Wondering whether you need to use a starter with fermented vegetables? And what type of starter to use? Here is everything you need to know about using a fermented vegetable starter.
There are a number of topics that are the subject of debate in the fermentation community. And fermented vegetable starters is one of those topics! Like all debates, there are people on both sides: those who always use a fermented vegetable starter, and those who only ever use brine.
Here is everything I know about using starters for vegetables. It is based on my background in biology and my personal experience, along with a dose of pragmatism.
Do Fermented Vegetables Need a Starter?
The short answer is No. And here is why:
- Vegetables grown in healthy soil naturally have lactic acid bacteria living on their skin.
- A salt brine promotes the growth of lactic acid bacteria in vegetable ferments.
- The air in your house likely contains the right microorganisms to ferment all sorts of things (including sourdough and vegetables).
When do you need a vegetable starter?
Here are a few situations when you might want to use a vegetable starter.
- Unfortunately, the majority of our vegetables are not grown in lovely fields filled with a diverse ecology of microorganisms. Even organic farms can no longer be assured of having high-quality soil. So if you’re struggling to get your pickles to ferment, it’s fine to boost them with a starter.
- Mold and kahm yeast can contaminate wild fermented vegetables. So using a starter is recommended if you have issues in your house.
- If you have a HEPA-filtered air system in your house or live in a heavily polluted city, it may be hard to make wild-fermented vegetables.
- A starter is recommended for low-sodium vegetable ferments.
- Starters add flavor. Sometimes you want that bite of vinegar or the sweetness of raw honey in your ferments. Adding a starter is a great way to pack a bit of extra flavor in your ferment.
How to use a fermented vegetable starter
Here are a few pieces of advice around using a vegetable starter:
- It’s not necessary to use a starter with cabbage (sauerkraut, curtido, or kimchi). Cabbage usually has a good culture of lactic bacteria on its skin and it ferments very well. However, I do use a starter in my piccalilli recipe for the tangy flavor of vinegar.
- I usually use a starter for quick vegetable ferments.
- When using a starter, only ferment for 3-5 days before refrigerating. The vegetables will ferment so quickly that they will become mushy if you leave them for any longer than that.
Any fermented liquid can be used as a vegetable starter. Here are a few popular options:
- Vegetable starter: Using a vegetable starter is a very reliable way to ferment. This can be leftover brine from another vegetable ferment, a homemade vegetable starter, or a purchased starter.
- Vinegar with a mother: Some vegetables just taste better with a bit of added vinegar. It’s also an easy option for beginners. Just use raw vinegar that contains a mother.
- Raw honey: Honey is a great way to add sweetness to a ferment. Just be sure to use raw honey so it naturally contains the necessary yeasts and bacterial cultures. Honey ferments are not recommended for pregnant women, children under the age of 1 year, or anyone who is immunocompromised.
- Probiotic pop: Kombucha, water kefir, and ginger bug can all be used to ferment vegetables. The taste profile is fairly similar to adding vinegar.
- Dairy cultures: A nice clear whey from cultured cheese or Greek yogurt can be used as a starter. However, whey tends to result in very soft vegetables, so it’s not always ideal.
In the wild-fermentation tradition, using a starter introduces all sorts of undesirable yeasts and bacteria. Even a vegetable starter or sauerkraut juice is not ideal.
This is because there is a natural rise and fall in different types of lactic bacteria as part of the fermentation process. Artificially introduced bacteria are nothing like those naturally found in vegetable ferments.
This is both true and not true. Certainly, the bacterial strains in whey are not the same bacterial strains found on vegetables, however, they will still encourage fermentation. And you will still get a good dose of probiotics either way.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. Regardless of whether you use a starter or not…
Very new to all this (only started this week!!), so I am doing small amounts to build up knowledge and confidence.
If I want to use my water kefir as a starter with vegetables, how can I figure out how much to use? And do I need to reduce the salt if I use it? By how much?
Thanks for all the fabulous info on your site – I am on a very steep learning curve, and really appreciate all the information available.
Thank you from Downunder!
Most of my recipes suggest how much starter to use. And you won’t need to reduce the salt. Water kefir will work best for sweet ferments (like my sweet pickles). If one of my recipes doesn’t suggest a starter, then it’s because you really shouldn’t use it. Like sauerkraut or kimchi. Otherwise it will suggest an optional starter in the ingredients.
It can take about 1 month to get a good healthy culture in the air of your home. So a starter is a good idea for your first few ferments. After that fermenting will be easy.