Fermentation vs. Pickling

An introduction to pickling and fermentation.

As a child, I remember exploring my grandparent’s basement “cellar” or cold room that had shelves filled with jars of pickled and fermented produce. And even more, I enjoyed eating those jarred contents! What I didn’t know were the processes behind how those fresh veggies (and fruits) could be kept for such a long time without going bad.

Traditionally, and as my grandparents used to do, fermentation and pickling were used to preserve what had been harvested from the garden and then stored over the winter months when fresh produce wasn’t as available. In today’s society, food is readily available throughout all seasons, not to mention there are far fewer numbers of people who garden and then preserve their remaining harvest. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can still pickle or ferment fresh produce for later consumption.

But first, what is the difference between pickled and fermented foods?

Pickling is a general term that refers to different ways of preserving foods in an acidic medium or liquid, often vinegar. A common example is cucumbers that have been prepared in vinegar, which most people simply refer to as ‘pickles’. Preserving fresh produce in vinegar in this quick pickling method by covering the vegetable (or fruit) in hot vinegar, with the addition of spices and seasonings, eventually changes the original taste and texture of the food. Pickling also includes the use of heat to destroy and inhibit the growth of any microorganisms. This offers the advantage of the food not being perishable, but lacks the benefits of fermented foods, where microorganisms are cultivated and nutrients are maintained.

Fermentation is considered a pickling method, but is more of a curing process and thus has some specific features distinguishing fermentation from the quick pickling method described above. Fermentation involves creation of the acidic medium through lactic acid fermentation by bacteria. Lactobacillus, a species of bacteria normally present on fresh food, including vegetables and fruits, proliferates and flourishes during fermentation. These naturally present, beneficial bacteria produce lactic acid as they eat up and convert sugars and starches in the food. This type of lacto-fermentation uses a salt brine to inhibit harmful microbes while the beneficial bacteria multiply and dominate. The lactic acid produced also lowers the pH thus inhibiting harmful microorganisms from surviving. It is also meant to be an anaerobic process, meaning it provides an environment without oxygen where the lactobacilli bacteria can grow and thrive, while preventing any other microorganisms that require oxygen for their growth from growing and thriving. The fermentation process not only gives fermented foods their unique sour smell and flavour, it also provides health benefits.

What are the health benefits of fermented foods?

  • Enhances the vitamin content of food
  • Improves bioavailability (=usability) of nutrients in the body
  • Improves digestibility of food which helps our digestive process
  • Preserves and can enhance the enzyme content of food
  • Produces and provides probiotics (=beneficial bacteria), which have a variety of health benefits

Some examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, miso and kombucha.

How to shop for fermented foods

When looking for fermented foods at the grocery store, make sure to read labels carefully. You will often find truly fermented products in the refrigerated section, and many of these fermented products will be labeled as such—look for labels that include “live cultures”, “source of probiotics” or “fermented”. You may also see the words unpasteurizedor raw on the label and the ingredients list should be simple. For example, in the case of sauerkraut, the label could include cabbage, salt, and other vegetables and seasoning ingredients used for flavour, such as garlic, beets or ginger. You might find “starter culture” on the label as some companies use a starter culture to amplify the number of beneficial bacterial present at the start of the fermentation process. Be sure the product does not contain vinegar and does not say “pasteurized” as the pasteurization process eliminates the beneficial bacterial cultures, thus removing the health benefits of a fermented food.

You can also try the quick pickling method and fermenting foods at home. For a tasty quick pickle recipe, try some spicy dill pickled green beans (from That Clean Life) or make your own delicious non-dairy kefir using coconut milk (from Meghan Telpner) (recipes below).

Spicy Dill Pickled Green Beans

Recipe from That Clean Life: https://blog.thatcleanlife.com/dill-pickled-beans/

Yields 1 jar of pickled beans


  • 1.5 cups green beans (washed and trimmed)
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill (chopped)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tsp sea salt


  1. Trim the ends from the green beans and cut them into equal lengths that will fit into a 500 mL mason jar.
  2. Place the dill, garlic, red pepper flakes and peppercorns into the bottom of the jar. Turn the jar on its side and tightly pack the beans in. Set jar aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan combine apple cider vinegar with water and sea salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 3 minutes.
  4. Pour the vinegar into the jar with the beans. Cover with a lid and let cool. Transfer to the fridge and let sit for at least 24 hours before eating. Flavour will intensify over time. Enjoy!

Coconut Kefir 

Recipe from Meghan Telpner: http://www.meghantelpner.com/blog/coconut-kefir-ice-cream-pops/


  • 1 can (2 cups) full fat coconut milk
  • 1 probiotic capsule (about 1/4 tsp of probiotic powder). Any live kind will do.
  • 1 clean one-litre mason jar


  1. Stir together the coconut milk and the probiotic. If the cream and water in the tin are very separated, you may want to toss it in the blender or warm over low heat first, then allowing it to cool (to at least room temperature) before whisking in the probiotic.
  2. Transfer to your jar and fasten the lid on loosely.
  3. Let sit at room temperature for 18-24 hours. You can taste periodically with a clean spoon until desired taste is achieved.
  4. Once ready, place your coconut kefir in the fridge. If desired, reserve 1/2 cup of coconut kefir for your next batch in a new mason jar (see below).
  5. Will keep 3-4 days, or freeze for a couple of weeks.

Making Your Second Batch:

  • Mix together your reserved 1/2 cup of coconut kefir with 2 cups (1 can) organic full fat coconut milk. Repeat steps 2-5 above.





Editors, H. F. (2016, January 21). Pickling Vs. Fermenting-What’s the Difference? Retrieved March 12, 2017, from http://www.hobbyfarms.com/pickling-vs-fermenting-whats-the-difference-4/

Howe, H. (2016, April 12). Fermented Foods ULTIMATE Guide: How to Buy or Make, Ways to Eat & Wonderful Benefits. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from https://www.makesauerkraut.com/fermented-foods-ultimate-guide/

Nourishing Meals. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.nourishingmeals.com/search?q=fermentation

Publications, I. O. (2015, May 11). Are Pickles Fermented? Pickled Vs. Fermented Foods – Natural Health. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/fermenting/are-pickles-fermented-pickled-vs-fermented-foods-zbcz1505

The Crucial Difference Between Pickled and Fermented. (2017, March 02). Retrieved March 12, 2017, from http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/the-crucial-difference-between-pickled-and-fermented/

What is the Difference Between Pickling and Fermentation? (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.wildfermentation.com/questions/what-is-the-difference-between-pickling-and-fermentation/

What’s the Difference Between Pickling and Fermenting? – Word of Mouth. (2016, April 04). Retrieved February 18, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-between-pickling-and-fermenting-229536

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