I get this question a lot; “What is the difference between pickling and fermenting?”
In the beginning of my fermentation journey, I didn’t know how to answer. With a little more experience, I started to understand the main differences, but had a hard time explaining it. After several months of living and breathing food preservation, I realize just how much misinformation is out there, so I’m here to clear the air.
With out getting too “Science-y” about it, everything that is fermented is pickled, but not everything pickled is fermented. Let me explain.
If you’re wondering what the difference between the sauerkraut on the shelves and the sauerkraut in the refrigerated section is, besides the price of course, it’s simple. One has beneficial bacteria (probiotics), the other does not. Foods that are only pickled are preserved in an acidic liquid. In the most common pickled items, this acid comes from being preserved in vinegar. These products are not fermented, even though the vinegar itself is a fermented product. They do not contain probiotics that you create when you home ferment.
Foods that are fermented in your kitchen is usually made with a starter (like whey), salt and filtered water. This combination creates a self preserving liquid that is a by-product of the fermentation process. This lactic acid by-product is extremely beneficial in digestion. So, to simplify, fermented foods are both fermented and pickled (with the exception of alcohol fermentation).
Unlike your average pickled veggie on the shelf at the super market, foods that are fermented at home are not preserved using any heat or pressure, as these processes destroy the nutrients. Look for fermented foods in the refrigerated section. While these are most likely to be fermented and pickled, they are often more expensive. Do-it-yourself home fermentation can provide you with the excellent health benefits of probiotics without breaking the bank. And it’s really fun too!