A guide to all things pickled and fermented

pickling jars

Dimitri Halkidis

Posted August 26, 2021

We take a closer look at food prep cousins - pickling and fermenting.

Humans have been pickling food for thousands of years. Before refrigeration and electricity, pickling perishable foods like meat, fruit, and vegetables was the only way to preserve them and have them last months longer than they otherwise would. But there’s more to it than just food preservation - pickling usually results in another beneficial byproduct: fermentation. 

But what exactly is fermentation, and how is it different from pickling?  

What is pickling?

Pickling is the process of immersing food in either brine or vinegar and stashing it in the back of your pantry for anywhere between a few days to a few months (in some cases, years). The longer it’s stored, the more likely it undergoes the magic of fermentation, further changing and enhancing the flavour of your food. It may not be ‘fresh’ anymore, but it’ll arguably be even more delicious and healthier for you, thanks to the nutrients and beneficial bacteria created by the fermentation process.

What about fermenting?

You may have heard of the famous kombucha SCOBY, which is actually an acronym that stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. Fermentation is when this SCOBY eats the sugars in your food and converts them into alcohol or acids. Fermenting happens as a byproduct of the pickling process, but not all pickled things are fermented (just like not all fermented things are pickled!) Bread is a classic example of fermentation, as is yoghurt, vinegar, and sauerkraut. But did you know chocolate wouldn’t be possible without fermentation? Same with vanilla and even soy sauce. 


Image: Getty.

Some pickling and fermenting tips

Getting started on your pickling and fermenting journey is an exciting and sometimes overwhelming experience. There’s so much to cover, but we’ll start with the absolute basics.

Decide if you want to ferment or not.

Before you really get stuck into your pickling or fermenting project, figure out whether you want to pickle something to the point of fermentation (which can take weeks) or if you just want to pickle something for the flavour.

Start simple.

If you’ve never tried pickling before, it can be tempting to get excited and dive straight into the deep end. But to make sure you’re set up for success, stick with simple food items to start with. Why not start with a simple red onion in a vinegar and sugar mixture. Makes for a delicious sandwich-topper and perhaps a more confident amateur pickler!

Use the freshest possible ingredients.

Just because you’re pickling your food doesn’t mean you can use week-old cucumbers or that gnarly-looking carrot from the back of your crisper. Remember that pickling doesn’t replace or mask the flavour of your food: it enhances it. So with that in mind, make sure you start as fresh as possible. Stick with produce from your local organic grocer if possible.

Follow your recipe to the letter.

Whatever you’ve decided to pickle, it’s important that you follow the recipe as closely as possible. The reason for this is that there’s a science behind the pickling process, and sometimes something as basic as how much pickling liquid to use can affect the outcome significantly.

Be patient, but taste often.

Pickling takes time. Weeks or months may pass before your efforts come to fruition. That’s why it’s so important to be patient and let your pickling project fully mature before you dig in. That said, nothing is stopping you from taste testing every few days, just to see how the flavour is progressing. Flavour is subjective - you may think a perfectly pickled onion is done by the seven-day mark, but someone else might prefer the fermenting funk of a two-month-old pickled onion. 

Use your common senses.

If you suspect one of your pickling projects has gone bad, don’t immediately go for a taste to confirm. Give it a sniff first,and look for any odd discolouration or signs of mould. If it smells funky (in a bad way) or looks suspicious, stay safe and throw it out. It can be disheartening throwing out a pickling project that’s been months in the making, but it’s just not worth risking your health.

Labels are your friend.

If you’ve got multiple pickling projects on the go, labels are a great way of making sure you don’t lose track of when one pickle project started and when another is ready to crack open. Label them with the pickling date and a brief description of what’s in the jar. 

Practice good hygiene.

If you’re pickling something for the long haul, make sure your pickling equipment is properly sanitised. Run those jars and lids through the dishwasher before pickling, and wash your hands! There are few things as disappointing as opening up a pickle jar after months of waiting only to find that it’s spoiled.