Pickling vs Fermenting

Pickling vs Fermenting

Freddie Janssen
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books

What’s the difference between pickling and fermenting? Not all pickles are fermented and not all fermented foods are pickled.

In short, pickling is the process of preserving a food in an acidic medium, usually vinegar (which in itself is a product of fermentation). That’s it. With pickling, raw or lightly cooked ingredients are often immersed in hot brine, which has the effect of diminishing the nutrients. This means that unlike fermented foods, pickles don’t actually give you that probiotic health boost.

Fermenting, on the other hand, actually creates nutrients, including good bacteria that are super-good for you. With some salt, filtered water and sometimes a starter, you can convert sugar into acids. This can only happen in an oxygen-starved space, which is why people use special fermenting crocks, where the food is pressed down as much as possible, to eliminate or minimise the amount of air bubbles. During fermentation the food will create its own acidic liquid. This liquid is called lactic acid and the process that produces it is called ‘lacto-fermentation’. This process first kills off harmful bacteria, after which it begins to convert lactose and other sugars in the food into lactic acid, which preserves the food safely, and also gives it that nice zingy flavour. Think kimchi, sauerkraut, and yoghurt – probiotic foods that are not exposed to heat and create their own acidic liquid, and are really good for your gut.

Fermentation halts (or slows down) the growth of microorganisms, after which it encourages the growth of bacteria, mould and yeasts. Basically, a fermented food is ‘alive’ as the culture continues to develop over time. Keep this in mind when storing your kimchi and sauerkraut; their flavour profiles will transform the longer you leave them and it’s up to you to decide how you like them – so keep tasting and testing them until you’re happy with both the taste and texture.

Tips for awesome results

Fresh Produce

Buy the nicest, freshest, most seasonal produce you can. If a cucumber looks soft and limp, it’s not all of a sudden going to taste fresh and delicious and be crunchy as hell when you pickle it. If you choose seasonal ingredients they will be at their best. All you need to do is treat them well by preserving them properly, and I guarantee that your pickles will taste great.


Don’t freak out if the garlic in your brine turns bright blue. It might look like some sort of scary chemical reaction, but it just means that the garlic is old. It won’t harm the pickle.


Salt draws out water from the vegetable or fruit you’re using, which then creates an environment where bad bacteria die, and good bacteria can grow. It’s important to use good salt, such as kosher, sea or pickling salt, rather than normal table salt. This contains caking agents like iodine, which can cloud the brines and inhibit beneficial bacteria during fermentation.


Avoid buying ready-made pickling bags. It is better to experiment and add your own spices. If you’re worried about the spices floating around in the brine, and having to pick them out one by one before serving, put the spices in a small muslin (cheesecloth) bag and tie it with butcher’s string.


Sugar acts as both a preserver and a flavour enhancer. With pickles, it also helps to balance out the acidity from the vinegar. Normal, granulated (raw) sugar is absolutely fine – you can use caster (superfine) sugar as well (it dissolves quicker) but by all means, regular white sugar that you’ll find in any kitchen in a sugar bowl is sufficient.


Don’t use cheap vinegar. You will taste it. I use apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar and my personal favourite, rice wine vinegar. Rice wine vinegar has a lower acetic acid content, which means ingredients will take longer to pickle in it, leading to a less harsh and, well, less vinegary taste. The type of vinegar you use for preserving will vary your end result in terms of colour and taste.

You can of course make your own vinegars, but if you are new to pickling it is probably easier to buy them. If you want try something different, you can make flavoured vinegar by infusing it with things like shiso, liquorice or elderflower. It’s totally fine to reuse a vinegar-brine once or twice. Make sure it has the right flavour profile that you’re after though. If you want to reuse a vinegar-brine, simply strain it, reheat it, taste for sweetness, saltiness and spices and pour it over your pickles.

A few things about equipment (and how little you really need)

For measuring

My one piece of advice regarding equipment is: get yourself a good set of measuring tools, teaspoons, tablespoons, etc., and stick to them.

For pickling

You don’t need anything fancy, just a good heavy-based pan, ideally non-reactive or stainless steel, for heating up vinegars. You’ll also need glass jars with tight-fitting vinegar-proof lids (such as Mason jars) and food-grade plastic jars for storing pickles and condiments.

For fermenting

If you’re just starting out with fermentations, you can make do with whatever you have at home. Just follow these tips:

Have a look at the ‘makes’ amount at the start of the recipe and have the right-sized jar or container ready. It’s best to be on the big side of big not the small side of big so that the fermentation can do its thing. It’s going to fizz and bubble so it needs space to ‘burp’.

It’s a good idea to place the jar or container on a plate during fermentation in case any liquid bubbles over. This is important when making very active things like sauerkraut and hot sauces (such as sriracha and kimchi hot sauce) that can both fizz and burp quite a bit!

Avoid using metal jars, bowls or containers. Use vessels made from non-reactive materials such as ceramics and food-grade plastic containers.

Always make sure you cover the ingredients fully in the brine. The best way to do this is to press down on it completely, releasing all the bubbles from the liquid, then put a clean plate on top followed by something heavy to keep it submerged in the liquid. I’ve found a zip-lock bag filled with water works pretty well as a weight.

If you really want to get serious about fermenting, invest in a ceramic sauerkraut crock. They have fitted lids with weights and also airlocks, which is pretty snazzy and efficient.

Sterilising, potting and storage

When preserving, always use a sterilised jar. You don’t want anything getting contaminated. If you’re making a refrigerator pickle, which won’t keep longer than a few days, simply washing your jar in very hot, soapy water will do the trick. If you’re looking to store the preserve for a couple of weeks or longer, there are two options. You can wash the jars, including their lids, in hot water and soap and then place them in a preheated oven for about 10 minutes, until the jars and lids are completely dry. Or you can dump the jars and lids in your dishwasher on the hottest setting.

Make sure when potting that the ingredients are at the same temperature as the jar, otherwise you’ll risk spoilage. For example, add hot liquids to hot jars, and add room temperature liquids to, yes, room temperature jars. Simple. Never fill to the top, always leave a bit of space for it to breathe. Once you’ve added your ingredients, close the jar or container straight away, leave to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

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