Pickling Vs. Fermenting—What’s the Difference?

Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers … or maybe they were fermented. Can’t tell the difference? Here’s how.

by Dani Yokhna
Fermenting Vs. Pickling—What's the Difference? Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When it comes to choosing an item from my pantry or refrigerator to snack on, sauerkraut and pickles quickly make their way to the top of my list. These foods offer the saltiness and crispness I crave in an afternoon snack with added health benefits not found in bagged potato chips. One benefit that particularly fascinates me is the presence of natural probiotics in fermented food that promote gut health.

So how do you know when your sauerkraut, dill pickle, or other pickled or fermented food offers these helpful microorganisms? This question often confuses me, as it might you, because there isn’t a clear distinction between the two—though there is a definite difference!
“Pickling is a more general term that refers to various ways of making pickled foods, whether through fermentation or quick pickling,” says Kasey Christian, project assistant at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

In pickle preparation, its’ necessary to acidify the food to a pH of 4.6 or lower so it can safely be canned in a water bath. You can acidify the food a number of ways, including the addition of vinegar (quick pickling) or a curing process (fermentation). Generally, when people refer to pickles, they mean a product made with the former method. Also called fresh-pack or quick-process pickling, this is the method of covering the fruit or vegetable in hot vinegar, spices and seasonings. While quick pickling will preserve the food and allow you to can it for long-term storage, it does not offer the probiotic benefits of fermentation.

During fermentation, a fruit or vegetable is cured in a salt-and-water brine for one week or longer, altering its color, flavor and texture—no vinegar is added. Instead, the brine reacts with natural bacteria already present on the food to produce lactic acid, which helps preserve the product but is also a natural probiotic that aids in digestion.

“Home fermentation of vegetables preserves without the use of any pressure or heat, unlike supermarket versions of the same foods,” says Sarah Pope, blogger at “The Healthy Home Economist” and board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to returning nutrient-dense foods to the human diet.

While you can go on to process fermented foods in a water bath for shelf-storage, the high temperatures can kill off the good bacteria, thus nulling their probiotic effects, so many people opt for shorter-term storage in the fridge—though if you’re like me, they won’t be in there long.

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Ready to make pickles and ferments? Try out these recipes from HobbyFarms.com:


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