Culturing Fruits and Vegetables without Dairy
Many modern fermentation recipes call for whey as a culture starter. Whey is the byproduct of cultured dairy products. It can be strained from kefir, buttermilk, or yogurt. Yogurt is readily accessible commercially or easy to make at home, and the whey can easily be strained from it.
But for some, dairy is not an option, for reasons of health, dietary preference, or taste. Fortunately, there are many ways to ferment fruits and vegetables without using a dairy starter.
Omit the culture starter all together. For vegetables, especially, this is a good option. Most traditional vegetable ferments were done without the use of whey or a starter culture. Sauerkraut and all varieties of pickles were traditionally made with just the vegetables, salt, and water as needed.
Rather than coming from the whey, the beneficial bacteria will come from the vegetable itself. Vegetables, especially the outermost peels or sides, have bits of bacteria on them, from the soil they were grown in. In a controlled environment (salt-water brine), this good bacteria will feed on the starches and sugars naturally present in the vegetables to reproduce and create lactic acid to preserve the food and give you the beneficial probiotics.
Use a bit of brine from a healthy previous batch. If you’ve ever gotten a really good batch of pickles or kraut, you know that flavor is distinctly fresh and delicious in flavor. This is because all the conditions for the fermentation process came together well to create a great balance of bacteria and acids.
This brine can then be used as brine or an addition to a fresh brine. You can add a few spoonfuls to kraut, pickles, and even condiments and fruit ferments. A couple of tablespoons won’t drastically alter the flavor in a fruit ferment, but will give the microorganisms a kick-start toward reproducing.
Use a bit of kombucha. The cultured beverage kombucha is a good starter for ferments. In its ideal state, kombucha has a nice balance of lactic acid bacteria that will give your ferment some extra help.
One thing to consider when using kombucha is that it will take on a lot of acetic acid if it is left to ferment too long. That’s what gives long-fermented kombucha a vinegar-like flavor. But acetic acid can compete with the favorable lactic acid, and so be careful not to use kombucha that has cultured too long.
Use a bit of water kefir. Water kefir, unlike its cousin milk kefir, is completely dairy-free. Water kefir grains, culture sweetened water into a deliciously refreshing and bubbly probiotic drink. Most people drink water kefir after a second fermentation with various fruity flavors to create a carbonated drink. This is not necessary if you are using water kefir as a culture starter. Instead, when your first fermentation is complete, simply use a bit of this batch to add to the vegetables, fruits, or condiments that you wish to culture.
Use a commercial starter. Finally, for convenience, there are commercial culture starters available that can be used to culture anything from coconut water to vegetables, fruits, and condiments. These commercial starters come as a dried powder to be mixed into the ferment. Some do have dairy as part of the carrier ingredients, but others are completely dairy-free.