How to Ferment without Whey or Starter

Ever need to adjust a recipe for your needs? Maybe cut it in half, or substitute an ingredient that you are missing? Some folks advocate that you have whey, or a starter culture, to ferment foods. Guess what? Not so. Read on for Sarah’s great explanation on how to ferment without whey or starter.

When you are new to fermenting, the suggestion of including a starter in most recipes can be a bit of a setback. After all, how do you get a starter if you’ve never fermented before, or your last ferment went south and you don’t trust it? The good thing is that while recommended, it is not actually necessary to use a starter in a basic natural ferment. I would consider a basic ferment as one containing few spices, and only one or two types of veggies. More complex ferments, specifically those containing bacteria-preventing spices, can work more effectively with a starter.

Good starting veggies for a starter-less ferment are cabbage, cucumbers, and carrots. These veggies have the necessary bacteria present, ferment easily, and are tasty. I have had these three successfully ferment even when I had inadequate jars, inadequate salt,  and zero starter. So if you have proper jars, good salt, and a good idea of what a finished ferment looks like, you won’t need to worry about the starter to have a successful ferment.

Normally, I will do a plain cabbage ferment, and then use it for a starter on a cabbage, ginger, and carrot ferment or spicy but cabbage based ferment. My reasoning behind that is that the spices can prevent bacterial growth, so having a slight starter makes the ferment progress more effectively and insures that it doesn’t go off. This is particularly relevant in the winter months, when the ferment will start very, very slowly. So having an already present boost of bacteria targeted to this vegetable can be a good idea.

Ferment without Whey or Starter

However, I try not to “mix” starting ferments, or ferments from different fruits and vegetables. If my recipe includes cabbage, I’ll use starter from a cabbage ferment. If I’m working with lemons or limes however, I’d use salt and let it ferment naturally, or use starter from a successful batch of citrus. I wouldn’t mix cabbage starter with citrus since they have a different bacterial profile, and I would definitely not use a citrus based starter with standard vegetables, even if I included citrus as a flavor profile with the veggies.

Nearly any fermented fruit recipe will call for a whey, water kefir, or kombucha starter. This practice is due to fruit having a large amount of sugar feeding yeasts, which produce alcohol. Aiming for a lacto-fermentation means that these fruit-based ferments will only be successful with a starter. In these cases, the starter also acts to determine the flavor of your finished ferment, and springboard the pH change to prevent the yeasts from proliferating first.

Whatever you choose for your starter, or if you use a starter, will have an impact on the flavor, texture, and consistency of your finished ferment. A whey, water kefir, or kombucha starter with a fruit ferment will provide the right tangy complement to the fruit’s lingering sweetness. However, using a vegetable-based starter on fruit would cause the flavor profile to end up off, and slightly unpleasant.

Some may recommend adding yeast to a natural fruit ferment as a starter. This is counter intuitive if you want a lacto-ferment and not alcohol.

Most garden vegetables do not require a starter, provided you use the right ratio of salt to liquid for the volume of the jar. If you have a high spice ferment, using a similarly-based ferment as the starter can help the bacteria along and help keep your ferment crisp. Not adding a starter for a high-spice ferment will not wreck your ferment, it just may make it less crisp, and it may take a day or two longer than anticipated.

Fruit ferments, due to their high sugar and high natural yeast content, do better with a starter. In this case, the starter does not just assist the fermentation, it also adapts the flavor profile. So, you need a suitable starter for the flavor profile you are aiming for. It is not recommended to use a vegetable-based starter for fruits, as this harshens the flavor profile. Dairy based starters are recommended, since this gives a clearer flavor profile, while still discouraging and preventing yeast proliferation.


Don’t get caught short when your garden harvest is in full swing, or you get a great deal on produce. Order your Fermentools 12-pack today and be ready for a dozen heads of cabbage, or being able to ferment several different recipes at once.


Sarah Dalziel is passionate about DiY skills, knowledge, and self-sufficiency. She was homeschooled K-BSc, and enjoys questioning, researching, and writing about hands on skills and preparedness. Ethnobotany, natural dyes, and self-sufficiency fascinate her. If she isn’t writing about them, you’ll find her dipping yarn into a steaming dye pot, or stirring up a batch of woad pigmented soap. Sarah blogs at, a natural dye and fiber skills blog, and also at, an interdisciplinary skills and writing blog.

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