Fermenting vs Pickling: Which is Better?

A pile of jars with fermented and pickled foods each wrapped in brown paper over the lids.

Fermentation and pickling are two of the most common food preservation processes. Fermentation and pickling might seem similar, yet they are very different and the taste of pickled food differs from the fermented ones. Both methods have some significant similarities and at the same time have some distinct differences.

Both of these methods of food preservation have some merits and demerits in different situations. For example, if you need to preserve a portion of food in a short time, then pickling is the best choice. But if you want to preserve food for longer periods, then fermenting is the better option.

In this article, I will extensively discuss some of the major differences between fermenting and pickling. Both methods are effective in different scenarios. Read this article to know the basic variations between fermentation and pickling.

The Basic Difference Between Fermenting and Pickling

Although pickling and fermentation processes are quite different, they share the same purpose. These two food preservation methods are used for different foods in various situations. Here, I will try to address some of the basic distinctions between them.

The Pickling Process

Pickling is a very old food preservation method. Usually, the food is soaked in lemon or vinegar and preserved in a jar. Using this method, the food can stay edible for quite some time. Although, pickling will change the taste of the food.

This method generally makes food taste more sour. Furthermore, the food becomes much softer than its natural state since it will be cooked if you can it. The vinegar destroys all the bacteria in the food. Contrary to fermentation, this process has the drawback of also destroying some beneficial bacteria due to the boiling liquid.

Not only that, but the pickling process will also destroy the enzymes of the food. Vinegar produces an acidic environment, which prevents dangerous microorganisms from developing. In the refrigerator, properly pickled food lasts about 3 months. However, you have to finish it within two weeks if you plan to keep it at room temperature.

NOTE: If you are wondering what foods can and can’t be pickled, read my article for the details!

A jar of homemade pickles with a white cover rubber banded on the top, surrounded by fresh cucumbers and dill flowers.
Pickling is great for a fast process

Pros of Pickling

  • This preservation process can be done fast.
  • Can be applied to a wide range of food.
  • Sour taste that many people love.

Cons of Pickling

  • Not that healthy. 
  • Sour taste that some may not appreciate.

The Fermentation Process

On the other hand, fermentation is a food preservation process in which the PH level of the food is lowered. In this method, the harmful bacteria are killed by creating an adverse environment for them, and the healthy bacteria take over. Unlike pickling, fermentation makes food more nutritious and healthy.

The sole goal of this method is to increase the number of good bacteria and prevent harmful bacteria from taking over. In harsh conditions, healthy bacteria have the ability to survive better, bad bacteria will be destroyed and soon the good bacteria will take control.

With the advancement in the field of science and technology, fermented food tastes great and is widely popular in regions like:

  • China
  • South Korea
  • Europe

NOTE: Some foods are fermented after the pickling process and some of them are fermented directly.

Fermented food typically lasts much longer than pickled foods. Moreover, it is far more nutritious and delicious.

Pros of Fermenting

  • The preserved food is nourishing.
  • It has a unique taste.
  • The food stays edible for a long time.

Cons of Fermenting

  • It can smell funky.

After this description, you might have realized that fermented food practically has no downside except the odor. On the other hand, pickled food smells like fresh lemon or vinegar. But in terms of nutrition, no other food can beat fermentation.    

A jar of kimchi with an open lid, surrounded by a white cloth, spices, and a whole garlic clove.
Fermented foods like kimchi are gaining popularity and are healthy

This table summarizes the basic distinctions between pickling and fermenting:

Fermenting MethodPickling Method
In this method, the processed food becomes very nutritious.Here, the processed food is much less nutritious.
Fermented foods taste great.Pickled foods taste sour and soft. 
Food lasts for a longer period of time.Food lasts for a shorter period of time.
It is quite a long process.This process can be finished pretty quickly.
Fermented food can smell bad.Pickled food smells like lemon or vinegar.

How to Know if You Should Ferment or Pickle

If you have some food that will go bad soon, then using one of the preservation processes would be wise. If you are confused between fermentation and pickling, here is how to know when to use each method.

When Should You Choose Pickling? 

If you don’t want to spend a lot of time on the food preservation process, then pickling is an ideal choice for you. It can be finished within an hour or less depending on the food. If you have food that is starting to go bad and you don’t have a lot of time, then pickling can enhance its lifespan for 2 weeks or more.

In the pickling method, for proper preservation of the food, it needs to be boiled in lemon or vinegar for a substantial amount of time, which leaves a bitter taste. I know many people who enjoy the sour and soft taste of pickled food. In some cases, food is pickled solely for making it bitter.

When Should You Choose Fermentation?

Fermentation is the best process of food preservation. As I mentioned earlier, it is one of the most nutritious food items on the market (or made at home). So, if you want to keep your food edible for a long period of time and eat food that will benefit your health, then fermenting it is probably the best option for you.

Fermenting is the best choice if you have:

  • more than a few hours
  • the appropriate amount of ingredients
  • proper knowledge about the process

In some cases, pickled food is fermented to further enhance its lifespan. Food that is fermented after finishing the pickling process can last for as long as 6 months.

Stacks of jars with pickled and fermented foods, each wrapped in brown paper on the lid and tied with twine.
Pickling and fermenting are both good ways to preserve food!


As you can see, pickling is quite different than fermenting. In this article, I have extensively discussed some of the major differences between fermenting and pickling methods. Also, I have vastly explained how these two food preservation methods are better in different conditions and scenarios.

Hopefully, you will understand the distinction between fermentation and pickling and feel confident choosing which is right for you in each situation!

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