I can sum this up in one word. Don’t. Of course, it does require a disclaimer – that some things DO in fact require a starter of some kind. And a few things do better with one.
The first thing I need to explain is a general misconception among new fermenters – a misunderstanding caused by the use of whey in so many fermentation recipes. “Lacto-fermentation” does NOT refer to the presence of any milk product in the ferment! It refers to “lactobacillus”. A category of bacteria that proliferate in old fashioned brine cured or cultured foods. Lactobacilli will grow perfectly happily without the whey.
In general, lacto-fermenting happens best when you just let Nature do her thing. She usually does – that is how fermentation processes were discovered to begin with. But it isn’t as simple as saying NEVER, or ALWAYS. There are some rules though.
Many recipes recommend whey as a starter. Some recommend specialized starter cultures. Other fermentation processes typically have standard recommended cultures – yogurt, buttermilk, etc. And many fermentation specialists say to never use a starter – but in fact they do not mean it, they just mean don’t use whey, usually. We have to break them down to understand what needs a culture, and what does not.
So the first rule is that MOST fruit and vegetable ferments do NOT need a starter. ALL cooked food fermentations do BETTER with a starter. SOME milk fermentations REQUIRE a starter to get the right flavor. Meat and Eggs need either HIGH SALT, or an already Fermented Brine. Grains can sometimes benefit from a starter but do not require one.
- Milk fermentations – Raw milk will generally ferment nicely without a starter. It won’t taste like yogurt, sour cream, or kefir though. To get things that taste like those, you need higher concentrations of specific types of microbes. Hence, many milk ferments are best with a starter, of the type of thing you are trying to culture. In general, a spoonful of whatever it is, as long as it has live cultures, will do the trick for each cup of milk you are culturing. Buttermilk may or may not taste right if cultured without a starter, and depends on several factors. Too many to cover here. In general, if you are using pasteurized milk, you MUST use a starter (even if just a bit of a previous successful batch). If you are using raw milk, it depends entirely upon your taste preferences.
- Vegetable Fermentations – Usually these occur very well without a starter. If you end up getting food that has been treated in some way (even some organics have been), it may interfere with the fermentation process. In that case, a starter culture may help. Generally, it is not needed, and whey, specifically, may be counterproductive. The best starter for vegetables is some brine from a previous batch. Raw Apple Cider Vinegar makes a reasonable second choice.
- Cooked Food Fermentations – These lack the necessary natural microbes to predictably ferment, and are likely to mold. I DO recommend a starter for these. The type of starter used depends on the type of food being fermented – generally take the starter from a previous successful batch, OR something which contains similar ingredients. For cooked sauces and condiments, a vegetable brine is a good choice, and Raw Apple Cider Vinegar is also acceptable.
- Fruit Ferments – These ALWAYS produce substantial amounts of alcohol (as does anything with any kind of sugar, honey, or syrup), so I only do them if I am pushing them through to a vinegar stage. Again, they ferment fine on their own without any kind of starter if you are using clean raw food (by clean I mean not contaminated with chemicals). On occasion, you may need a starter, especially if you are using cooked fruits or pasteurized juices. The best starter is a fruit based ferment – Raw Apple Cider Vinegar is a good choice.
- Meats and Eggs – These are risky items to ferment, and should ALWAYS be done with either a high salt brine, or previously fermented brine. Far less risky when you use homegrown meats or eggs, and in general, the historic methods did not involve plopping the food into salty water and letting it ferment, anyway. Typically they were added to a brine that had been previously fermented. I have not studied meat curing methods sufficiently to be able to make recommendations other than that it is wiser to avoid trying to culture the meat in a fresh low salt brine. Meats that were cured and preserved in salt brines were always done in brines with very high salt content – enough that the meat had to be soaked prior to use to remove the majority of the salt. For eggs, simply use brine from pickles. Add sweetener if you like a sweet pickle brine on your pickled eggs. That IS the traditional way to do it, and you end up with true lacto-fermented eggs, which ferment with a good starter from the lacto-fermented pickle brine. You can try yellow pickled eggs, from pickle juice, or pink pickled eggs using beet pickles. Pop the eggs into the brine, and stick it in the fridge. They’ll be good to eat in 2-4 days (the pink ones are easiest to tell how far they’ve been pickled, since the color will tell you how far the brine has penetrated).
- Grains – The principle grain ferment that we are concerned with is sourdough starter. I don’t mess with alcoholic ferments. Sourdough can be done either WITH, or WITHOUT a starter. There is some controversy over whether it does better with or without one, and whether a specific starter will retain individual characteristics. That said, what IS generally agreed upon in the fermentation world, is that you SHOULD NOT USE COMMERCIAL YEAST as the starter! It is also generally agreed that whey or other non-grain starters are unnecessary and generally counterproductive. Dried sourdough starter may be used, or you can culture it “wild”. We have had very good success with wild cultures – simply letting a flour and water mixture ferment, and feeding it regularly. The only time we had poor success is when using some marginal wheat (with drought burn on the kernels), which produced a very moldy sourdough. Good wheat, either whole or refined, fresh milled or commercially stripped of the germ, will generally produce good sourdough. Whole wheat, especially fresh milled with the germ, tends to ferment more actively, and produces a sharper flavor. The key to a good sourdough is keeping it fed and active. It requires a daily tending, does not do as well when stored in the fridge for long, and it likes flour without preservatives best.
- Beans or Starchy Vegetables – These are vegetables, but they BEHAVE like fruit during the fermentation process. They produce substantial amounts of alcohol, due to the high carbohydrates in them. They do best WITHOUT a starter, UNLESS they are cooked (beans are likely to be unless sprouted), in which case a starter may be very helpful. A dab from a previous batch is the best option if you DO choose to use a starter. Secondary options would be Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, or Whey if you have nothing else.
The second rule is to use a starter that is most compatible with the ferment. Vegetables to vegetables, fruits to fruits, milks to milks, grains to grains. The exception is Eggs, which are done in a pickle brine, this being the traditional method of pickling eggs. Raw Apple Cider Vinegar is the closest thing we have to an “all purpose” starter, and it does not work for milk.
The reason we do like with like, is because various food categories allow specific types of bacteria and yeasts to culture. While there IS some commonality, the microbes that grow best in milk are NOT the same ones that grow best in vegetables or grains. Having milk by-products in your sourdough, vinegar, or pickles is not the best option for keeping the food fresh for extended periods either, since milk degrades faster than vegetables, fruits, or grains in a fermented storage situation. This is one of the reasons why whey is not a good starter to use for things other than milk cultures.
So as a general thing, skip the whey in your pickles or kraut. It isn’t needed, and actually does more harm than good. If you cannot get good quality organic produce and have to use treated foods that don’t pickle predictably, then use a starter from a similar food group to boost the predictability of your ferments.
Some companies sell fairly costly fermentation starters. Unless you are having problems with ferments (due to water quality, food quality, or other things you cannot control), they are not needed.
Mother Nature will be only too happy to help you create good food for your family.
The ORIGINAL one-way valve fermenting airlock! Imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery, and we have noticed that our product has been copied by other sellers of fermenting products. Remember, if you see someone else selling a one-way valve airlock for fermenting, THEY copied US, not the other way around! Fermenta Lock is still the only original invention, handmade in the US. If it isn't orange, it isn't the original!
We invented Fermenta Lock, Fermenta Free, and the valve used for Fermenta Fido and other Fermenta Airlock products. We invented Fermenta Dunk Extender. Patents are prohibitively expensive, and designed by the government not to protect the rights of individuals, but to provide another source of revenue and control for the government and lawyers. We are good at what we do. We have endless ideas and endless creativity, and competition does not scare us. Impatient thieves do not scare us - they are too busy taking shortcuts to make a success of it anyway, and they won't want to take the effort to actually MAKE a product and fill orders.
So if you want to copy our idea, go right ahead. If you want to market and sell a competing product, you are welcome to do so, as long as you do not patent our idea - we had it first, and our posts on FaceBook announcing the invention and launch of it will prove that. This idea is officially in the public domain, placed there by us. We will NOT release supply sources, or part names unless you want to buy them - we'll be happy to sell you an instruction kit. If you buy our product, or look at the images and figure it out for yourself, good on you. Compete with us if you like, just don't screw us, and we'll get along just fine. Big companies who might want to screw us may have more money, and more lawyers than we do, but we have more to gain by suing the pants off a big company, and believe me, we will be well motivated to do so if anyone patents our idea and claims it as their own - this is a free idea. Everybody now owns it.
Published June 23, 2012
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