Pickling vs. Fermenting: What’s the Difference?

Ready to extend the shelf life of a variety of fresh produce? There are two ways to create crunchy pickles that will last in your fridge for months and months. Let’s talk about the difference between pickling and fermenting. 

Pickling and fermenting are just two ways to preserve foods. Here are even more ways to preserve foods!

fork with bread and butter pickles on it, jar in background.

When my book was published, I did a number of radio interviews and one of the most asked questions was “what’s the difference between pickling and fermenting?”

And it’s true, it can be confusing because we often use the term “pickles” interchangeably, whether we used a pickling process or a fermenting process to make them.

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Pickling vs. Fermenting

Both are a method of food preservation that can be tackled in your home kitchen, often without any special equipment. 

No matter which method you choose, the result is pickled vegetables that have a somewhat sour flavor. Some are salty, some are a little sweet and sour, but the final product is a crispy, crunchy snack that’s worthy of the prettiest charcuterie board. 

red cabbage kraut, left; fermenting pickles, right.

Traditionally Fermented Foods

Cultures from around the world have used the fermentation process as a method to preserve food for centuries. Not only do fermented pickles taste good, but they have some nice health benefits, thanks to the probiotics that develop during the fermenting process. 

At its most basic, fermenting foods calls for combining them with salt or immersing them in a saltwater brine and leaving them at room temperature for days or weeks. When foods are properly stored in an anaerobic environment — that is, one without air — bacteria forms and they become fermented. 

There are a few types of fermentation, but vegetable ferments are primarily made with lacto-fermentation, in which we help lactic acid bacteria (LAB) thrive. 

white scalloped bowl full of orange carrot shreds.

Salt is key in LAB fermentation. It can be added to ferments in the form of a salt brine or massaged directly into vegetables as it is for making sauerkraut.

In either case, the salt is critical in inhibiting the growth of unwelcome microbes, while giving salt-tolerant lactic acid bacteria a chance to develop. Pickles fermented with this method are loaded with lactic acid bacteria and simply don’t allow for the intrusion of any “bad” microbes.

white tray with green hot pepper relish, glass jar with more behind

During the process, beneficial bacteria produce enzymes and organic acids that ferment the foods, giving them their unique tangy flavor.

These fermented vegetables will last for months in the refrigerator. Do they have to be refrigerated? That’s the million dollar question. Depending on the temperature, fermentation will continue; refrigerating the jars drastically slows the process. Pre-refrigeration, fermented foods were stored in cool places, such as a basement or root cellar. 

Ready to try your hand at fermenting? Here are some probiotic-rich crunchy fermented pickles (and some fruit!) to try:

jars of pickled green beans.

Pickling Vegetables

Making pickled foods calls for submerging raw (or sometimes lightly cooked) vegetables in an acidic brine. The most common brine is a base of vinegar diluted with water, but lemon juice is called for in some recipes. 

Pickled cucumbers are probably the most recognized pickle product, since they’re so readily available on grocery store shelves, but there are plenty of veggies that make great pickles.

To confuse things further, there are two ways to make pickles:

Refrigerator pickles call for making a brine and storing the jars in the refrigerator. The shelf life is quite long, but these do take up space in the refrigerator. To pickle vegetables and have a shelf stable product, you will need to can them in a water bath following safe canning guidelines.

pink pickled radishes in a swing top jar.


Refrigerator Pickles

I love refrigerator pickles for their ease. They’re easy to make up in small batches, using what’s coming out of the garden at any given time. I’d never pull out the canner to make one or two pints of pickles; instead, I make up a quick brine and pour it over whatever vegetable I wish to preserve and then tuck them in the fridge. 

Refrigerator pickles last for months and months in the fridge and they always remain crisp. The downside is that they do take up space in the refrigerator. 

Since these pickles are not processed, you can use any sort of jar you like. Upcycle jars from store-bought items or use what you have in your kitchen. 

Try these refrigerator pickled vegetables and you’ll be hooked!

jar of red, yellow, and orange pickled peppers.

Canning Pickles

The process of making pickles stable is fairly straightforward. Because they are made in an acidic brine, it’s safe to can them using a water bath method. You’ll make the pickles much as you would refrigerator pickles, but process them to make shelf-stable jars. (Note: Be sure to use canning recipes from a trusted source.)

One challenge of canning pickles — particularly cucumber pickles — is that processing them can often cause pickles to become soft or mushy. You can combat this by adding a grape leaf to each jar! The tannins in the leaf can help retain the crispness. 

Pickles that are canned in a water bath must be made in canning jars, aka mason jars. Go here to learn about canning equipment and the jar system, as well as why it’s important to use these jars. 

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About the author: Kris Bordessa is an award-winning National Geographic author and a certified Master Food Preserver. Read more about Kris and how she got started with this site here. If you want to send Kris a quick message, you can get in touch here.

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