You know you love all things pickled and fermented, but do you know the difference between the two? Both are processes of preservation that allow you to consume certain things long after their nonpreserved counterparts, and both add a pleasant tanginess that can’t be replicated any other way. Learn a few key distinctions and hit that jar of dilly beans or kimchi with more confidence than ever.
Pickling involves submerging anything edible and porous, such as vegetables and fruits, eggs, cheese, meat, poultry, and fish, in a vinegar, salt or salt-and-sugar brine in order to preserve it. Pickled cheese, eh? Ever tried feta? It develops its signature tangy-saline flavor and slight funk from a quick aging in strong salt brine. And pickled eggs and pig bits in the American South, especially Louisiana, are pantry staples. You can pickle ingredients cooked or raw, depending on what they are (eggs and pig bits should be boiled beforehand, for example) or kick-start the process by pouring hot or warm brine over the material. This opens up its pores and allows the salty liquid to start doing its thing, whereas brining in chilled liquid allows vegetables to maintain their crisp texture and bright color.
The amount of time they’ll stay preserved depends on whether the pickles were refrigerated, prepared in sterilized jars and processed in a water bath or are simply more prone to spoilage. Suffice it to say, however, that they’ll last longer than their nonpickled counterparts since brine is too acidic for harmful bacteria to thrive in.
Fermenting refers to the anaerobic sugar metabolization process carried out by yeast and bacteria in sealed containers of raw foods like cabbage (kimchi/sauerkraut), grapes (wine) and milk (yogurt). Unlike your compost heap, this method of organic decomposition results in carbon dioxide plus the natural preservatives of alcohol (in the case of wine) or lactic acid (vegetables), which transform the raw material into a nutritionally enhanced version. This process results in a signature tangy “fermented” flavor and pumped-up resistance to pathogens and spoilage. Ever wonder why your sourdough boule lasts longer than your supermarket loaf? Its dough, which is sour due to lactic acid, contains natural preservatives from fermentation.
Fermented foods stay fresh for a long time — up to a year or more — and in many cases are more delicious the more they’re aged. Best of all, the microbes that help keep your internal flora healthy (probiotics) are hardy little things. Even if your kombucha loses its fizz, your yogurt is frozen into pops or your sauerkraut is braised, the probiotics will remain.