By now we have all heard about “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria.” We have almost all been recommended to take probiotics one-off after a round of antibiotics or regularly to maintain a good gut flora, especially now that gut health is being connected to more and more systemic health issues. Probiotics come in many, many forms, but ferments are my very favorite! Beyond having probiotics, ferments have also been shown to improve immune function, have antioxidant properties, benefit lipid metabolism, prevent depression, and support healthy digestion.
You can make your own ferments at home or you can buy them at the store. If you shop for them, you will find them in the refrigerated section. Look for products that say “fermented” or “live cultures” or “source of probiotics” to make sure you are getting a high quality ferment. These products could include sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, miso, sourdough bread, dosa, kvass, injera, kefir, and cultured cheeses.
If you want to learn more about fermenting, I highly recommend Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
What’s the difference? And why choose one or the other?
Pickles are preserved in an acidic medium, namely vinegar. The tasty cucumbers prepared in vinegar (with spices) that most people simply call “pickles” are the most common example. But we can also pickle almost any vegetable, eggs, and even meat!
Ferments could be considered a “type” of pickle. But rather than being prepared in vinegar, they are prepared in salt brine and the acidic medium is lactic acid which actually comes from the vegetables themselves when their starches and sugars are converted to lactic acid by the bacteria lactobacilli.
Pickling kills ALL bacteria – the good and bad. Fermenting cultivates an environment where good bacteria can live, and in which they starve out the bad bacteria.
Pickled goodies will be basically the same on the day you can them as they are months or years later. It is an excellent, long-term preserving technique. Ferments change every day. The majority of the process happens and room temperature, then they are placed in the fridge where the progress slows so much it is barely recognizable.
Pickles are safe as long as good sterilization is used. This is quite easy given current day access to heating and plumbing. Fermenting is also safe and has been around much longer as a preservation technique.
Pickling can be laborious – from sterilizing to processing in boiling water, it can takes a long time to pickle with lots of materials. Fermenting is easy peasy. Just add salt brine.
Hopefully that helps you understand the differences and now you can choose how to preserve your own harvest!