The Crucial Difference Between Pickled and Fermented

by Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist

There seems to be a bit of confusion going around about fermented foods and the difference between what you make in your kitchen and the pickled versions that are available on the supermarket shelf.

For example, in one of my video lessons, I demonstrate how to make sauerkraut in the traditional manner.  After the shredded cabbage ferments on the kitchen counter for a few days, it is then refrigerated or kept in a cool cellar where the sauerkraut remains naturally preserved for extended periods of time.

How does this homemade pickled cabbage compare to the pickled cabbage in a jar in the supermarket?

Alex Lewin, author of Real Food Fermentation explains that the confusion comes from the overlap in definition.  In a nutshell, not all fermented foods are pickled and not all pickles are fermented.

Still confused?

Foods that are pickled are those that have been preserved in an acidic medium.  In the case of various types of supermarket pickles on the shelf, the pickling comes from vinegar.  These vegetables, however, are not fermented (even though vinegar itself is the product of fermentation) and hence do not offer the probiotic and enzymatic value of homemade fermented vegetables.

Vegetables that you ferment in your kitchen using a starter, salt, and some filtered water create their own self preserving, acidic liquid that is a by-product of the fermentation process.  This lactic acid is incredibly beneficial to digestion when consumed along with the fermented vegetables or even when sipped alone as anyone on the GAPS Intro Diet has discovered (cabbage juice anyone?). In other words, homemade fermented veggies are both fermented and pickled.

What about alcoholic fermentation?  In the case of wine and unpasteurized beers, fermentation occurs as the result of certain yeasts converting sugars into alcohol but there is no pickling that takes place despite the common expression that a person who has had too much to drink is “pickled”.

Home fermentation of vegetables preserves without the use of any pressure or heat unlike supermarket versions of the same foods.   It  allows the ubiquitous and beneficial lactobacilli present on the surface of all living things – yes, even your own skin – to proliferate creating lactic acid which not only pickles and preserves the vegetables, but also promotes the health of those that consume it in the following ways:

  • Enhances the vitamin content of the food.
  • Preserves and sometimes enhances the enzyme content of the food.
  • Improves nutrient bio-availability in the body.
  • Improves the digestibility of the food and even cooked foods that are consumed along with it!

So don’t be fooled by unhealthy supermarket pickled versions of homemade fermented foods.  These modern foods are the product of high heat and pressure which destroys nutrients and do not in any way enhance health.   The one exception to this rule are the various fermented foods in the refrigerator section of many healthfood stores. These products are actually fermented and pickled. The only drawback is that these gourmet items are rather expensive compared to the pennies per ounce it costs to make them yourself.

If home fermentation is a kitchen goal that you are ready to tackle in 2013, feel free to use the numerous free video lessons on this blog to help get you started on this fun journey!

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Picture Credit


Comments (68)

  1. is it true the only way to tell without a microscope if something is really raw is if when you open it, the CO2 pushes the liquid out of the jar over the side? I understand that many jars from a certain company bought from the store do this and I wanted to let the company know about it but they would give me no comment. I think this is the only way to tell. If it’s active the fermentation will slow down in the fridge but if it’s taken out it will speed up again and you can bet it will sill out when you open. The liquid that spilled always has a zest of carbonation to it too and is really good. And wiping it on my skin healed up locked joints on my fingers.

    • Go to Garage sales and try to find the old style Glass jar lids and the rubber rings. I have found that these are the only ones which withstand the fermenting pressure and “keep” the fizz in the jar.

  2. Hi Sarah–I have a question. I have sauerkraut fermenting on my counter). It has been at least 2 weeks. I have left it as when I have tasted it, it still tastes really fresh & crunchy. I have a gallon jar and a quart jar. I have a coffee filter over each, the gallon with a rubber band and the quart I used a canning ring. They now have mold on top. The quart has enough liquid in it that I have not had to put anything on top to keep it in the brine. The gallon one has a scrunched up coffee filter to hold it down. Any explanation? The mold is whitish-gray with a little green. I made it a year ago and used whey. It was wonderful. This time I am off dairy so I didn’t have any available. I used Shannon’s recipe from Cultures for Health. It has a little carrot and chopped apples. Also, this time I used organic cabbage & last year I did not. Do I need to throw them away? Can we still eat it? What can I do if anything to make it safe? Thanks–Carol

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  9. Tim Robinson via Facebook December 18, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    (Sarah) I was wondering if you drink beet kvass quickly do you still get the same benefits? Sipping is always mentioned in regards to consuming it.

  10. Marian Mitchell via Facebook December 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you! I always wondered why people said pickled foods were fermented but myself an unsure how to ferment foods.

  11. Is achar(indian pickle) considered fermented or pickled? Because the process does not include vinegar, but salt, mustard oil, and numerous spices. Here’s a recipe for a typical mango pickle/achar:


    1 large green mango raw pickling mango/about 2-1/2 cup cubed mango (they are available at Indian and Asian grocery store)
    1 tablespoons salt
    1 teaspoon red chili powder, adjust to taste (lal mirch)
    1/4 teaspoons turmeric (haldi)
    1 tablespoons coriander seeds crushed(dhania)
    1 tablespoon fennel seeds crushed(Saunf)
    1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (sabut mathi)
    1 teaspoon nigella seeds/kalonji
    2 tablespoons mustard oil or olive oil

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  13. Hello I do farmers markets, selling pickled products such as Asparagus, Green beans, Garlic, and a few more. I worked for a company last year selling the old way to can, fermenting with Ball and Kerr jars. I am know working with a company that bottles their pickled products by placing them raw and heating to like 220, and sealing with a screw on cap. Can you tell me what is the difference. I was told the heating and capping is the safest way to avoid bacteria. Thanks you

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  16. Is it ok to re-use the liquid from lacto-fermented pickles? I made sweet bread and butter pickles with whey and maple syrup, and we all loved them. It was pricey because of the maple syrup, though. Would it be bad to re-use the liquid on another batch? If not, is there some point down the road where I should NOT re-use? How would I know?

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  18. Thank you so much for this post. I have been wondering about the jars at the store and have not ventured into doing my own “fermenting” yet.

  19. I purchased (expensive) barrel sauerkraut from my local health food store. The brand name is GUNDELSHEIM. I went to their web site to find out if this is “real’, straight up fermented kraut. Could find no information. If it says all natural, no preservatives, just cabbage and salt, and is in the refrigerated section, is that enough to ease my mind that I am getting the benefits of fermentation? I would hate to think that I am spending money on a dead product. Thanks

  20. re: thyroid patients and cabbage: I was thinking of doing the GAPS diet in order to help my hypthyroid condition, but did have a concern about using fermented cabbage. Does anyone know if kombucha tea can be substituted for the fermented saurkraut liquid in this diet or any other solutions to this dilemma? Any thoughts or ideas would be appreciated. Thanks!

  21. Another question I have is, does fermented garlic have the same “antibacterial” benefits as raw. We have raw garlic every day during flu season to ward off the bug but I’m curious about the benefits of fermented.

  22. the store ones are not pickled. they are flavored veggies. what you make in a jar or crock for days or even weeks IS pickles. that’s why these 4 crocks I have are CALLED pickling crocks!

  23. I’ve been making dill pickles with whey, salt and filtered water. They are to die for, however, they turn to mush. I mix with raw onion for a hamburger, but does anyone know what I’m doing wrong?

    • try a starter culture like Caldwells. This helps jump start the fermentation in the same way that whey does, however it is formulated in a way that certain bacteria do not crowd out (and thus consume and make mushy) your cucumbers before others do.

    • You need to add several grape leaves to the crock. The tannins will keep them crisp. You can also use black tea leaves, horse radish leaves or oak leaves from an oak tree. Clean them well and cut the stems off make a pile of them as your first part of layering the crock.

  24. Our family had a great time this fall making sauerkraut all you need is cabbage water and sea salt! and watch it ferment!! We could not believe how easy it was to make and how nutritious it is for you! I found out the sailors kept barrels of sauerkraut to keep from getting scurvy.

  25. Just out of curiosity…
    My family has enjoyed Bubbies pickles. They say they have live cultures and are not made with vinegar, sugar or preservatives. They also make sauerkraut and make the same claims for it… Would Bubbies be a good store-bought choice?

    Also, I do love Goldmine sauerkraut. Have not tried to make my own yet, but until I do… What do you think of Goldmine products?
    Thanks :)

  26. This is unrelated: but have a possible blog post idea? We just finished watching Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney’s White Christmas movie from 1954 in color. Three times in this movie they mention “Buttermilk with a Liverwurst Sandwich” for lunch and even show Rosemary Clooney asking for it and eating the sandwich drinking the buttermilk with it.

    Would you know of any good liverwurst recipes? I went to look up some in my Joy of Cooking Cookbook and Nourishing Traditions Cookbook, but was surprised to not find any there. It seems like it was a popular American lunch (from German immigrants?).

    • That is interesting. We recently watched another 1945 movie called “Christmas in Connecticut”, in it one of the main characters was a soldier recuperating in a hospital. Unable to eat solid food at the time, his nurse brought him his meal, and when she lifted the lid, it was a bowl of milk with a raw egg in the middle!!!

  27. I’ve just learned recently that the goitrogen effect increases with fermentation- this would be with the fermented cabbage. So if you have thyroid issues, beware.

  28. Sarah Couture Pope via Facebook December 27, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Eileen Shahzada What you bought is fine IF it was refrigerated. If it was not refrigerated, then it is not fermented even if the ingredients do not include vinegar.

  29. Thanks for the article. I love fermented veggies especially. I lived in Korea for a while and they are quite fond of their fermented vegetables over there. I just started some radish kimchi going the other day.

  30. Thanks for this! I asked my hubby this morning why he wasn’t healthy considering how much beer he drinks (since its fermented) sort of as a joke, but makes sense now!. I have been making fermented salsa for about 6 months (had some failed attempts with kefir) but he doesn’t like the taste of vinegar…any suggestions? Also- I love kraut but he’s not a fan. Is homemade fermented kind similar in taste to store bought? Thanks !!

    • Was it in the refrigerator section? If it isn’t refrigerated it isn’t still living.
      Sometimes it is pasteurized, that may not show up on the label.

  31. Does vinegar interfere with certain medications? My Mom’s doctor told her not to take apple cider vinegar with her medications. My brother had two stents put into his main artery and the doctor told him not to use vinegar. One of my goals for 2013 is to start learning to ferment foods for better health and nutrition.

  32. Thanks for the article! I have been making sauerkraut for about 6 months now and my entire family loves it. The last batch I made I used additional sea salt, per Nourishing Traditions, instead of whey (I had ran out). We definitely like our “whey” sauerkraut better than the last “salt only” batch. Besides the taste (far saltier!) is there a benefit one way or the other to using salt only?

  33. My mom bought me Nourishing Traditions for Christmas because she knew I wanted it for a while now! I’ve already started embarking on my health journey for a while now, but I’m excited to get down and dirty with Enig and Fallon’s recipes. 😀

      • The sauerkraut is fermented but I don’t believe the pickles are. I just bought a couple jars at Whole Foods of the sauerkraut and saw they had bread & butter pickles as well. B&B pickles are my absolute fave, so of course I had to buy a jar. Putting them into the frig at home, I noticed that while the sauerkraut jars said to keep in the refrigerator, the B&B jar said to “refrigerate after opening” which I interpret as meaning the pickles were not fermented.

        • I know this is an older post, but I just wanted to clarify something on Bubbies. Their regular pickles, relish and tomatoes are all fermented, and sold raw. The Bread and Butter pickles are not fermented, but pickled with the vinegar method (I believe this was so they could fulfill their demand). Their saurkraut is also fermented, and treated with low heat (under 135 degrees) to slow the fermentation, as they otherwise would have trouble with exploding and leaking jars. This means that their saurkraut is not raw, yet it is not pasturized, either, and does still have live cultures (their estimate is about 90%). They explain all this on their website.

      • A good way to know for sure is to check the label for words like “raw”, “lacto-fermented”, “unpasteurized”, “contains live active cultures/probiotics”, AND if it’s sold in the refrigerated section.

  34. We are now hooked on homemade sauerkraut! I have been making it for the last year and we won’t go back to store bought. It is an easy process, and truly helps in digestion. Thanks for bringing clarity to the difference between real fermented vegetables and the vinegar – store bought variety.


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