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Sorry for the punny title. I couldn’t resist.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve probably noticed quite a change in my fermenting style over the last few months thanks to a few different people who have been nudging me to do more research on fermentation. One of the big things you’ll notice is that I no longer include a starter culture in my list of ingredients, particularly whey or brine from another ferment.
Now don’t get me wrong, whey is still an awesome nutritious food that we should still incorporate in our diet. For more information on why we should and how we can use it, check out this great blog post from Lydia at Divine Health: The Many Benefits of Whey. I just don’t use it in my ferments anymore. And your better off drinking your brine or using one of my idea from this post Got Pickle Juice?
Here is why I don’t use whey anymore:
Fermentation goes through 4 different stages and adding whey or brine makes it skip steps. The first stage in fermentation is where the oxygen is used up (and if you have a good anaerobic vessel like the Pickl-it jar, no new oxygen will get in) and the pH begins to drop. This is the first 2-3 days. Adding whey drops the pH right away rather than letting the lactic acid bacteria (LABs) do their work. Using brine from another ferment introduces bacteria that aren’t supposed to show up until the end of a ferment and that just messes things up. You can read about the stages of fermentation here: What is the step-by-step process of microbial lactofermentation?
The LABs present in whey obtained from yogurt or cheese making are entirely different than what would naturally form during fermentation. Kelsy at Liberated Kitchen, goes through the difference between LABs in a dairy ferment as opposed to a vegetable ferment in her post Why I don’t Use Whey as a Vegetable Starter. Completely different. The bacteria that eat up the sugars in milk are not the same as those that eat the sugar and starches in vegetables.
Well, I guess this is just a matter of what you know. I thought my ferments tasted good when I used whey but now that I’ve had batch after batch of anaerobically fermented veggies with no whey, I didn’t know what I was missing. My ferments are crisper, have a much better texture and just plain taste better. I used to think beet kvass was gross but it’s just beet kvass made with whey that I don’t like. It tastes so much better sans the whey. I’ve heard the same from many. Kids and picky eaters are more likely to enjoy ferments if they are done without whey.
The use of whey in fermentation is not a traditional practice. It’s only a very recent practice. Because it is recent, it hasn’t been proven with the test of time. Maybe they didn’t use whey for some of the same reasons I don’t.
ETA: I stand corrected. Jenny from Nourished Kitchen informed me that whey fermentation was used in some Norsk cultures for some vegetable and fish fermentation. How could I miss my own ancestry! Too bad none of my older relatives from the old country are alive for me to pick their ears. It would be interesting to find out if my great-grandmother did this. It would be more accurate for me to say whey fermentation was not a common method of preservation for the vast majority of traditional cultures.
So you are probably wondering why people started using whey in the first place. If you are using an open system that lets air in, whey was supposed to jump start the fermentation process by adding more LABs and lowering the pH to avoid mold problems or the wrong bacteria from taking hold. If you have a truly airtight environment (Pickl-it or Harsch), there is no need to jump start the process. You can let fermentation happen as it should. It was also recommended that if you leave the whey out, you should add more salt. But what happens when you add too much salt is nothing, including LABs, can survive. That’s more of a salt cure than fermentation.
Now I will note, there are occasions where I do think using a vegetable starter culture like Caldwell’s is a good idea. I use it when the food that I’m fermenting has been cooked or comes from a can like ketchup or hummus. Another time might be when I make a lactofermented beverage like lactofermented lemonade and I don’t want to use water kefir or kombucha as the base.
Whey is still a great nutritious food, I just don’t use it for fermentation. Add some to your smoothie, not your pickles.