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Natural Fermentation: Salt vs. Whey vs. Starter Cultures

When making naturally cultured vegetables, fruits or condiments, recipes will often call for a variety of ingredients including salt, whey and salt, or even just a freeze-dried culture. How do you choose the best culturing medium for your project? 

Purpose of Salt and Starter Cultures

Salt can promote the fermenting process by inhibiting the growth of undesirable microorganisms, favoring the growth of desired Lactobacilli. 

Starter cultures such as whey, brine from a previous ferment, or freeze-dried starter cultures can add bacteria to the culturing process to get things going more quickly. 

The combination used is a personal choice.

Vegetable Fermentation Methods

There are a few different ways to prepare brine for fermenting vegetables, including a method for fermenting without salt. Choose the process that works best for you from the following choices:

Method #1: Salt-only Vegetable Fermentation

Historically, salt was used to preserve foods before refrigeration. We recommend salt-only fermented vegetables at CFH, for many reasons: 

  • Salt pulls out the moisture in food, denying bacteria the aqueous solution they need to live and grow. 
  • Salt allows the natural bacteria that exist on the vegetables to do the fermenting. Only the desired salt-tolerant Lactobacilli strains will live and propagate.  
  • By suppressing the growth of other bacteria and mold, salt provides a slower fermentation process that is perfect for cultured vegetables that are to be stored for longer periods of time. 
  • Salt hardens the pectins in the vegetables, leaving them crunchy and enhancing the flavor.
  • Use 1-3 tablespoons of our authentic, finely-ground Celtic Sea Salt per quart of water to prepare brine for fermenting vegetables.


Method #2: Salt-free Vegetable Fermentation

  • Salt-free ferments, while often more bio-diverse, can result in mushy vegetables and mold. 
  • For a salt-free ferment celery juice or seaweed may be substituted, but they will not prevent a mushy texture. 
  • Some freeze-dried starter cultures may be used on their own, without salt (see Method #3, below). Always follow the instructions included with the freeze-dried starter culture, for best results.
  • This salt-free sauerkraut recipe uses herbal seeds in place of salt.


Method #3: Salt Plus Starter Cultures

Using some form of bacterial starter is said to speed up the vegetable fermentation process. While we recommend a salt-only ferment for vegetables, the following starter cultures may be used in addition to salt, if desired.

  • Whey is dairy-based, so may not work for everyone. Make sure the whey is properly strained and fresh-tasting, as it will lend its flavor to the batch. Add salt along with the whey for flavor and to keep the vegetables crunchy. 
  • Freeze-Dried Starter Cultures: When using a freeze-dried starter culture, follow the instructions included with that culture, for best results.

If you prefer to use a freeze-dried starter culture, choose from our high-quality Vegetable Starter Cultures:
Cutting Edge Vegetable Starter Culture  Cutting Edge Vegetable Starter Culture
 Caldwell Starter Culture for Vegetables  Caldwell Vegetable Starter Culture
Body Ecology Starter Culture for Vegetables  Body Ecology Starter Culture for Vegetables

  • Brine from a Previous FermentThe fermented vegetable juice from a previous batch can be added to a new batch as a starter. Add about ¼ cup brine per quart of vegetables.
  • Other Fermented Liquids: Finished, unflavored water kefir or kombucha may be used as a starter culture for fermenting vegetables. Add about ¼ cup liquid per quart of vegetables.   


Making Substitutions in Recipes

No matter what the fermented vegetable recipe calls for, substitutions are always possible.

  • Any of the starter culture liquids, whey, water kefir, kombucha, or brine from a previous ferment, may be used interchangeably in a recipe. 
  • In recipes calling for a pre-packaged starter culture, substitute salt only or salt plus a liquid starter culture. Generally speaking, each quart of fermented food requires 1-3 tablespoons of salt and if desired, ¼ cup liquid starter.
  • Fruit, salsa, chutney, and condiments tend to be more salt-sensitive, so use less salt than you normally would for vegetable ferments.



Wooden spoonful of salt

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