A vegetable starter culture is a great way to boost vegetable ferments. It is a simple and reliable way to make sure that all your homemade fermented vegetables are packed with probiotics.
While most vegetables don’t require anything more than a good brine to naturally ferment, here are a few reasons why a vegetable starter culture can be helpful:
- If you’re new to fermenting and want to avoid any potential failure.
- The air quality in your home or neighborhood isn’t great. Pollution and/or mold issues make fermenting more difficult.
- Starter cultures are a reliable way to make low salt or salt-free fermented vegetables.
Options for a vegetable starter culture
There are a number of different options for a starter culture. It’s not necessary to pick one favorite culture and stick with it. Each culture will bring its own flavor to whatever you are fermenting.
Here are a few of my favorite options. These are all vegetable starter cultures that I use on a regular basis, so I know they are both reliable and delicious.
1. Apple Cider Vinegar or Sour Kombucha
Using sour kombucha or apple cider vinegar with a mother is a great way to add a bit of extra acidity to fermented vegetables. Used in small amounts it won’t be enough to slow down fermentation. However, they add that distinct vinegar tanginess.
I particularly like adding vinegar to fermented beets.
Whey from milk kefir, strained yogurt, or cultured cheeses is often used as a vegetable starter. It helps a ferment go quickly, without adding a lot of flavor.
I use it any time I want my vegetables to ferment quickly, without adding any extra flavors. For example, I use it for garlic scapes.
Raw honey naturally contains yeasts and bacteria that come from the microbiome of the bees. Honey-based ferments aren’t actually as sweet as you might expect, since the sugars are quickly consumed during the ferment. Even so, I use honey whenever I want a slightly sweet ferment. For example, when making honey garlic pickles.
Because of the health risks associated with the consumption of raw honey, honey fermentation is not recommended for pregnant women, children under the age of 1 year, or anyone who is immunocompromised.
4. Ginger bug
Ginger bug and turmeric bug are my favorite probiotic soda pops! I just love the flavor. So naturally, I love to use ginger bug to add a ginger flavor to fermented vegetables.
5. Brine and Commercial starters
There are several commercial starters available online. They are great for packing a lot of probiotic cultures into your ferment.
As well, leftover brine from another ferment is an easy way to kickstart fermentation.
6. Homemade vegetable starter culture
This recipe for a homemade vegetable starter culture is designed to be as similar to a commercial starter as possible. If you simply use brine from whatever you have fermenting in your cupboard, then it may only contain a few strains of bacteria. This starter packs in different strains of lactic acid bacteria.
Cabbage naturally has a variety of different types of bacteria on its leaves. However, as it ferments and sours, the brine becomes inhospitable to many strains of bacteria, leaving lactobacillus to dominate.
The trick to making a super concentrated starter culture out of brine is to stop the fermentation before it becomes too acidic for many of the bacterial cultures.
Homemade Vegetable Starter Culture
Here’s how to use the natural bacterial cultures on the leaves of cabbage to create a super-concentrated vegetable starter culture. See the section above for other options to kick-start vegetable ferments.
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Total Time: 10 minutes
- Yield: 1 cup 1x
- Category: Culture
- Method: Fermenting
- Diet: Vegan
- 1 medium-sized head of cabbage (organic is best)
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 1 cup (250 mL) chlorine-free water
- This vegetable starter recipe also results in a very simple and basic sauerkraut. So once you’ve drained off the extra liquid, feel free to let it continue fermenting.
- Wash the cabbage and remove the outer leaves if necessary. Grate the cabbage into a large bowl. Toss it with the salt, then pack it into two 1-quart (1 L) jars or a 1.5 L jar. Use a wooden spoon to press the cabbage down into the jar. Leave at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of room at the top because it will bubble a lot.
- Divide the water between the jars. It will take a minute for the water to make its way to the bottom of the jar, so add it slowly.
- Since the liquid will be used as a starter culture, it’s important to prevent contamination. Cap the kraut with a lid that will allow CO2 to escape. Fido jars or pickle pipes are perfect.
- Place the jars somewhere dark to ferment. It will start to bubble within 24 hours and remain very active for 2 to 3 days. The goal is to strain off the liquid when the sauerkraut is actively bubbling. So about 24 hours after it starts bubbling or 2 days after it was packed in the jar.
- The easiest way to strain off the brine is to use a clean spoon to hold back the cabbage while you drain the brine. I recommend pouring boiling water over the spoon before you use it to kill any microorganisms that might be on its surface, to make sure that it won’t contaminate your brine. Press the cabbage down into the jar to get most of the liquid out of the kraut.
- The remaining sauerkraut can either be left to continue fermenting or placed in the fridge for fresh and sweet sauerkraut.
- The brine needs to be frozen right away to ensure that it remains full of active cultures. Either freeze in small freezer containers or an ice cube tray. Store the frozen brine ice cubes in a zip-top bag. Your homemade vegetable starter should last for at least 6 months in the freezer.
- To use your homemade vegetable starter, defrost it in the fridge for 24 hours before use. Use about 2 Tbsp of starter per quart-sized jar of fermented vegetables.
- All cabbages should have bacterial cultures on their leaves. However, using locally grown, organic cabbage is the best way to ensure it’s teaming with lots of good bacterial culture.
- When making starters, it’s important to make sure everything is clean and sanitized. I usually do this by pouring boiling water over my tools and in my jars. That should be enough to kill most surface bacteria, yeasts, and molds.
Keywords: sauerkraut, simple, fall, culture, probiotic, fermentation, ferment