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 Other Ingredients for Fermentation

Salt and starter cultures such as whey, kefir grains, and freeze-dried cultures can promote the fermenting process by inhibiting the growth of undesirable microorganisms, favoring the growth of desired Lactobacilli, and in some cases even adding desirable bacteria to the culturing process. The combination you chose is dependent on your particular project and any dietary limitations you may have.

The skins of fruits and vegetables contains natural bacteria. These bacteria, if allowed to grow, will ferment the fruit or vegetables. Unfortunately, not all bacteria are created equal, and some of the present bacteria as well as bacteria in the surrounding air may not lead to a tasty finished product. Salt inhibits the growth of undesirable microorganisms while favoring the growth of desired strains of bacteria. The natural culturing process may be further encouraged and sped up by adding beneficial bacteria through the use of whey, a starter culture, kefir grains, etc. While we do strongly encourage the use salt, to improve outcomes and avoid the growth of undesirable bacteria, the use of salt, whey, or freeze-dried cultures is not strictly necessary.


Historically, salt was used to preserve foods before refrigeration.  Vegetables ferment better under the protection of salt dissolved in water. Salt pulls out the moisture in food, denying bacteria the aqueous solution they need to live and grow except for the desired salt-tolerant Lactobacilli strains. 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. We recommend salt ferments, to allow the natural bacteria that exist on the vegetables to do the fermenting.

An added benefit of using salt is that it hardens the pectins in the vegetables, leaving them crunchy and enhancing the flavor. The more salt used, the slower the fermentation process, and the saltier the final taste. We recommed using 1-3 tablespoons salt per quart of water when making brine for fermented vegetables. 

Salt-free ferments, while actually more biodiverse, 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. 


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 may be added in addition to salt, if desired.

  • Whey. 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. Whey can be obtained by Straining Cultured Dairy Products.
  • Dried Starter Cultures. Vegetable starter cultures are dried bacteria that can be mixed into a batch of fermented vegetables. When using a dried starter culture, follow the instructions included with that culture, for best results.
  • Juice from a Previous Ferment. The fermented vegetable juice from a previous batch can be added to a new batch as a starter. Make up the salt brine as directed, and add about ¼ cup juice per quart of brine.
  • Other Fermented Liquids. Finished, unflavored water kefir or kombucha may be used as a starter culture for fermenting vegetables. Use the same amount as you would whey in any recipe, about ¼ cup per quart of brine. 

Making Substitutions in Recipes

If you come across a recipe that calls for one type of starter culture, but you'd prefer to use another or leave them out altogether, here are some general guidelines:

  • 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 either just salt* or a combination of salt and a liquid starter culture. Generally speaking, each quart of fermented food requires 1-3 teaspoons of salt and ¼ cup liquid starter.
  • Most vegetable recipes are salt-friendly and adding a bit more salt in place of whey or a dried culture isn't detrimental to the taste. Fruits, salsa, dips, and condiments tend to be more salt-sensitive, so use less salt than you normally would for whole vegetable ferments.




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