Are Pickles Fermented? The Difference Between Pickling and Fermenting

Pickling and fermentation cucumber in glass jar with dill and garlic on dark grey concrete table.

Pickling and fermenting both involve brine and acid. But what is the difference between these two preserving techniques and can a pickled pickle be fermented?

When it comes to choosing foods that have a positive impact on your overall health, fermented foods have certainly earned a position near the top of that list. 

Yogurt, the most famous of health-promoting fermented foods has been around for about 7,000 years. In the east, the process of fermenting vegetables to make sauerkraut, kimchi, and other ancient health foods, has been around for over 2,000 years.

These plant-based fermented products have gained popularity around the globe more recently, leading many to wonder if other acidic veggie snacks like pickles are also the result of fermentation.

But the answer to the question “Are pickles fermented?” isn’t as straight forward as you might think. And to understand why we first must understand the differences between fermenting and pickling.

What Is Fermenting?

Lacto-Fermentation

Whether you are talking about beer, yogurt, sourdough bread, or kimchi, you are talking about a food product that is the result of fermentation. While beer, bread, and other types of fermentation rely on yeast to transform carbohydrates, fermenting of veggies and dairy products typically involves the use of bacteria called lactobacilli.

Most fermented veggies start in a brine bath. As the salt breaks down the cellular structure of the plant, the laco-bacteria naturally present in the environment get to work breaking down the carbohydrates.

These gut-friendly bacteria are especially good at breaking down starches and sugars and turning them into lactic acid. It’s this process that gives fermented foods that sour, acidic taste. It is also what allows these foods to be stored for extended periods of time.

Eating these types of fermented foods is thought to be beneficial since you inevitably also consume the friendly bacteria present within them. These probiotics have been associated with a number of health benefits including lowered cholesterol, better digestive function, and weight loss.

What Is Pickling?

Pickles in a jar

While fermenting is a very specific process, pickling is much more of a broad term.

To pickle something simply means to preserve it using brine or acid. Technically speaking, fermented vegetables are pickled because of the salt bath used to kickstart the process. But, not all pickled vegetables are fermented.

Some veggies are simply preserved using vinegar or lemon juice. In these cases, no fermentation occurs and the products carry no added health benefits outside the vitamins and minerals naturally present in the vegetables and pickling medium.

So, Are Store-Bought Pickles Fermented?

When it comes to pickles, specifically, the answer to the pickling vs fermenting debate really depends on the product itself.

Traditionally, all pickles were created through fermentation. If you buy pickles at the farmers market you are most likely getting fermented pickles with all those lovely probiotic health benefits. If you pickle your cucumbers at home, you have the option of going the fermentation route, which is more than worth the time and effort.

However, if you are buying your pickles at the grocery store, more than likely you are getting a product that has simply been picked in vinegar without fermenting.

While simply pickled pickles are still a healthy snack, it is worth noting that many commercial brands also contain food dyes and preservatives, which may have a negative impact on your overall health.

If you are interested in trading in your standard pickled pickles for the fermented type, try looking for more artisanal products at your local food co-op or natural grocery. It isn’t always easy to tell if a pickled product has been fermented, but those toting “traditional” processing methods, small batches, and quality ingredients are more likely to contain beneficial bacteria. 

Any product containing preservatives or dyes has most likely not been fermented since those additives would mostly likely interfere with the fermentation process.

If you are still struggling to find quality fermented pickles, it is worth giving the process a try yourself. All you need are some organic pickling cucumbers, water, salt, spices, a clean jar, and a little time. 

But be warned, once you taste the awesomely gratifying flavor of fermented pickles, you may never be able to eat a standard dill again.

Feature photo: ©Svetlana_Cherruty/Bigstock