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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 (aka no fridge or grocery store), you may 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 honestly, I am totally down with those funky mofos). 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!