You may have noticed that many traditional fermentation recipes recommend raw whey as the probiotic starter culture. This provides the beneficial bacterial medium necessary to kick start the fermentation process. Within a few days, this synergistic mix creates a plethora of additional enzymes and boosted vitamin content. Simple raw foods transform into super raw foods.
The problem is that milk is the source of liquid whey. What about folks who have a dairy allergy? Is there another approach to fermenting foods and beverages that avoids whey as the microbial inoculant?
As a matter of fact, there is!
There are two ways to ferment without whey. Fermentation fans can use either of these methods or a combination of the two with any whey based recipes.
Salt Only Fermentation
Good quality sea salt is probably the best and most affordable way to ferment foods and beverages without a dairy based inoculant.
Prior to modern refrigeration, indigenous cultures used salt to preserve food. Seasonally grown vegetables were not only preserved but also fermented this way.
Benefits of Using Salt for Fermentation
Using only salt to ferment foods has many advantages. First, the principle of osmosis tells us that a salty brine will naturally pull the water out of food. Since bacteria typically require moisture to thrive and grow, this naturally suppresses pathogenic bacteria and molds.
With pathogenic bacteria prevented from propagating, strains of beneficial Lactobacilli bacteria present on the surface of all living things can thrive and rapidly grow with no competition. Conveniently, these Lactobacilli are resistant to salt!
Cons of Salt Only Ferments
The downside to using salt is that the fermentation process is slower than when using whey. It is also not desirable for those who need to avoid salt for whatever reason.
In addition, salt based fermentation is not optimal for use in beverages such as Hindu lemonade as the salt tends to overwhelm the sour/sweet flavor.
However, for cultured vegetables that will be stored for long periods of time, salt only fermentation is a good choice.
How to Use Sea Salt for Fermentation
If you decide to ferment using salt only, the general rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons of good quality sea salt per quart of water. This creates the proper pH for the brine to optimally ferment the raw vegetables.
I am sad to write this, but I no longer recommend any ocean derived sea salts.
Land based sea salts mined from ancient sea beds such as Himalaya sea salt or Redmond Real Salt are preferable due the alarming pollution in our oceans today. Tests of mineral rich sea salts made from drying sea water are revealing that they are contaminated with hormone disrupting microplastics. (1)
Salt and Dairy Free Fermentation
If you wish to minimize the amount of salt used for dairy free fermentation, there are a few companies that offer vegetable starter cultures. I recommend either of these two:
These single use starter pouches contain beneficial microbes such as Lactobacillus plantarum and a prebiotic like inulin. This combination will ferment a wide variety of vegetables without any salt.
Will a simple probiotic capsule work just as well? In some cases yes, depending on the strains in the capsule. However, it may take a bit of trial and error to get this approach to work. Considering the expense of good quality organic vegetables these days and the limited time and patience we all have for failed ferments, it is best in my view to just use a tried and true vegetable starter culture where the potency is known.
The downside of this salt free fermentation approach, however, is that the veggies tend to get mushy and/or slimy. Another downside is that pathogenic microbes have the opportunity to run rampant without any salt to inhibit them. This increases the chances of fermentation mold.
For the best dairy free fermentation results, use a small amount of sea salt (1 tablespoon per quart of water) combined with a freeze dried vegetable starter. This approach will ferment as quickly as using whey, preserves the crunchiness of the vegetables, enhances flavor, and reduces the chances of mold.