Pickling and Fermenting: The Lowdown on These Two Essential Techniques
How are they different and what do they have in common?
Sauerkraut. Kimchi. Kosher dills. Are they fermented or are they pickled? What's the difference anyway? For the official definition we defer to Sandor Katz, pickling guru and author of "Wild Fermentation" and "The Art of Fermentation." Katz lays it out very simply for us: "Pickles are anything preserved by acidity."
The difference between fermenting and other kinds of pickling is all about the source of that acidity. In fermentation, the acid is actually produced by the fermenting process. For other methods of pickling, the acid (usually vinegar) is added to the food that's being pickled.
Fermentation is an ancient method of preserving foods. During the fermentation process, the starches and sugars in the food are converted to lactic acid by friendly and helpful natural bacteria called lactobacilli. So, in a fermented food product, the acid that preserves it is created during the fermentation process. This results in a tangy, flavorful finished product that is full of live probiotics, which many people swear by for maintaining a happy digestive system, increased absorption of vitamins and minerals, and a well-functioning immune system.
Ready to dive into some old-fashioned fermenting? Sauerkraut can be a good place to start. Or try another famous fermented food, kimchi. Fermenting isn't all about cabbage, yogurt is another fermented food that can be made at home.
The Other Kind of Pickling
Fermentation is not the only method of pickling though. Those jars of brand-name pickles on the supermarket shelf have not been created through fermentation, but through immersing the cucumbers in vinegar (an acid that has itself been created through fermentation) and then pasteurizing them. The pasteurization process kills off the bacteria, resulting in pickles that contain no probiotics but will last a very long time. Whereas the fermentation process takes days or weeks, this kind of pickling can be done in an afternoon. For even faster results, you can skip the whole canning process and make quick pickles (also known as refrigerator pickles) at home by pouring a hot vinegar brine over raw vegetables, letting them cool to room temp and then storing in the fridge.