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Pickling vs. Fermenting. Do you know all the differences?

When you walk through the supermarket, you might see many kinds of preserved veggies like gherkins, onions, sauerkraut, or kimchi. But, are those crunchy dill pickles you're buying made by pickling or fermenting? And what's up with that sauerkraut jar? Do they have probiotics? Don't worry; we're here to clear up the confusion and help you tell the difference when you're shopping for your favourite preserved foods.

pickling vs. fermentation

Pickling vs. Fermentation: A Brief Overview

Pickling is a preservation method that employs an acidic solution, usually vinegar, to protect vegetables or other food items from spoilage. The acidity in the vinegar creates an environment inhospitable to harmful bacteria, ensuring the food remains safe to eat.

Fermentation, on the other hand, is a natural process driven by beneficial microorganisms, such as lactic acid bacteria. In this method, vegetables are typically submerged in a saltwater brine, and these friendly bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, which preserves the food and imparts unique flavours.



Key ingredient


Saltwater brine


Submerge vegetables in a vinegar-based solution.

Quicker ready-to-eat process that can take hours or days.

Beneficial bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, preserving the food.

Slower process that can take days to weeks to months


Sharp and tangy flavor imparted by vinegar.

Unique, tangy and more developed flavor.

Living bacteria

Doesn't contain any beneficial bacteria

Can contain living good bacteria.


pickled cucumbers, pickled gherkins, and pickled onions.

Kimchi, sauerkraut, and traditional pickles.

Attention: not all that glitters is gold!

This doesn't mean that all kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles you find in the stores have been fermented. And, even if they have been fermented, not all of them contain living good gut bacteria.

On one hand, we've seen that fermentation is a longer and more complex process, usually not as financially attractive to food companies. That's why a lot of companies use vinegar to make their kimchi, sauerkrauts or pickles instead of letting them ferment.

On the other hand, fermented products are not as stable as pickled ones because they contain living microorganisms. These little guys will keep fermenting the product, even in the sealed jar, especially at higher temperatures. The only way to slow down this further fermentation is to store them in cold. That's why a lot of companies prefer to pasteurize their products after fermentation, so they can be stored at room temperature for years and have a very stable product.

The choice between pickled and fermented products ultimately comes down to your preference in flavour and potential health benefits. Pickles are crisp, tangy, and have a distinct vinegar kick, while fermented foods offer a broader spectrum of flavours and can carry living gut microorganisms when they are not pasteurised.

Here are some tips to help you make an informed decision next time you are going to buy preserved products:

woman in the store looking for fermented products

Cracking the Code: How to Differentiate

  1. Read the Label: The first step is to check the label. Products that have been pickled will often list vinegar as an ingredient. However, keep in mind that some fermented items may also contain a small amount of vinegar for flavour or preservation, so this is not foolproof.

  2. Check the Ingredient List: For pickled items, vinegar should be listed as one of the primary ingredients. For fermented foods, you may see "fermented" or "cultured" alongside specific vegetable ingredients.

  3. Look for living microorganisms: Fermented foods, like kimchi or sauerkraut, may mention "probiotics" or "living microorganisms" or "lactic acid bacteria" or "it's alive" on their label, as they are known to be rich in beneficial bacteria due to the fermentation process. However, the use of the word "probiotics" is controverted and illegal in most countries for most products.

  4. Storing method: Fermented products often need to be refrigerated to maintain their probiotic benefits and slow down the fermentation, while pickles, being preserved with vinegar, may be found on the shelf. However, some stores may refrigerate both for freshness and some stores might also store the fermented products at room temperature for space management.

  5. Shelf Stability: Check for the expiring g date. Real fermented veggies like kimchi or sauerkraut shouldn't last more than 1-2 years refrigerated and no more than 6-12 months at room temperature.

As you embark on your next supermarket adventure, keep these tips in mind. Armed with this knowledge, you can confidently select the perfect jar of pickles or fermented delights that align with your taste buds and health goals. And remember, there's no wrong choice – both pickling and fermentation offer unique and delicious ways to enjoy preserved vegetables. Happy shopping!


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