Pickling versus fermenting: Are pickles fermented? Are fermented foods pickled? What’s the difference between pickling and fermenting? Let’s end any confusion right now.
Vegetables, especially cucumbers, that have been submerged in hot vinegary brine and heat processed for sterility and long shelf life, are sour from the vinegar and flavored with added pickling spices such as dill. They are not fermented and are a little less nutritious than when they were raw. They’re sold on unrefrigerated market shelves. They’re commonly referred to as pickles.
Vegetables sprinkled with salt and allowed to sit at room temperature are fermented by beneficial lactic acid bacteria that occur naturally in the environment. These bacteria destroy spoilage organisms. They improve and enrich the flavors, adding a complex tartness from lactic acid rather than the single, sharp sour note of vinegar’s acetic acid. And they greatly enhance the nutritional power of the vegetables they’re fermenting. These fermented vegetables are not pasteurized. In the markets, they’re sold on refrigerated shelves.
Here’s where the confusion comes in. Both pickled and fermented cucumbers are commonly called pickles. To add to the confusion, “pickling” is a term used by many folks to refer to food preservation by either canning or fermenting.
But not in this article. Pickles will mean they’ve been preserved unfermented in hot brine. Fermented foods, even cucumbers, will be called fermented.
So, let’s take a good look at each method, starting with pickling. Pickling is an ancient method of preserving vegetables by immersing them in a solution of boiling vinegar. The earliest record of pickling goes back to 4000 BCE in India. The hot liquid kills microorganisms on the food, including any probiotic “good guys.” The heat also destroys any enzymes in the vegetables. Acetic acid in the vinegar provides an environment that turns the vegetables sour. The acid environment also discourages spoilage organisms from growing back. Pickles will last for a few months at top quality flavor in the fridge. Before refrigeration, it was necessary to consume them within a few weeks for top quality.
People have known about preserving food through wild fermentation for 6000 years. The process hasn’t changed much in all that time. Fermented vegetables are chopped raw and placed in a vessel with a light, salty brine—usually about 2 or 3 percent salt. Filtered water is mixed with the vegetables’ natural juices to make enough liquid to keep the vegetables submerged. This has the immediate effect of keeping air away from the vegetables. Spoilage organisms like molds can grow on vegetables exposed to air, so submerging them is a crucial part of preventing spoilage. Initially, the brine solution is a mix of whatever microorganisms are on the vegetables or in the air when the fermentation vessel is filled. But within a few days, lactic acid bacteria turn sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid and a range of other delicious and nutritious compounds. The more lactic acid the bacteria produce, the more spoilage organisms are eliminated. Within a short time, the acid buildup cleanses the fermented mixture of all unhealthy organisms.
Those lactic acid bacteria also produce B vitamins as they metabolize the sugars. They create the spectrum of flavors that give fermented vegetables such palate appeal. In addition, they are the very probiotic organisms that colonize the gut and produce real health benefits. Among its other important functions, this gut microbiome enhances, strengthens, and even manages our immune system.
Pickling vs. fermenting? It’s the difference between a tasty sour treat of no great health benefit and a food that’s raw, rich in nutrition, alive with beneficial probiotics, and that beats pickles hands down for great flavor. In other words, no contest. Wildbrine’s sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods are the nutritional champs you’ve been looking for.
About the Author: Sonoma County resident Jeff Cox is the author of 24 books, including The Essential Book of Fermentation (Avery, 2013)