No Whey? No way!

Yeah, way.

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:

Skipped Steps

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?

Wrong Buggies!

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.

Taste, blech!

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.

Not Traditional

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.

**This post may contain affiliate links. Purchasing from these links helps support Pickle Me Too, allowing me to post and store all of my free recipes. Thank you!**

48 comments to No Whey? No way!

  • Thanks for the most helpful explanation! Okay, no whey!

  • Hear, hear! Thanks for explaining that more thoroughly – I’ll be sure to link up to this post in my post!

  • Alisha

    This is fascinating! So, if I as not using a super airtight environment, would you suggest I use the whey?

    • Melanie

      Well, I would be much more inclined to suggest you make the switch to an anaerobic vessel 🙂 Once you try it, you’ll never go back.

  • […] Out about why whey should be consumed regularly. You can also see why Melanie, from Pickle Me Too, has decided to stop using whey as a ferment starter as well. The following tutorial is still great though, because many people […]

  • Actually, the use of whey in vegetable ferments IS a traditional practice, particularly in dairying cultures of northern Europe where whey drawn from yogurts and wild clabbers like tette milk to help start pickled vegetables and, sometimes, pickled fish dishes.

    I don’t use whey in my vegetable ferments (it’s a good start for fruit chutneys which can taste alcoholic or yeasty if you don’t use a starter), because I don’t like the end flavor or texture and vegetable ferments don’t typically benefit from starter culture – except in cases where there’s a clear need to culture specific beneficial bacteria as part of a healing protocol, in which case, it’d be better to opt for a probiotic capsule or commercial starter where you know which bacteria you’re getting, but to say the use of whey isn’t “traditional” is not entirely accurate. It IS a traditional approach, at least in some areas.

    • Melanie

      Thanks Jenny! I was not aware of that.

      • It’s pretty neat, right? It makes sense, though, for dairying peoples not to let anything go to waste.

        Regardless, I’m prefer the flavor of wild fermented vegetables. Can’t be beat!

        • Melanie

          I think we can all agree that fermentation and its history is simply fascinating. Love it! As someone who dabbles in cheese making, I can see a culture wanting to use it as much as possible. I’m actually a little sad that I lost one of its uses. Luckily my chickens love it 🙂

          Maybe it would be better to say whey has never been a standard ingredient in fermentation for the vast majority of cultures.

          I’ve yet to meet someone who prefers a whey ferment to a wild ferment.

  • […] P.S. If you’re at all interested in fermenting, you simply must buy Wild Fermentation. And, if you need another fantastic blog to follow, then I highly recommend the Liberated Kitchen, home to a couple of lovely ladies – Joy and Kelsey. For a fantastic article about the nutrition of whey and why we should still consume it, even if we don’t start our ferments with it, read this post from Divine Health: “The Many Benefits of Whey“. Plus, I’m not alone in my journey of not using whey for a started. Melanie, from the Pickle Me Too blog, has stopped as well. […]

  • Jenny,

    Do you have sources for that info.?

    • Yes, I do. I have a few old (19th century recipe journals) that call for vegetable fermentation using whey. I also believe the Time Life series on world foods (published in the 60s and 70s) addressed it in passing. Further, in my research on fermented foods, I’ve spoken to several people in their 80s and 90s that recall their grandparents using fermentation. Mostly they describe wild fermentation, but occasionally someone of Scandinavian descent will describe the use of whey in pickling vegetables. It was not only used for vegetables, particularly root vegetables, but also meat and fish. Remember, these people were dairying people and made lots of cultured and wild fermented dairy foods, as a result they had a lot of whey and nothing went to waste.

      The implication that it’s not “traditional” is inaccurate; however, I’d fully agree with Melanie that wild fermentation is the preferable method for fermenting vegetables. The results are better, and the flavors more complex.

      Lydia, Do you have sources indicating that whey was never traditionally used in vegetable fermentation?

      • Not sure I have any sources indication it was ‘never’ used traditionally Jenny!

        My concern is more of whether it creates an optimal ferment, not whether it was traditional or not. If adding whey causes a ferment to drop pH too quickly and skip stages, how is that optimal. I don’t recommend it’s use, especially to my clients who are healing their gut. To me, it’s more worth it to invest in appropriate vessels it avoids so many possible issues. It’s likely that traditional people had healthier guts than we do today -so I find that we need to be more concerned with method.

  • Nordic countries did use whey in some limited ferments at certain times of the year. It is referenced in NT- the book quotes by Annelies Schoneck in the sidebars. However the original source isn’t in English and I can’t find any full and complete translations of it to English that are available for purchase.

    To extrapolate the limited use of whey in one culture into using whey into all ferments all of the time is a poor choice for a multitude of reasons. I agree with Melanie. I prefer to avoid whey whenever possible due to the flavor, foreign bacteria it introduces and the poor texture and storage time it gives, especially when used in combination with non-anaerobic methods. But when you use a truly anaerobic method, you don’t have to worry about your ferments going off, anyway, since it’s a rare problem. So it’s just best to skip the whey. Fruit ferments don’t go funky and need the whey when they’re made anaerobically.

  • BM

    I am new to fermentaion and started because I want to get more probiotics in my diet. In my research I came across articles stating that cultures that used salt fermentation on a regular basis had high rates of cancer. Have you read anything about this and what do you think? I thought it was really good for you.

    • Melanie

      That sounds very interesting. Can you point me to the articles? I have not anything concerning that. And curious, by salt fermentation, do you mean salt curing (using salt peter or sodium nitrate) or fermentation using salt. I have heard of a study that linked sodium nitrate to cancer but from what I understand, the study was actually inconclusive.

  • Leah

    This is SO interesting! I have always wondered why you would put bacteria that are used to ferment dairy into a vegi ferment. I mean, I have done it, but is gave me question! Great post 🙂

  • Leah

    I had also not considered that you are skipping steps by adding a starter. Very cool post. And I was so inspired, that I now have my very own truly anaerobic fermenting vessel, that I made myself 🙂

  • Sarah M

    Hi, Everyone! Here’s a link to an Icelandic history site. It says that whey was used for fermenting, but it was the fermenting medium used when there wasn’t an abundance of salt. So it was being used in place of a salt brine, not in addition to one. I agree with Jenny that there is a traditional use for whey in fermenting, but that it is not like the method being used today.

    “Pickling was one of the most used preservation methods in Iceland almost from the Settlement, as salt was always lacking, and the liquid used for pickling was fermented whey. Icelanders were by no means the only ones who preserved their food by pickling but long-term preservation in whey is not known to have been widely practised elsewhere. Whey accumulated as a by-product of skyr-making during the summer (skyr: curds, made from ewes or cows milk, a mainstay of Icelandic diet through the centuries) and was kept in barrels, where a fermentation process began. It was then called syra. Syra was either diluted with water and drunk, or used for the preservation of food. Many kinds of food were preserved in this manner, such as blood sausage, liver sausage, lundabaggar (a kind of Icelandic version of faggots), sheep´s heads, lamb´s testicles, fatty meat, whale meat and blubber, seal flippers and many other things. Dried or hard stuff, otherwise quite inedible, for example bones and dried fish skin, were sometimes kept for a long time in syra, until they softened. Food keeps very well in a strong syra and loses relatively little of its nourishment value, but this method has a great effect on the taste of the food. If a barrel was to be kept undisturbed for many months, some mutton fat was usually rendered and poured over the surface to seal it, but if the barrel was in constant use, it was simply closed with a wooden lid. If the surface wasn´t either sealed or disturbed daily, a mold might start to grow.”

  • […] No Whey? No way! – Not using whey as a starter for fermentation? I’m intrigued! And maybe this will give me an excuse to finally get the Pickl-It jars I’ve been wanting. […]

  • zaidi


    Is it possible to ferment a fish without whey?

    I have found the recipes of pickled fish with only whey.

    Please, it is important for me to get the answer as Herring fish and mackerel is helping me a lot against my disease.

    • Melanie

      Fish is on my list to tackle this winter. This is actually one place where the use of whey is traditional though there are other methods. I throw you a few links later today (or tomorrow).

      • zaidi

        Thanks Melanie.
        I am waiting for the information in form of links.
        In Germnay, I also found a thing called “Salz Hering” (i.e. Salt Herring). But there was a lot of salt in it and it didn’t become normal even after keeping it in water for 24 hours. Secondly, fish was very hard to eat.

        I am mainly eating “Bismarck Herring” (i.e. Herring in vinegar). But there is still too much vinegar in it and I could not tolerate it. Some times I put it into milk, and it does help a little. Is there any way to get rid of this extra vinegar?

  • zaidi

    Dear Melanie,
    Sorry to disturb you.
    But this is to tell you that I have been continuously visiting this page (some times several times a day).
    I am still patient, but please don’t forget me forever.

  • Melanie

    I’m sorry Zaidi, it’s been busy around here and I haven’t had a chance to look into it more yet. You should get an email alert when I reply so you shouldn’t need to check back for a reply. I was going to suggest you ask at the Pickl-it forum, but I see you already did.
    In the meantime, I plan on making it similar to this but leaving out the whey and using a 10% salt brine (89 gms of salt per quart of water) and of course in a Pickl-it jar. Pickling meat does take a lot of salt to be safe and soaking it in water before eating it helps some but it’s not going to taste like fresh fish ever.

  • Thank you so much for this post! I just stumbled upon it. The whole whey thing was just so confusing to me. My family has been fermenting for generations and we have never even heard of using whey.

  • […] Already Making | Food Renegade has some good info for making sauerkraut, as has this one No Whey? No way! – Pickle Me Too and here is how to make a great fermentation jar cheaply. Homemade fermentation jar for use […]

  • […] I read that ferments could also be started just with just water and salt, and that there were several arguments in favour of this method in terms of the types of bacteria created. I stalled and stalled, occasionally buying bottles of […]

  • Liane

    HI, really interesting!.. as I was just about to start vegetable ferments with whey and not salt….. The reason is to add this to the regine of curing candida and LGS but have been advised to avoid salt ferments… any ideas on that? Are you able to do vege ferments without salt? thanku.

  • […] using whey as an ingredient in your ferment. Here's a pretty good account of why not to use whey! No Whey? No way! – Pickle Me Too And I can very much recommend the Harsch fermenting crock […]

  • […] and salt and it turns out nice and tangy. I stopped using whey in ferments after reading this No Whey? No way! – Pickle Me Too Shall be making beet kvass with no whey next!!! Reply With […]

  • Carly

    I am new to fermenting. I was just getting ready to start. I had planned to use whey but would prefer the wild way. Can you tell me or post links to recipes for pickles and vegtables fermented without whey. I just bought a book but all the recipes use kefir whey or a starter.

  • Dorothy

    I was wondering if you had the recipe for the lemonade that you make with the culture. I also wonder if you could do it without an added culture. I’ve only seen versions online using whey and I am trying to stay away from whey for non-dairy ferments. Thank you.

  • matt


    just wondering if you can ferment hummus without whey?

    wild ferment sprouted beans, say?

    not from can, in other words.

    any experience with this?

    • I do have a recipe for fermented hummus. The chickpeas are cooked but the onions and herbs are not. Since the chickpeas are cooked, all the bacteria are dead from them but I think the onion has enough bacteria to get the ferment started and if you add a little Caldwell’s starter, you should be good. It worked great for me.

      I have not tried fermenting sprouted beans but if they are living and not from a can, no whey is needed.

  • mary lou

    2nd. reply not sure the first one went through.
    Is it possible to ferment cucumbers in whey started with vinegar to make cheese instead of a bacteria. We pour the vinegar into boiling goat milk and the solids separate from the liquid leaving whey. Would the recipe have to be altered?

  • David McBride

    I posted this on another site that links to yours:

    You had me scared for a minute because I love making whey and cream cheese from unpasteurized milk. I’ve only been doing it for about a month, but my ferments using whey have been amazing and FAST. One of my new favorites is beet kvass which is ready …

    Read More at © Delicious Obsessions

  • Russ

    Hi, I would like to know if you can use milk kefer grains to ferment whey into a fermented whey drink?

    Thanks, Russ

  • Gregor

    So in short when fermenting fish or veg it is best not to add a starter culture, as this short circuit the natural process. This was my intuition as I started to ferment fish today and didn’t want to add any pickle liquid from an onion ferment! Thanks. Is this right? Not even a starter pickle juice for fermenting fish or veg ?

  • […] beneficial bacteria.  All you have to do is add the salt.  Read more about why I do not use whey HERE. The main thing to know about making your own fermented foods is that it requires an anaerobic […]

  • Thanks for good insight. Tibetan normally hang raw meat in barn and it dries into delicious raw or cooked eating. Nothing goes wrong even after long time.
    Can meat and fish be fermented anaerobically with salt marination only.

    How can I make meat store eatable for long time in this . pls give me required information

  • Very gօod article. ӏ ϲertainly love tҺіs site. Keep it up!

  • Alessandra

    my home made hummus is fermenting by itself, it is still emitting gases… it’s it safe to eat?

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