What Is a Pickle?

Green tomato pickles and herbs

Green ‘mater pickles are just as pickle-y as cucumber pickles!

What is a pickle?

A pickle, at its most broad and basic, is just a vegetable that has been made sour. Pickling refers to the act of souring (or acidifying) something (usually vegetables, but sometimes fruits, eggs and even meats). You can pickle these things in a variety of ways, which is why people sometimes get confused about the differences between canning and fermentation. The way a pickle is acidified is what decides whether it’s a fermented pickle or a vinegar pickle. Vinegar pickling is the most common way to make pickles today. Vinegar can be used to make quick pickles (fridge pickles) or canned pickles. Neither of these methods is fermenting. In fact, canned pickles are the opposite of fermented pickles in many ways.

So all pickles aren’t cucumbers?

Nope! Although we typically think of sour dill cucumber pickles as the pickle, they are actually one of the most challenging vegetables to pickle (whether you’re fermenting them or canning them). For some reason, restaurants and stores tend to call pickled vegetables that aren’t cucumbers “pickled [whatever veg]” instead of just pickles. I call them daikon, carrot, or whatever-they-are-pickles, in order to avoid confusion.

fermented pickles from the brinery

See how these pickles from Michigan’s The Brinery are on ice? That’s because they’re fermented, alive and in need of chilling to slow fermentation.

But all pickles are fermented and probiotic, right?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the truth is that they are not. Most pickles sold in the US today are canned, not fermented, and therefore they are not probiotic. Only fermented pickles are probiotic. Pickles made with vinegar are not probiotic.

Pickled Parsnips

Pickled parsnips are pretty.

So canned pickles are different from fermented pickles?

Yes. Canning is the process of killing all bacteria, bad and good, through sterilization. It involves using added acid (vinegar) and heat to kill all possible microorganisms.

Fermented pickling is the opposite. It’s the process of cultivating bacteria. Here’s a basic primer on pickling vegetables via fermentation:

All vegetable fermentation is kind of the process of championing “good” bacterial strains the epic battle of good vs. evil. In other words, fermentation is all about cultivating the right bacteria in a grand bacterial competition, and our job as fermenters is to give the good bacteria an advantage over their competitors. We do that by providing them with a relatively anaerobic (airless) environment and the right temperature. Chopping vegetables makes it easier for the bacteria to access the vegetable’s natural sugars. Salt is also helpful, since the bad guys tend to be halophobic (salt-fearing) and the good, probiotic, lactic acid bacteria we want to thrive don’t mind salt too much, even when it’s there in fairly heavy concentrations (most of the literature I’ve read says that you’ll still have some strains of living LAB at a salt concentration of 8%, which, btw, is way too salty to eat).

Once we’ve created the right conditions, the lactic acid bacteria wallop their (pathogenic bacteria) competition as they go to work. Work, for them, is converting the sugars naturally present in the vegetables into a whole host of things including vitamins, enzymes, alcohol, CO2 and, perhaps most importantly, lactic acid. It’s the lactic acid that acidifies the vegetables (yum), making an environment that is unsuitable for bad bacteria (like the bacteria that makes the botulism toxin) and other bad guys.

You’d have to mess up pretty badly to take the advantage away from lactic acid bacteria. In recorded history, no one has ever suffered a food-borne illness from eating fermented vegetables. This can’t be said of canned, raw or even cooked vegetables. The acids created in the fermentation process make fermented vegetables incredibly safe to eat.

Pickled radishes and daikon

Pickles come in all shapes, sizes and vegetable varieties.

What are the advantages of fermented pickles?

They have lots o’ health benefits, many mentioned above, that are not shared by vinegar pickles.

They are safer. As mentioned above, there has never been a recorded case of foodborne illness related to fermented vegetables. Bacterial competition works way better than anything devised by man, and cultivating lactic acid bacteria has so far proven to be a more effective safety precaution than sterilization has.

Their flavor is complex and amazing. Ever wonder why those kosher deli pickles (or even Bubbies brand) taste so much better than the regular ol’ jarred versions that sit on the grocery store shelves? It’s all about that fermentation. There are a wide array of complex flavors in fermented pickles that distilled vinegar, even with delicious seasonings, just can’t mimic or beat!

They are easy to make. Sandor Katz‘ recipe for fermented vegetables: Chop. Salt. Pack. Leave it to him to lay it out so simply and clearly. Active time for making fermented vegetables is negligible (I make them while I’m making dinner). The microbes do all the work, so you don’t have to.

No hot stove. Before I fermented, I canned (and I still make the occasional canned jam or jelly and see the value in canning other things). What killed me in the summer, though, was standing over a hot stove for hours while the jars got sterilized and then filled with hot vinegar and then processed in boiling water. With fermented vegetables, there is no sterilization necessary, and hot heat is actually undesirable. It should be done at room temp, which makes my summer days much less sweaty.

Fermented Dill Pickle Recipe

Cucumber pickles can be trickier to make than other pickles, whether they’re canned or fermented.

What are the advantages of canned pickles?

Canned pickles are shelf stable. That means that they will stay on the shelf for a long period of time without changing or deteriorating. If you have a small family and a farm or a large garden, if you’re stocking up your bunker, if you have a very long winter and limited cold storage, you probably want more canned goods than fermented ones because the canned goods will not change dramatically in the jar/can for many months or even years after they are processed.

You like sweet pickles, you’ll probably want to can rather than ferment. There is a way around this, but generally speaking if you’re fermenting (we’ll discuss that soon!), any sugar you add will be consumed by the fermenting bacteria and made sour. So for those sweet and sour pickles, canning will usually be a better option.

You have a long winter and limited cold storage. You may not find your fermented vegetables super appealing after several months of room temperature storage. Although fermentation is a preservation method, fermented vegetables are living foods that constantly change. They are usually best kept for a season, not a decade. When fermented vegetables are kept at room temperature for a long time, they can end up with a soft texture that many find unpleasant, or they can get moldy or slimy. The texture change isn’t usually a question of safety, but it is a question of deliciousness. I regularly eat fermented vegetables that are year or more old, but those typically have spent most of that time in a cooler spot, like my basement or my refrigerator.

What’s the best pickle?

The best pickle for me may not be the best pickle for you! A few of my faves? Beet, radish, celery or daikon pickles are all good choices. It’s probably obvious that I prefer the flavor and health benefits of fermented pickles (since you’re reading this on a fermentation blog) but I also see the benefits of canning if you have the knowledge and desire. Ultimately, it’s all about what meets your needs and fits your lifestyle!

Annnnnyway…I’d love to hear about your favorite pickled things/methods/experiences in the comments!

Ferme-ditation Friday: How Fermenting Food Changed My Thoughts on Food Waste

There has been some excellent media coverage of the food waste issues facing cultures privileged with overabundance. Last year, National Geographic did an amazing and typically in-depth job of covering food waste (and beyond), highlighting the stories of farmers who were simply leaving tons of produce in the field, since minor imperfections would make it impossible to sell to retail outlets.

But that loss seems almost innocuous when compared with another aspect of food waste, one that John Oliver covered, in his typical in-depth fashion, on his show, Last Week Tonight, recently. He dug in to the amount of food that grocery stores simply throw away rather than donate to shelters or others in need, simply because they believe they will be liable in the very unlikely occurrence that someone got sick from the food. Nevermind that no one has ever been sued for this, nor that there are actually laws on the books in many places preventing this type of lawsuit!

I no longer look at “best by” or expiration dates. I definitely used to be the person who looked at the August 8th “Best By” date on my milk on August 9th, smelled it (it smelled fine) and then promptly poured it down the sink, fearing that hidden pathogens might send me on a downward spiral into never-ending illness. Why? Why did I do this? I’ve smelled bad milk before, and frankly, IT TELLS YOU. It evokes disgust (a word which, at its root, literally means “distaste.”) Understanding the process of fermentation has empowered me to better understand when things have gone bad, and it has inspired me to think a little critically about why best by dates are on packaging in the first place (if you’re a manufacturer, perchance you want people to err on the side of buying again sooner rather than later?).

Use eyes and nose to detect food waste

Even this nose is better at detecting the best by date of foods in your fridge than the machines that stamp dates on packaging before it even leaves the production facility!

Besides making me an empowered and critical thinker when it comes to tossing or keeping the contents of my fridge, fermentation has made me actually better at keeping stuff around for longer. Lots of food fermentation is about preservation: from kraut to wine to miso, many fermented foods probably began solely as ways to keep food edible through the fallow season.  My biggest food waste problem was always letting produce go bad in the back of the crisper. This made me feel incredibly guilty (especially once I started gardening and saw first hand how much work goes into growing even a single carrot!), so I was very glad to discover a few years back that the vegetables used in vegetable ferments do not need to be prime, glistening specimens, newly plucked from the field. Moldy or slimy vegetables don’t do great in ferments, unfortunately, but the weird, shrunken wrinkly bits of root veg? They can be brought back to superstar status with a simple chop-salt-pack ritual.

Mold on fermented vegetables that I didn't eat

In case you’re wondering, this is what mold on fermented vegetables looks like. I did not eat this because of heavy mold coverage. It’s quite disgusting, don’t you think?

I’ve found other little tricks, too: that little bit of juice or wine left in the container gets new life as vinegar, fruit seconds from my local farms make excellent wines and sodas and things like cabbage cores and broccoli stems, that might otherwise be reincarnated only as compost, are made into tangy treats instead.

Again, I am not perfect. And I’m not confusing the small steps that I make at home with the fix for an international problem. But I like the feeling that I’m in charge of my food, and my food waste, though, and that comes from my deep and abiding love of fermentation.

Have any of your food waste habits or practices changed since you began fermenting? Please share in the comments!

Fermented Peach Sauce Recipe

Fruit sauce drizzled on ice cream gif

I love my compost bucket (thanks, Bennett), but I always try to think of ways to keep things out of it. Compost isn’t exactly food waste, but I believe in finding a way to use something before finding a way to recycle it. I’m by no means perfect at this. I still occasionally find a whole cucumber or half a bunch of herbs moldy and slimy in the fridge. Very grrrr enducing, but perhaps a sad fact of a life of overabundance.

Fermented Peach sauce is better than appplesauce

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I’ve been doing a lot of fruit fermentation this summer. It’s fun, it’s tasty, and for the uninitiated, it’s a very easy sell. “Try my deliciously stinky sauerkraut” may not go over in every crowd, but “Here’s some probiotic plum soda you might like,” pretty much does.

The only problem with sodas (and country wines to a lesser degree) is that there does tend to be a decent amount of flavor left in the fruit when it’s time to strain it out. I just can’t bring myself to discard it. So instead, I sauce it. We eat applesauce with abandon here in the US, so why not plum, peach or apricot sauce? There is no good reason, especially when the resulting sauces are so inexplicably silky!

Sweet Plum sauce fermented

This plum sauce has the silkiest texture! All the sauces I’ve made this way do.

A couple fun facts:

  • These fruit sauces will become effervescent and alcoholic if left in the fridge for any length of time. If you’re giving these to the kiddos, make it fast.
  • Sauce made from soda fruit will be pretty sweet. Not quite jam sweet, but still, sweet. That’s why I recommend these as an addition to dessert. My husband likes to mix these into his oatmeal, though, so if you can do sugar in the am, go for it!
  • You may have noticed a peach version of this sauce pictured in the post on oat crepes.
  • I’ve made this sauce with lots of stone fruits, but pip fruits should work, too. Berries are not a great option. As always, feel free to give it a try, but the berries I’ve tried alone haven’t tasted great or had a very nice texture.
  • Yield will vary depending on the batch of beverage you’re starting with, . From a recent one gallon soda, I ended up with 2.5 cups of sauce. From a 3 gallon batch of wine, I had 3/4 of a gallon of peach sauce! We’re still working through that one and it’s definitely tasty but no longer suitable for breakfast, save a hair-of-the-dog style meal.
Fermented Fruit sauce in a cuisinart

Texture and thickness are up to you. I like to keep this spoonable, so a quick run through the food processor is all it needs. If you want a thinner sauce, you could also run it through the food mill to take out the bits of skin.

Fermented Fruit Sauce Recipe

The first several steps of this recipe is actually the first several steps from soda making. Try peach or plum soda for best results. (Just want to make soda? Try Black Currant or Strawberry Basil, too.) I love making this sauce to use the byproducts of soda, but if you want to just go straight to sauce, you can skip the water altogether and just mix and stir fruit and sugar in a covered container, without without kefir whey, à la fruit cocktail recipe I published a couple years ago. When it’s good and bubbly, you’ll just puree it.


  • 2 pounds of stone fruit, washed
  • 1 cup of cane sugar (yes, you can use less sugar and/or substitute for other types of natural sweetener)
  • 1/2 cup kefir whey (optional, but if you want this to be probiotic, you’ll need to use a probiotic starter like kefir whey)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)


  1. Roughly chop fruit and compost their pits.
  2. Put fruit into a 1-gallon or larger vessel and toss with sugar. Allow to macerate for an hour or so, until the fruit is mostly covered in juice.  Pour in 8 cups of filtered water, kefir whey and lemon zest. If you overfill your vessel, it will spill when you start stirring, so don’t go fuller than halfway.
  3. Using a long and strong wooden or plastic spoon, stir vigorously, creating a tornado-like vortex in the center of your container. Stirring is an incredibly important step. At this stage, the yeast want oxygen to be active and replicate, and stirring is how you give them that air supply. Continue stirring as vigorously and as frequently as you can, a minimum of twice a day. The more you stir, the sooner your ferment will become active.
  4. Cover the container with a clean kitchen cloth and rubber band. At this stage, you want air in. Depending on temperature, how frequently and vigorously you stir, how fresh your kefir whey was and how concerned you are with alcohol content (shorter fermentation for less booze), you’ll continue stirring and recovering for 12 hours to 3 days.
  5. When the fruit has risen to surface and you see a lot of bubbling when you stir, you’re ready to make sauce. Strain out the liquid and reserve head over to a soda recipe to find out what to do with that.
  6. It’s time to get saucing. Once the liquid is drained, you have the fruit that you’ll be turning into sauce. You can definitely stick it in the fridge in a tight fitting container for a day or so if you’re more focused on making soda than sauce at that particular moment.
  7. Place the strained fruit into a food processor or blender and turn on at full speed. If you like something a little chunkier, reserve about a quarter of the fruit and add it back in after blending.
  8. Store in the fridge and serve on oatmeal, in crepes, drizzled over ice cream, or eat it with a spoon.
Fermented fruit for dessert

I like this as a dessert sauce, but it’s quite versatile.


Ferme-ditation Friday: Introducing a New Series of Fermentation-inspired Thoughts

Fermeditation Friday is a new, occasional series in which I share my fermenty ponderings. The first true installment will be next Friday.

Tomatoes off the vine

All they need is a touch of salt.

When I was a kid, my grandpa (dad’s dad) used to go into the garden with a salt shaker, grab a tomato off the vine, take a bite, salt it, take another bite, salt again, and repeat this until everything was gone but the stem. He took sublime pleasure in this, but I, and all of my cousins, would make gagging noises and tell him how absolutely disgusting this practice was. “Ewwww! It’s a tomato not an apple! So gross, grandpa!” was our refrain.

While bringing the salt shaker on the roof where I grow my tomatoes isn’t the most practical, I now do the same thing as gramps, because there’s absolutely nothing in this world that tastes better than a sun-warmed tomato, fresh off the vine, specked with a just a few rapidly melting crystals. And I feel a little weird about how much we made fun of my grandpa about that. And I wish I could talk to him about it now and tell him that I do the same thing.

bowl of fresh-picked tomatoes

Of course our views will naturally shift and adjust with time, given our peer groups, diversified experiences and the natural maturing that comes with age. But I think that my fermentation practice has dramatically altered (I would argue improved) many of my practices and beliefs, in food and in life. Earlier this week, I shared a few of these life changes with the crowd at Nerd Nite, and it inspired me to finally finish writing this series of posts. This will be an occasional series. I hope you enjoy them and I hope you join in the conversation, but honestly, these are for me. They’re a way for me to ponder a bit and to organize my thoughts about this process and the role it plays in my life.

Topics include (and go beyond) food waste, medicine, cleanliness and death. These posts will mostly be my opinions and subjective experiences. I don’t expect everyone to share my views, and I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I’d love to have a respectful conversation in the comments about your own thoughts on these topics as they are posted. Feel free to share any broader changes that have happened in your life that either led you to start fermenting or resulted from your fermentation habit.

See you next Friday with the first official ferme-ditation!