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Are Pickles Fermented? The Difference Between Pickling and Fermenting

For this post, I would LOVE to welcome our fantastic guest blogger, Yeukai Mawire from A Dash of Lemon. It is such an honour to have Yeukai share her experience and musings on fermentation with us here at Fermenting Australia!

“In a nutshell, not all fermented foods are pickled and not all pickles are fermented” (Alex Lewin).

Fermenting and pickling are the oldest methods of preserving foods and are often used interchangeably but they are not exactly the same.

Thousands of years ago before industrial revolution, pickling by fermentation was the only means of preservation. Fermentation was used to help extent the shelf life of the harvest for the winter months when food was relatively scarce. All that was required was a jar/crock, water and salt.

Most pickles you find on the shelf at the grocery store are preserved in vinegar and the ones in the refrigerated section are fermented with live bacteria.

This post will explore the difference between fermenting and pickling.

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is a microbial transformation in which sugars are converted into acids, gases and alcohol. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries. Fermentation increases shelf life and enhances the flavour and texture of food.

For the magic of fermentation to take place, you need 3 things:

1.) Microorganisms (bacteria/yeast)

2.) A food source for the microbes (carbs/starch)

3.) A medium (water, salt, tea, juice, etc.)

For example, sauerkraut is simply a mix of cabbage and salt. The naturally occurring bacteria feed on the sugars in the cabbage and produce lactic acid, which then preserves the cabbage.

What is pickling?

Pickling is the process of preserving food in an acidic solution, most often vinegar. When you talk about pickles, people think of pickled cucumber, preserved in vinegar. The vinegar acts as a preservative and gives food a sour flavour. My idea of pickles is the ones fermented in salt-water brine.

Pickling process starts with an acidic solution; a mix of vinegar, salt, water and sometimes sugar. This solution is then heated and poured over the vegetables in jars.



-Fermented foods are made using bacteria, which feed on sugar in the food and create acids, gases and alcohol. During the fermentation process, the microbes proliferate and produce food teeming with beneficial bacteria, which diversify your gut flora, improve immunity and boost digestive health. Fermentation also increases nutrients; the bacteria in fermented foods create new nutrients such as vitamins and digestive enzymes etc.

-No live probiotics are present in vinegar-pickled foods. Water, salt and vinegar are combined and heated and then vegetables are submerged in that solution. This process destroys all the beneficial microorganisms. In fact, foods that are pickled in vinegar lose much of their nutritional value over time. You can still enjoy them as a tasty snack but just keep in mind that they are not doing much for your gut health.

Shelf life

-Fermented foods are not shelf stable at room temperature as they keep on fermenting. Thus, once the fermented food reaches the preferred flavour and texture, it is then transferred to cold storage, which slows down the fermentation. Fermented foods can last in the fridge for up to a year. I once left a jar of sauerkraut at the back of my fridge for a year, and it was the best sauerkraut I have ever had.

-Pickled foods via the use of vinegar have a longer shelf life at room temperature than fermented foods.


-The environment when we ferment needs to be clean. But there's no need to sterilise and sanitise everything. Cleaning equipment and utensils in hot soapy water is sufficient.

-The environment for pickling has to be sterile. You need to sterilise and sanitise everything that you are using to keep out any microorganisms.


-The flavour of fermented foods is more sour and complex. The fermentation process is slower, allowing the flavour to develop and intensify overtime as the bacteria continue to do their magic. The taste and acidity changes. The way sauerkraut tastes at 3 weeks is completely different at 3 months.

-The flavour of pickles preserved in vinegar doesn't change much overtime. They retain the vinegar flavour.

The Crossover

Both fermented pickles and pickles preserved with an acid such as vinegar are all pickles.

Not all fermented foods are pickles - sourdough bread, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, cheese, and beer. These foods are fermented but not pickled, as they are not preserved in a brine solution.

Not all pickles are fermented- Shelf stable ferments are pickled but not fermented. These pickles don't contain any live, beneficial microbes. Always choose the fermented foods in the refrigerated section of the store.

Some foods are both fermented and pickled - sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented pickles are all fermented and pickled. They are all preserved in salty brine that inhibits the growth of pathogens and encourage the good bugs to take over and do their magic.

Bottom line

Whether fermented or pickled, both pickles are delicious (team fermented pickles over here). If you are after the probiotic benefits then choose the ferments in the refrigerator section.

I would encourage you to try fermentation at home. It’s simple, inexpensive and magical! Oh, the joys of watching the colour change, the carbon dioxide bubbling away – the whole glorious fermentation process. You have got to experience it for yourself, there’s nothing quite like it. The taste of fermented foods is complex, unique and out of this world. And as a bonus, you get foods packed full of probiotics and enzymes essential for gut health, digestion and overall wellness.

Above: Fermented cucumber pickles.

Yeukai Mawire is the voice behind A Dash Of Lemon. She's a passionate foodie, blogger and recipe developer. Her blog is where she shares flavourful and nourishing plant-based recipes. She's also a fermentation fanatic with over 5 years of fermenting experience. She delights in sharing her love of fermenting food with others through workshops.

For more from Yeukai, head to or follow her @adashof_lemon. If you are interested in her fermentation workshops, go and follow her on instagram @salt_andthyme.

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