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Differences Between Pickling and Fermenting

Two ancient practices tracing back to B.C. still thrive today—for both culinary enjoyment and health benefits.

Perhaps you have cherished memories of canning pickles with your grandmother during a year when the garden yielded an abundance of cucumbers. Or maybe you’ve wondered how the crisp tang of a pickle compares to the jar of kimchi in your refrigerator. After all, they’re both vegetables soaking in a briney liquid. Although the terms “pickled” and “fermented” are often used interchangeably, there are significant differences in the methods used to produce them and the nutritional value they offer.

The jar of homemade pickles that celebrated your garden’s abundance is connected to a rich and diverse history. According to the New York Food Museum, archeologists believe that the ancient Mesopotamians were pickling their food as far back as 2400 B.C. Pickled foods have been attributed to sustaining armies, preventing scurvy, and even enhancing beauty throughout the centuries.

What’s the Difference?

There are various methods for both pickling and fermenting foods, and there can be some overlap between them. Let’s define “pickling” as extending the shelf life of vegetables or fruits by submerging them in a hot vinegar solution, while “fermenting” refers to sprinkling foods with salt or soaking them in a brine, and allowing them to sit and ferment at room temperature. This definition aligns with that used by organic food expert Jeff Cox, author of “The Essential Book of Fermentation.”


The pickling process is relatively straightforward. Pickling involves boiling a vinegar solution and pouring it over the vegetable of choice (often cucumbers). The hot liquid destroys microorganisms that are present on the vegetables, and the acidic environment discourages the growth of spoilage organisms, thus extending the shelf life of the pickled product. Pickled foods are flavored with the sharp tang of the vinegar, along with any added spices or sweeteners. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, quick pickles (aka: “refrigerator pickles”) will last between several weeks and several months in the refrigerator. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends heat processed (canned) pickles be consumed within three months of opening.

Pickled foods offer nutritional benefits as well. Danielle Crumble Smith, a licensed and registered dietitian nutritionist at Top Nutrition Coaching, told The Epoch Times that “Pickled foods can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet, offering nutritional benefits like preserved vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, due to their high sodium content and potential lack of probiotics, it’s important to consume them in the context of a balanced diet and still prioritize fresh produce when possible.”

Pickling can go beyond just vegetables and fruits to include eggs, meats, and seafood. Pickled herring, anyone?


Fermented foods have a history that predates even that of the famed pickle. Archeologists believe the ancient Chinese fermented a beer-type beverage way back in 7000 B.C., made from rice, honey, and fruit. Today, fermentation works in very much the same way it did then—by harnessing the power of yeast, bacteria, or fungi to preserve and transform food.

Historically, being able to preserve foods by fermentation was necessary for survival during lean times. Today, fermented foods have become popular as their health benefits become better understood. Many different popular foods are fermented—from dairy products like kefir and yogurt to kombucha, sauerkraut, and fermented pickles, and more. For vegetables, the process is straightforward. Raw vegetables are chopped and placed in a container and mixed with a brine containing two to three percent salt. Filtered water is added to create enough liquid for the vegetables to be completely submerged, keeping them unexposed to air.

The Battle Between Microorganisms Begins

Initially, the brine contains whatever microorganisms were originally on the vegetables or in the air at the time of filling the container. After a few days, lactic acid bacteria, which are naturally occurring and widespread, start to feed on the sugars in the vegetables and convert them into lactic acid. “The more lactic acid the bacteria produce, the more spoilage organisms are eliminated,” according to Jeff Cox at “Within a short time, the acid buildup cleanses the fermented mixture of all unhealthy organisms.”

Lactic acid bacteria have been shown to offer significant health benefits. They produce B vitamins as they metabolize sugars, as well as provide a good dose of gut-supporting probiotics. A study performed by Stanford University researchers found that fermented foods significantly increase microbial diversity in the gut microbiome, as well as improve the immune system, and the more fermented foods eaten, the greater the positive effects.

Ms. Smith adds, “Fermented foods have a lot of nutritional benefits, and I do recommend them frequently! Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi contain probiotics—beneficial bacteria that can improve gut health. These probiotics help balance the gut microbiome, which is crucial for digestion and overall health.” She cautions individuals with digestive issues such as SIBO to consume fermented foods carefully and gradually to allow their bodies to adjust.

Fermenting Food at Home

Ready to try your hand at fermenting foods at home? The following recipe is from Pascal Baudar’s book, “Wildcrafted Fermentation: Exploring, Transforming, and Preserving the Wild Flavors of Your Local Terroir.”

Basic Sauerkraut

Ingredients for a 1-quart jar (946 ml):

  • 1 large green cabbage (a bit less than 2 pounds/900g)
  • Salt


  • Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage. Set aside a clean leaf to be used later for keeping the shredded cabbage submerged in the brine.
  • Quarter the cabbage, remove the tough inner core, and slice into thin strips.
  • Place an empty bowl on a scale, and reset the scale to zero. Add the sliced cabbage to the bowl and calculate the weight. The amount of salt used for sauerkraut is usually around 2 teaspoons salt for a pound of vegetables. If you end up with around 1.75 pounds of sliced sauerkraut, for instance, you would use around 1 tablespoon of salt.
  • Add the salt and massage/squeeze the cabbage forcefully with both hands until the cabbage becomes very watery. The idea is to extract enough juice so that you can keep the ingredients submerged in the created brine. It usually requires around 5 minutes of massaging—sometimes a bit more if the cabbage was dry from long storage.
  • Place a canning funnel on top of the jar (optional) and pack the cabbage inside it. The goal is to eliminate air pockets but also to have liquid (brine) covering the contents. Try to leave around 1 ½ to 2 inches headspace in the jar. When you’re done, cover the top with the folded leaf you set aside at the beginning. Place a pasteurized stone or other weight on top to keep the ingredients under the brine.
  • Remove any floating particles. Place the lid on top and close it, but not so tight that fermentation gases can’t escape. Place the jar in a somewhat shaded area of the kitchen. It’s a good idea to set a plate under it in case the fermentation process pushes some of the liquid over the top.
  • After the initial fermentation (around 10 days in warm climates), screw the lid tight as the fermentation gasses should be practically nonexistent.
  • Place the jar in the fridge.

As you eat the contents, it’s a good idea to transfer and pack the contents into a smaller jar. The less airspace above your sauerkraut, the longer it will keep.

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