There are a number of topics that are frequently debated 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 the number of years I’ve been fermenting, 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 healthy lactobacteria living on their skin.
- Using a salt brine promotes the growth of vegetable fermenting lactobacteria
- The air in your house likely contains the right microorganisms to ferment all sorts of things (including sourdough and vegetables)
The conditions for fermenting aren’t always ideal.
- 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 a high quality soil.
- Unless you’re already an avid fermenter, there’s a good chance the “air” in your house isn’t full of good, happy bacteria. This is especially true if you have a hepe-filtered air system or use antibacterial cleaning supplies.
- You many not want to use the ideal amount of salt. Maybe you are on a low salt diet for health reasons, or you just don’t like salty vegetables.
How to use a fermented vegetable starter
- NEVER use a starter with cabbage (sauerkraut, curtido or kimchi.) Cabbage usually has a good culture of lactic bacteria on its skin. And mucking around with a starter culture may introduce unwanted yeasts to the ferment.
- I usually use a starter for any quick vegetable ferments simply because I want to make sure that the ferment goes quickly.
- It’s always best to use a vegetable specific starter. This could be a purchased starter (affiliate link,) or brine from another vegetable ferment. Alternatively, most any culture that you have on hand will work (including a nice clear whey, homemade water kefir, or kombucha.)
- 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 longer than that.
To a Fermenting Purist, using a starter introduces all sorts of undesirable yeasts and bacteria. Even a vegetable starter or sauerkraut juice is not ideal because there is a natural rise and fall in different types of lactic bacteria as the fermentation process goes on. Introduced bacteria are nothing like those naturally found in a vegetable ferments and should not be used for fermenting.
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…