What's the difference between pickled and fermented?

I believe two things are true when it comes to cooking:

1. You don't have to make everything from scratch yourself.

2. You should try to make everything from scratch at least once.

You never know what crazy new technique or old world method is going to catch you off guard and make you fall head over heals in love. Pickling and fermenting might just be that thing!

What's the difference between pickling and fermenting?

In the simplest terms:

Pickling - heated vinegar is used to preserve veggies by destrying any bacteria. After adding the brine, you can store the jar in the fridge or process it in a canner for long term storage.

Fermenting - live bacteria in a salt brine create their own acidic environment to preserve the veggies.

What do they taste like?

Because the bacteria in a live ferment basically create their own vinegar, both versions have a similar taste. When you ferment veggies yourself, you can choose how long to allow the ferment to continue, creating a strong or mild flavor.

If you've never had pickled or fermented veggies, the flavor is similar to pickles! Not the sweet kind, but the sour dill pickles. If you enjoy sour pickles and vinaigrette dressings, you'll probably enjoy fermented veggies too!

Do you need special tools?

Nope!

For pickling you can start off with nothing but a jar.

For fermenting, you'll need a jar and a weight to hold the veggies under the brine and prevent them from floating to the surface. I like to use a turnip or cabbage core.

If you enjoy the process of fermenting and like the taste of the food you can certainly expand to fancier tools, like special fermenting weights and special lids that will help control the gas created by the fermentation process. Check out Cultures For Health for special equipment.

What kind of veggies can you ferment?

Any kind. People have been fermenting every type of food, including meat, fish, dairy, fruit, herbs, grains, and veggies, for hundreds of years. Below you'll find a simple recipe for pickled and fermented radishes. Start off with the basics then try different veggies, different spices, and expand from there.

Is there anything else I need to know before I try my first ferment?

  • Don't skimp on the salt.
  • keep you veggies fully submerged at all times.
  • Check the ferment regularly.

Here's a great quote from the master of fermantaion, Sandor Katz, "I have made hundreds of batches of kraut in all sorts of vessels (most of them open crocks), and I have witnessed, consistently, that it doesn’t matter. Each vessel has advantages and disadvantages. No particular type of vessel is critical. People have been fermenting vegetables for millennia in crocks open and closed, in pits and trenches, in sealed and open vessels. It can be done many different ways. The only critical factor is that the vegetables be submerged under brine."

Basic Fermented Radishes with onions and fennel

Makes 1 pint jar.

  • 1 medium radish
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 1 small fennel bulb
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 1 tablespoon non-iodized salt
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 pint jar
  • coffee filter & rubberband, or lid
  • 1 weight, ceramic, glass, or veggie. I like to cut a small turnip into a 1 inch thick disk.
  1. Dissolve the salt in the water. Set aside.
  2. Chop or slice your veggies and layer them into the jar (larger pieces will take longer to ferment). Combine mustard seeds, peppercorns, and fennel and pour over veggies.
  3. Pour the brine over the veggies.
  4. Place the weight on top of the veggies to make sure they are fully submerged under the brine.
  5. Put the lid on the jar or cover with a coffee filter, cloth, or other breathable material to keep dust out of the water.
  6. If you're using a normal lid, check the jar every day and open the lid if there appears to be gas building up inside. It's perfectly normal, you just need to let the ferment burp.
  7. Let it ferment for a week, then taste it. Allow the ferment to continue, or move the jar into the fridge to stop the ferment and keep the flavor at that level.

Note - you can increase the recipe to fit your needs. The standard ratio is 1/2 tablespoon of salt for every 1 cup of water.

Basic Refrigerator Pickled Radishes

Makes 1 pint jar.

  • 1 medium radish
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 1 small fennel bulb
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 pint jar with lid
  1. Dissolve the salt in the water and vinegar. Set aside.
  2. Chop or slice your veggies and layer them into the jar (larger pieces will take longer to ferment). Combine mustard seeds, peppercorns, and fennel and pour over veggies.
  3. Pour the brine over the veggies.
  4. Put the lid on the jar and place it in the refrigerator.
  5. The veggies should develop a nice flavor in about 2 weeks. Because the veggies receive their flavor from the vinegar, once they absorb the vinegar, that's it. They won't continue to develop flavor like a live ferment will.

Note - You can use any kind of vinegar you'd like. Apple Cider Vinegar and White Wine Vinegar are my favorites. You can also try a combination if you'd like to use a little aged balsamic for a rich, dark pickle.