Fermenting and pickling are both forms of food preservation. Both add a tasty, tangy, acidic taste to food. If you’re in the mood for something sour, go with a fermented or pickled vegetable.
Both involve increasing the acidity (decreasing the pH) of food to safely preserve it.
Both fermented and pickled vegetables look the same, but don’t be fooled—the science and process is different.
What's the difference?
You pickle food by adding it to an acidic brine, or liquid. It’s this acidity that kills off microbes and acts as a food preservative. The common acid of choice for pickling is vinegar.
By contrast, you ferment foods by giving them an environment that promotes the growth of helpful acid-producing bacteria (probiotics). Fermentation uses salt that encourages lactic acid to develop. It’s this acid that preserves the food.
But wait, there’s more!
Pickling requires sterilization. Sterilization promotes shelf life which means pickled foods can stay unrefrigerated until they’re opened. Heat and vinegar are used to sterilize.
Fermentation, on the other hand, doesn't require sterilization. Yes, you need clean tools to ferment, but the lactic acid and the naturally-occurring bacteria in the environment do the rest. Once the fermentation process is complete and you’ve opened the jar, fermented vegetables are best refrigerated.
Overall, preparing vegetables for fermentation is fast but then the fermentation process takes time for mother nature to do her thing. Pickling vegetables, on the other hand, is a slower and fussier undertaking. Once vegetables are canned, however, they are ready to eat.
Health and taste
The differences between pickled and fermented foods also extend to health benefits.
Fermentation preserves the nutrients of the original ingredients. Pickling, on the other hand, kills some of the nutrients.
Fermented foods win heavily in the categories of probiotics, bio-availability of nutrients, vitamins (especially vitamin K), enzymes, and beneficial acid levels, and taste.
Where taste is concerned, the chemical reaction of a fermentation gives a taste profile that’s more complex and flavourful than that of pickling. Like a good bottle of wine, fermented foods offer your palate a more exciting flavour profile.