Do Cultured Veggies Need a Starter?
Many fermentations need a starter culture. Starter cultures are in essence small colonies of the microbes which are needed to work on the food and ferment it. Sometimes starters take the form of a sort of a ‘plant’ such as a kombucha SCOBY or a MOV (mother of vinegar) where the microbes house themselves in a cellulose structure which grows.
Do You Need a Starter for Cultured Vegetables – Yes & No
Seeing as cultured vegetables need microbes and bacteria just like any other ferment, it is logical to assume that they too might need a starter.
In this aspect cultured vegetables – and vegetables in general – are quite special. While you can incorporate a starter in order to guarantee a good level of fermentation, or to up the probiotic diversity of your culturing vegetables – it is usually quite possible to also omit to add any starter. Let’s have a look why.
Why Cultured Vegetables do Not Always Need a Starter
Guess what each of the following have in common: The lining of our GI tracts, the surface of vegetables and pickles. Lactic acid bacteria! The same probiotic lactic acid bacteria which keep guts healthy and keep out invasive bacteria, and which are responsible for fermentation, also occur naturally on the surface on plants and vegetables!
If this layer of lactic acid bacteria on the vegetables surfaces is still strong when it comes to chopping, bottling and fermenting, this means that the vegetables will be coming with their own automatic starter bacteria. This is the reason why it is more than possible to do a vegetable ferment without using any starter.
When are Starters Necessary
There are however circumstances where these naturally occurring bacteria have been compromised. Many of the vegetables available in grocery stores have been washed with detergents, gassed, undergone a period of time in cold storage and/or been subjected to modified atmosphere packaging – a process where fruits and vegetables are sprayed with a thin layer of a substances which dries and is invisible, but stops oxygen being able to reach the surface of the food. Pesticides can also have a detrimental effect on the bacteria coating of plants.
Therefore unless you are buying organic veg, it is unlikely that you will be getting the full complement of bacteria which is usually present on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables, and therefore might need a microbial boost in the form of some starter to get your ferment going.
Adding Starter for Probiotic Reasons.
Sometimes it might be important to incorporate a starter into your ferments to guarantee that they are successful. However, even if you are using organic vegetables with their full bacterial potential, you might still wish to use a starter for probiotic reasons.
If you are interested in making your cultured vegetables the meanest probiotic there is on the block – then adding an injection of the bacteria you wish to make sure are present is a good plan. In this situation the best thing to use is a purchased vegetable starter, as they will have the bacterial strains which are present printed on the box. You can even use a mix from two or more different brands to achieve an even greater diversity of probiotic bacteria in your cultured vegetables.
Different Ways to Add in Starter to Your Veggies
Adding starter to vegetable ferments can be done in a few ways. The aim of the game is to make sure that there are adequate numbers of active bacteria present at the beginning of the fermentation to ensure that it cultures properly. The other, as mentioned above is to make double sure that you have as many different strains of beneficial bacteria present as possible to make the ferment an extra potent source of probiotics.
Liquid from a Previous Vegetable Ferment
If you are able to get hold of cultured vegetables from a fermentation friend (even if it is just the dregs) you can use liquid from this as starter for a new batch of fermented vegetables. The liquid from the new one can then once again be used for the next and so on.
Packaged Vegetable Starter Culture
Packaged vegetable starter cultures are available online and are great in the fact that they give very consistent results, and you know what probiotic bacteria you will be getting! While most of the brands only contain roughly four or so different species of lactic acid bacteria (as opposed to the almost 30 different types which are common to lactic acid ferments), they are the prominent and well known species used for fermentations and probiotics.
Liquid from Another Lactic Acid Ferment
If you have some other lactic acid ferments going on, you can always use some liquid from one of these to inject your vegetable ferment with some additional LAB’s. Here are some good options:
- Unflavored water kefir
- Kefir whey (the opaque liquid which collects on the top)
- Yoghurt whey (must be live active yogurt for it to work)
- Kombucha (plain & unflavored, from the first ferment or from SCOBY hotel),
When adding any of these to a vegetable ferment, be aware that you do not need a lot. A small amount will do just fine if it is active. You do not want to ferment your vegetables in pure kombucha or whey. You are welcome to try it of course – and might come up with the trendiest ferment yet – but for the purpose purely of started liquid, you only need a tablespoon or two.
Vegetables, and fruits for that matter too, do have the propensity and bacterial makeup present to be able to ferment themselves. However, if you are trying to culture vegetables which are not 100% organic, then it might be best to add in a form of starter. Whether you use the juice from a previous ferment, liquid from another LAB fermentation, or a purchased starter, you will be increasing the chances of successful and vigorous fermentation.
Not only do higher levels and diversity of bacteria guarantee good fermentation, but also increased potential probiotic benefits – one of the nutritional aspects which makes fermented vegetables so good for us.
If you are interested in the different species of bacteria known to occur in fermented vegetable products and what their benefits are, check out What’s in Fermented Vegetables.