserved and stored differently. Pickles are preserved in acid, often vinegar. Ferments are preserved in a salty brine. Canned pickles are shelf stable. Quick pickles and ferments require cold storage. Ferments have healthy probiotics not present in pickles.
Now let’s dive into the finer details of pickling vs. fermenting.
What are the Primary Differences Between Pickling and Fermenting?
Pro Tip: If you haven’t ever done any fermenting, consider starting with a kit. I love the kits from Cultures for Health, which you can get here.
Pickling and fermenting are both ways to preserve food. Both methods of food preservation have been around for a long time. Pickled cucumbers originated in India, in 2000 BCE. Fermenting had its beginnings in China, in the early years of 7000 BCE (source).
Preparing Pickles Vs. Preparing Ferments
Pickles have two main steps in the preparation process. The first step in the pickle-making process is preparing the food to be pickled. For instance, if you’re pickling eggs, you first need to boil and peel the eggs. If pickling vegetables, first wash the vegetables. You may also need to peel and cut the vegetables.
As an example, when I made pickled red onions, I first peeled and sliced the onions.
The second step in the pickling process is to prepare a brine. Pickle brine typically consists of an acid such as vinegar. In addition to vinegar, pickle brine includes salt, and sometimes sugar and spices. The brine is heated to a boil and simmered for a few minutes. During the simmering process, the salt and sugar dissolve. The boiling brine is then poured over the vegetables
The fermenting preparation process is similar to the pickling preparation process. However, there are a couple of distinct differences.
First, the food preparation process in ferments is essentially the same as with pickles. The vegetables to be fermented need to be washed. They then may need peeling, cutting, and so on.
The biggest difference between pickles and ferments is that with ferments, you don’t use any vinegar. Instead of preserving food with vinegar (to get that delicious sour flavor) as you do with pickles, you use a salty brine.
How Pickles and Ferments Preserve Food
As mentioned earlier, pickles can be “quick” or canned. Quick pickles do not require canning and need to be stored in the refrigerator. The vinegar in quick pickles is what helps keep them from going bad.
With pickles that are canned, the canning process kills microorganisms that cause food to spoil. Since the jars are sealed, no oxygen gets into them, which is what makes them shelf stable.
With fermenting, exposure to oxygen is eliminated by submerging the food in a salty brine. Whereas canning kills microorganisms that cause food to spoil, fermenting encourages the growth of good bacteria.
Which is Easier, Pickling or Fermenting?
When it comes to which is easier, quick pickles are by far easier. When I prepare quick pickles, I typically start by preparing the brine. While I’m bringing the brine to a boil, I cut up the vegetables or do other needed food prep. By the time I finish preparing the brine and allowing it to cool a bit, I’ve finished preparing the vegetables.
At that point, all I need to do is pour the brine over the prepared vegetables, put a lid on the jar, and put them into the refrigerator. The entire quick-pickling process generally takes me less than an hour.
Canned pickles need to be prepared in the same way as quick pickles. However, instead of just putting them into the refrigerator, you water bath can them. This entire process usually takes me at least an hour or two from start to finish.
Fermenting is also a rather straightforward process. The hands-on time with fermenting is similar to quick pickles. However, the fermenting process typically requires a minimum of three days to complete. During this time, the food you’re fermenting needs to sit covered in a dark place such as a cupboard, or under a dish towel.
It’s important to check the food as it ferments to make sure the food is completely submerged beneath the brine. You may also need to “burp” the jars. Burping jars during the fermentation process lets gases escape, so the jars don’t explode. There may also sometimes be a bit of overflow from the jars. To avoid ending up with a big mess, keep a plate under the jar to catch any spills.
From an ease-of-use perspective, if I had to pick just one way to preserve food, I’d choose quick pickling. But quick pickles, canned pickles, and ferments are all easy to do.
Which is Cheaper, Pickling or Fermenting?
Thankfully, pickling and fermenting are all inexpensive.
Quick pickles are the cheapest, because you don’t need any type of special equipment. With quick pickling, I often use any glass jar with a lid. For instance, when I made these quick pickled banana peppers, I recycled a glass jar from the grocery store that had mushrooms in it.
If you want to can pickles, you can use any pot that is large enough to cover the jars with water. It’s also good to put a rack on the bottom of the pot. While you can buy a water bath canner such as this one on Amazon, it’s not necessary.
Canned pickles also require canning jars and lids. I have purchased lids and jars from Amazon. Unfortunately, there have been problems with knock-off jars and lids being sold under brand names. Those jars and lids are of inferior quality. So, I now buy jars and lids at my local Walmart, or from a reputable U.S.-based site such as Lehman’s.
Fermenting is also low cost. Technically you don’t need any special equipment to ferment. Having said that, there are some fermenting tools that make the job easier. For example, I purchased this stainless steel fermenting kit that works with mason jars. Some people prefer to use a fermenting crock such as this one. If you’re going to ferment sauerkraut, a “kraut pounder” such as this one on Amazon will come in handy.
Pro Tip: If you’re at all intimidated by the thought of pickling or fermenting, you may want to purchase a pickling or fermenting kit. This ups the initial cost, but since many items included in the kit are reusable, the cost is reasonable. The kits aren’t necessary, but I love them because they include all you need to get started. This is a great way to reduce the intimidation factor associated with pickling and fermenting. When it comes to kits, I recommend these from Cultures for Health:
Storing Pickled Food Vs. Fermented Food
The biggest advantage to canned pickles is that they don’t require refrigeration. You can put them on a shelf and leave them there for a year or longer. Because of that, if you’re preserving food primarily for long-term food storage, canned pickles are the way to go.
Quick pickles and ferments both require cold storage, preferably refrigeration. Also, depending on the type of pickle or ferment, they may only last in the refrigerator for a month, though some types of ferments such as sauerkraut last a year. (Consult the specific recipe you’re following for tips on how long your ferments or pickles will last in the fridge.)
Which are More Nutritious – Ferments or Pickles?
When it comes to nutrition, this is where ferments really shine. According to the National Library of Medicine:
“fermented foods provide many health benefits such as anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-atherosclerotic activity.” However, it should be noted that the article goes on to say that “some studies have shown no relationship between fermented foods and health benefits.”National Library of Medicine, PubMed
When it comes to pickles, quick pickles are more nutritious than canned pickles. As is the case with all canning, the heat involved in the canning process destroys many of the nutrients. Because of this, for maximum nutrient retention, chose quick pickles over canned pickles.
Now the good news is, while pickles lack the probiotic benefits of ferments, according to WebMD, pickles have the following health benefits:
- Pickles contain Vitamin A and K, potassium, phosphorus and folate.
- Cucumber pickles contain beta-carotene, which is known to reduce macular degeneration and Type-2 diabetes
- Pickles are heart healthy
- Pickles appear to improve cognition in those age 65 and above
Unfortunately, due to the high sodium content, pickles can also have a negative impact on health in the following ways:
- High blood pressure
- Stress on the liver or kidneys
- Increased risk of gastric cancer
- Increased risk of osteoporosis
Because of the risks, WebMD advises consulting with your physician before making pickles a substantial part of your diet.
Final Words on Pickling Vs. Fermenting
Both pickling and fermenting are ways to preserve delicious, lip-smacking food. The tangy sour flavor in pickles is achieved through the use of an acid, such as vinegar, and the delicious sour flavor in ferments is achieved without using any acid.
Pickles can be canned if you want them to be shelf stable and thus are a better option for long-term food storage. But ferments also extend the shelf-life of the foods. Both quick pickles and ferments are a great addition to your short to mid-term food storage plan, as long as you have a cool place to store them.
Recommended Resources for Pickling and Fermenting
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful as you strive to stock your pantry with delicious pickled and fermented food! Here are some tools that I use that I’m hoping you’ll also find helpful. These are affiliate links, so if you do decide to use any of them, I’ll earn a commission. Please know that these are the tools that I actually use and recommend and believe in 100%!
DIY Pickling: Step-By-Step Recipes for Fermented, Fresh, and Quick Pickles (on Amazon). This is the first pickling and fermenting book that I purchased. I love that it has great photos and very clear instructions. If you want to learn about both quick pickles AND ferments in a single book, this is the one I recommend.
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (on Amazon). One of my good friends grew up on a farm and has been fermenting food since he was a young boy. This is the one book that he says is an absolute must if you want to learn how to ferment food.
Stainless Steel Fermenting Kits (on True Leaf Market) I love using stainless steel products because they stand the test of time. Though they are a bit more expensive than other options, in the long run they save money because they last pretty much forever. I also love products that work with mason jars, and these certainly fit the bill.
Fermenting and Pickling Kits (on Cultures for Health) are the best way to start with fermenting if you want everything you need to (except the food!) to start fermenting. If you’re hit with the intimidation factor when it comes to pickling or fermenting, consider starting with a kit.
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