Pickling, fermenting and preserving are great skills to learn for a number of reasons. These methods allow you to store fruit and vegetables for longer, as well as providing a number of health benefits. It changes the flavour and texture of food in distinct, fun and often surprising ways. In turn you will have all kinds of ideas for condiments, side dishes, toppings or snacks.
Pickling involves immersing a food in an acidic brine. The brine is usually a mix of vinegar, salt and water, but lemon juice can also be used. This creates an environment that’s too hostile for harmful bacteria to take hold. It’s a method of preserving food that dates back as far as ancient Mesopotamia! Aside from extending shelf life, pickling changes the flavour and texture of the food, usually making it more sour and softer. Spices and herbs are often added to the mix for flavour. Vegetables, meats, eggs and other foods can be pickled. When creating your brine, look for a vinegar with an acetic acid content of at least 5%. Apple cider vinegar is also a popular choice and one that will lend a sweeter and mellower taste.
Just about any fruit or vegetable can be pickled, but it’s a particularly suitable method for those with a firm texture. Some of the finished products you may be familiar with include gherkins, pickled olives, pickled onions, or sliced and pickled beetroot. Asparagus, carrots, radish, jalapenos and bell peppers are all great options too. Learning how to pickle is a great way of adding variety to dishes, sandwiches and salads - which in other words means more diverse possibilities for your garden harvest.
Gherkins are a very popular and widely-known type of pickle - they are baby cucumbers which can be pickled in a vinegar solution or fermented by lacto-fermentation. When gherkins are seasoned with dill, they are known as dill pickles.
Pickling vs Fermentation: What’s the Difference?
Before we go further into fermentation, we’ll outline where it differs and where it overlaps with pickling. It can be confusing and the terms can sometimes be used interchangeably. Basically, both pickling and fermentation are methods of preserving food. Both are often done in jars. Both result in a sour, tangy flavour and a change in texture of your vegetables or other foods. The difference is that fermentation creates its own preservative acid to do so - rather than using the acid in vinegar or lemon juice.
Here’s where it can get really confusing: Some fermented foods are pickled, and some pickles are fermented. Pickles are commonly made using vinegar, which is itself a product of fermentation. Don’t worry if you’re slightly confused - because I am too. Basically the important takeaway is that there’s a lot of overlap in the way the two terms are used. Fortunately, maybe the least confusing aspect of it all is applying either method in practice.
Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring bacteria (friendly bacteria, if you will). When the fruit/vegetable in question is placed in a container and deprived of oxygen, these friendly bacteria or microbes spring into action, feeding on the carbohydrates and sugar within the food. The carbs and sugar are then converted into an acidic solution - one similar to our vinegar solution used for pickling. This process prevents the growth of bad bacteria.
The most common example when fermenting vegetables is known as lacto-fermentation: in this case Lactobacillus is the good bacteria, and the solution that is created is known as lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural preservative - not just in terms of shelf-life, but also in terms of preserving the flavour and nutrients of the food in question. You may be familiar with probiotics or even had them recommended for stomach trouble. Lactobacilli are one of the most common probiotics.
Lactic acid isn’t the only by-product of fermentation - evidence of alcohol fermentation dates from as early as 7000 BC, while wine is produced by the fermentation of natural sugars within grapes. In the case of alcohol fermentation, yeast is usually playing the role of the ‘good bacteria’ and converting or breaking down the sugars.
As mentioned, the more natural process of fermentation means that the food’s nutrients are retained more reliably than with pickling (which can kill some of them off) - indeed, when foods are fermented it can actually draw out more nutrients. Fermented foods have become increasingly popular, and we’ll briefly touch on some of the more well-known types.
A traditional Korean dish, Kimchi is made with salted and fermented vegetables - primarily cabbage and radish. It tends to be seasoned with ingredients such as garlic, ginger, spring onions and miso powder. Other vegetables can be used as well, such as carrots, chives, cucumbers or spinach.
Kimchi is rich in nutrients and antioxidants - and low in calories. While it can be eaten fresh, it’s traditionally left to ferment for a few days or a few weeks.
Sauerkraurt is made by fermenting cabbage with salt. The salt draws moisture out of the cabbage, creating a brine in which it can ferment. When the bacteria ferments the sugar, lactic acid is formed. Sauerkraut is tangy in flavour - indeed it translates as ‘sour cabbage’. It’s high in digestive enzymes that help you to break down nutrients and contribute to better digestion. It’s also high in antioxidants such as lutein, and studies have indicated that regular consumption of fermented sauerkraut may be connected to a reduced risk of breast cancer.
Sauerkraut has a long shelf-life when properly stored, lasting 4-6 months. It’s important to make sure that its container is sealed tightly after use.
Canning is a process of extending shelf life even further. It involves boiling your jar with the pickled/fermented food in it. This heating process creates steam and pushes oxygen out of the jar. When the jar cools off, a vacuum seal is created. At this point the lid should make a distinctive ‘ping’ sound.
There is a trade-off involved here, however: the heat and pressure involved can affect nutrition or enzyme content. It also kills off microbes, both good and bad (which means bye to the probiotics). Pickles and fermented foods will retain their flavour if canned, so it’s up to you how much of a dealbreaker this is.
Fermenting Pots & Cylinders
Our hand thrown stoneware fermenting crocks or pots are made in the Netherlands by master ceramist Peter Hinssen, where a strong tradition of healthy fermented food exists. The stoneware is guaranteed 100% lead and toxin free, and is fired and glazed at a very high 1320˚C to produce an extremely hard wearing pot. These fermenting crocks should not be confused with cheaper glazed versions which deteriorate after a number of uses due to the mild acid produced in the fermentation process. Our artisan produced stoneware is made to last.
Our sauerkraut pots use the ancient Chinese method of keeping air from your ferment with a water filled 'gutter' around the rim of the crock. The water seal prevents air or foreign objects from entering, but also allows the gasses produced to escape. This means that the pots do not need to be 'burped' to prevent pressure build up - unlike sealed designs.
Our traditional Kimchi crocks include a glazed internal weighstone, which keeps the kimchi below the fermenting liquid level. The weighstone is kept in place by a grooved rod, which enters through an opening in the lid and is held down by an elasticated cord.
All our fermentation pots include weights to keep your perserves submerged in the fermenting liquid.