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Do I Have To Use A Starter When I Ferment Things?

Lately wild fermentation has been getting quite a bit of flack. Wild fermentation, not to be confused with the book, is the practice of letting the natural bacteria and yeasts on vegetables or fruits start the ferment. Obviously there are many proponents of fermenting in this way, and people in the past more than likely did this as well. But now that we have the technology to isolate specific strains of bacteria, it means that we can make better ferments…. right? Maybe, maybe not.

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I personally have not found much of a difference between using a starter and going without. I do have some on hand that I bought on sale, though, so I do use it sometimes. But, I’m horrible at remembering little things like that so most of the time I don’t. I’ve used a powdered starter for sauerkraut twice, as supposedly that brings down the amount of time needed for a successful ferment from 12 weeks to 9 or 10 (I’ve heard different things). But I always forget!

I do routinely remember to use it when making fruit ferments, such as this one or this one. I like to use a starter culture for fruit ferments because I’ve read they’re more likely to go bad. Sometimes I use a powdered starter, other times I use either a little water kefir or ginger bug. I never use whey–it does not belong in vegetable and fruit ferments, changes the flavor, and friends of mine have also said it made their ferments more susceptible to mold. And I don’t skim mold, I’d just toss…so I definitely don’t want that!

Long story short–no, you do NOT need to use a starter when you are making your fruit and vegetable ferments. I would recommend using one for fruit, and definitely if you’ve had lots of issues with ferments going bad. Your ferments should be pleasant in taste and texture, and if this is not the case… you should do some troubleshooting! Truly enjoying your ferments will help you to eat more, and help your family to love them as well. That has certainly been the case here, and it’s just one more reason I am grateful for my Boss Pickler jars!

Another reason I’ve heard of for using a starter is if you are not sure where your vegetables came from, especially if they are not organic. Our soil isn’t as rich in probiotics as it was in days of old, and this is definitely a bigger problem when organic practices are not observed.

So, you see that starters can affect flavor (positively or negatively!) and aren’t completely necessary. However, they can be beneficial in some circumstances. Do YOU use a starter or different types of starters? If so, I’d love to know what kind(s) and your experience fermenting with them!

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Sunday 13th of September 2020

Thanks for your great tips. I'm really enjoying your blog. I am new to fermenting, curious- can you use water kefir grains as a substitute in all recipes that call for whey? And if so, how much of them do you use as a substitute?


Sunday 13th of September 2020

Hey there! I appreciate your feedback amd I'm glad you're finding my posts helpful! I'd say yes, pretty much any recipe with whey can be substituted with water kefir grains or some of the prepared kefir water. I would do this for many fermented beverages, but not for vegetables. If you already have a recipe in mind then it may be easier for me to help with an amount. Ie. For a 16oz jar of juice you want to make fizzy, you probably don't need more than a tsp or two of grains.