Pickled vs Fermented Foods: How to Choose (Plus Recipes!)

Pickled vs Fermented

Pickling and fermenting are both popular ways to preserve foods. The techniques make food last much longer and produce a delicious result. But, comparing pickled vs fermented foods can sometimes be confusing.

What exactly is the difference? And, is one type better than the other?

In this post, we’re taking a look at the two areas, along with some powerful recipes for each. After all, healthy food should taste good too.  

Pickled vs Fermented Foods – Basic Differences

The main difference between pickled and fermented foods is how they’re made.

  • With pickling, you’re immersing the ingredients in something acidic – like vinegar. The process alters the texture and the taste of food, creating a sour flavor.
  • Fermenting doesn’t involve any extra acid. Instead, the sour taste comes from the reaction between compounds in the food and bacteria that are naturally present.

Basically, pickled foods are preserved through the acidity, while fermented foods are preserved through the bacteria and the fermentation processes.

Pickling is a general term, simply referring to preserving foods with an acidic medium. Fermentation is a specific type of pickling, where the acidic aspect comes from a chemical reaction, rather than being added.

More About Pickled Foods

Pickled Cucumbers

There are various ways to pickle foods. But, you’ll always be using some type of acidic solution. Most pickling approaches rely on heat too. That heat helps destroy any dangerous microbes and helps the food last longer.

When you think of pickling – you might imagine a long process, involving large amounts of vegetables, along with canning. Pickling that way is great if you have plenty of produce to preserve. But, there are faster approaches too.

For example, The Kitchen provides details about how to quick pickle vegetables.

  • The process involves a solution of vinegar, salt and water. Vegetables are pickled in it and can be stored in the fridge as-is (no need for canning).
  • It only takes a few days before your pickled vegetables can be enjoyed.
  • You can choose the type and shape of vegetable to focus on.
  • Most types of vinegar will work well, including apple cider vinegar.
  • You can also add in whatever herbs and spices you like to adjust the flavor. Gingergarlic, black pepperturmeric and oregano are all examples.

You can also check out Epicurious. They offer a great guide that teaches you how to pickle pretty much anything. The piece includes details about ways to play around with flavors and create your own unique recipes.

Regardless of the approach you take, pickling should always focus on fresh vegetables. The goal is to preserve the freshness and flavor of the food when it is at its best. If the food is old, the finished product won’t be very good.

Pickling Recipes

Once you get familiar with pickling, you may not need a recipe at all. But, the three examples here are all great places to begin. They might also offer you some inspiration.

1. Quick Pickled Vegetables

Feasting at Home developed this Quick Pickled Vegetables recipe, which is most powerful for its versatility. You can use the recipe with any vegetable or combination of vegetables. There are also various links to individual recipes, like Moroccan Eggplant Pickles, if you want something more specific.

2. Quick 10 Minute Pickled Jalapenos
Quick 10 Minute Pickled Jalapenos

Image from Gimme Delicious

These Quick 10 Minute Pickled Jalapenos come from Gimme Delicious and they do look both fast and delicious. The recipe describes them as tangy, sweet and crunchy, which seems like a perfect combination. As Layla mentions, you can use the same principles with other vegetables as well, like sliced pickles or bell peppers.

3. Best Pickled Asparagus

This Best Pickled Asparagus recipe is from The Elliott Homestead and it’s perfect for any asparagus fans. The recipe is a great way to make asparagus taste better and last longer. Unlike the other examples, the emphasis here is canning, so it may not suit everyone. But, the recipe is still worth checking out.

More About Fermented Foods

Sauerkraut in a jar

In fermentation, the sour flavor is produced by the action of bacteria, like the species lactobacilli. This organism converts starches and sugars into other components, such as lactic acid.

When you consume a fermented food, you’re eating the transformed food, along with the colonies of bacteria. The process doesn’t sound appealing, but fermented foods are safe and a common part of our diets. Plus, the bacteria are all good for you. They can help support the healthy bacteria that live in your gut.

Fermented foods can be broken down into a few general types:

  • Fermented fruits and vegetables – like fermented apples or sauerkraut
  • Fermented liquids – like kefir (fermented milk) or kombucha (fermented tea)
  • Fermented alcohol products – like beer

Each type has a different style and taste profile. For this discussion, fermented fruits and vegetables are the most interesting, as these have the same sour flavor that you find with pickled foods.

Another important aspect is that fermentation takes time. You can pickle something within a few days. But, fermented foods often take 10 days or more, depending on the recipe.

Fermenting Recipes

Fermenting is a versatile process and there are many great recipes to try. Each type of fermented food will have its own advantages – and some are easier than others to make.

These recipes are some of our favorites. They’re also a good way to begin your fermented foods journey.

1. Easy Vegan Kimchi

This Easy Vegan Kimchi recipe comes from Dana at Minimalist Baker and it is surprisingly simple to make. Kimchi often seems difficult or confusing, especially if you’ve never tried it before. The dish is certainly unusual but it is well worth the effort. As Dana points out, you can add kimchi to many different meals, like veggie bowls or a stir-fry.

2. Fermented Carrots

This Fermented Carrots recipe is from Raising Generation Nourished and was developed with kids in mind. The recipe is very easy to prepare, requiring only a few ingredients. The finished carrots also taste appealing enough that kids should eat them without much hesitation. This is also a nice and simple way to get started with fermentation.

3. Vegan Coconut Milk Yogurt
Vegan Coconut Milk Yogurt

Image from Detoxinista

Detoxinista hosts this Vegan Coconut Milk Yogurt recipe, but you don’t need to be a vegan to try it. The recipe is simply an alternative to regular yogurt and has an interesting flavor profile. The recipe focuses on making the yogurt in an Instant Pot, which simplifies the process considerably. There are also instructions for people who don’t have an Instant Pot.

Pickled vs Fermented – The Nitty Gritty

Fermented cabbage

The distinction between pickled and fermented sounds like it should be simple. But, that’s not entirely true.

Pickling is basically just preserving food in brine. Still, many fermented food recipes have the same starting point.

  • For example, sauerkraut involves pickling cabbages and letting the resulting mixture ferment. That makes sauerkraut both pickled and fermented.
  • A similar pattern is true for dill pickles, where cucumbers are fermented in a salty solution. You’ll also find that some dill pickles have only been pickled, not fermented.

On the other hand, many other fermented foods aren’t pickled, like sourdough.

Buying Fermented Foods

If that wasn’t confusing enough – try shopping for the products. Companies often don’t use the term fermented, making it hard to figure out which products are fermented and which ones aren’t.

In some cases, foods may be fermented and heat treated. The heat treatment kills any bacteria (good or bad), so you don’t get probiotic benefits.

One key guide is the product labels. Look for terms like ‘live cultures’ or ‘source of probiotics’. Some brands will even list the species of bacteria that they use. These are key indications that the product is fermented.

Product labels are particularly important for yogurt. Many yogurt brands will contain live bacteria but not all of them. The species included also vary. Checking the labels gives you a good indication of what you’ll be eating.

You can also look for common fermented food, such as sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir. But remember, some of these will be heat treated – so check the labels carefully.

Health Differences

Pickled food

Fermentation and pickling are both healthy. They’re ways to preserve food without the use of concerning chemicals. You also end up with something that tastes really good and relies on whole foods.

But, the two approaches have different health implications.

With pickled foods, any health benefits simply come from the ingredients that are included. For example, eating pickled cabbage means you’re consuming various nutrients and healthy compounds from cabbage.

Fermented foods have something extra – the bacteria. As a result, the foods act as a source of probiotics. Probiotics help to promote a healthy balance of bacteria in our gut, a practice that has many important outcomes.

  • Research suggests a connection between mental health and gut health. Probiotics may even play a role in decreasing depression risk or in treating the condition.
  • Probiotics can help improve glycemic control and HbA1c levels for diabetics (1,2,3).
  • They could be relevant for conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (4,5). Fermented foods are also important for overall digestive health.
  • There may be many more advantages as well, including anti-inflammatory impacts and the potential to lower the risk of disease (6,7).

Overall, fermented foods are much more relevant for health than pickled foods. Fermented foods should be a part of your diet for this reason alone.

Final Thoughts

In the comparison of pickling vs fermenting, fermenting is the clear winner. There are many more potential health benefits and fermented foods also taste good.

Fermented foods are also becoming easier to find as their popularity increases. You’ll often find products like these at grocery stores and health food stores. Some cafés and restaurants are even beginning to offer fermented foods.

So, even if you don’t want to do fermentation yourself, there are plenty of options for eating fermented foods regularly.

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