No Salt? Ferment Your Food Anyway!

Lemons fermenting in salt.

Preserving food using salt has been in practice for centuries now, and it plays a central role in fermenting foods. If you’ve been browsing the internet and looking for fermentation recipes, you’ll see how often the core ingredient is salt. However, using salt is not a necessity. How do you ferment foods without salt?

Some alternatives to salt are:

  • celery
  • whey
  • seaweed
  • probiotic capsules

Salt is mainly used for flavor and inhibiting harmful bacterial growth. If you ferment foods without salt, they might be sour-tasting and have unsafe bacteria, so caution is advised when fermenting without salt. 

NOTE: If you’re on a doctor’s mandated low-sodium diet, consult with them before adding sodium-rich or fermented foods to your diet.

Learn how to ferment foods without salt in a step-by-step process, along with:

  • alternatives
  • useful tips
  • why you might need to add a little bit of salt even if you want to skip it 

Is Salt Necessary for Fermentation? 

Salt is needed to ferment vegetables as it slows down the fermentation process and enzyme activities. In lacto-fermentation, the lactobacillus bacteria (a beneficial preservative), convert lactose and other glucose into lactic acid. 

This organism creates an acidic environment that gives the good bacteria an upper hand and overwhelms the bad bacteria. Additionally, pectins make vegetables crispy, and salt will harden them

Slowing the fermentation process down is especially advantageous in a hot climate, or if you can’t refrigerate the fermented food. As salt is a flavor enhancer, it will also make the fermented food taste much better!

Using a brine solution, which is simply a saltwater solution, will preserve food for a prolonged period. Salt inhibits undesirable fungi and other microorganisms that are naturally present in foods. During fermentation, it will also draw out water from the vegetable’s plant tissues. 

TIP: Read my article about the 5 best salts to use in a brine solution here!

Salt also preserves the vitamin content and makes the food rich in nutrients.

For safe fermentation, salt is essential. 

Can You Ferment Food Without Salt?

Adding salt is not always essential when it comes to fermenting food. Some foods need less salt naturally, depending on the nature of the vegetable and culture type. Foods containing high doses of moisture will need less salt, comparatively than food that doesn’t retain much water

Cucumbers in jars with a lemon slice, garlic, dill, and liquid.
There are alternatives to fermenting without salt

Although salt inhibits bacteria, another option is to inoculate the vat with good bacteria and decide not to add salt. The good bacteria function in the same way as salt as it multiplies rapidly and crowds the bacteria out by decreasing the pH

In most cases, fermented food will be safe to consume if you don’t add salt, but the flavoring will be a little off and it will taste kind of sour. However, you might have to use a pinch of salt even if you feel like leaving it out altogether. 

There are plenty of alternatives and ways to ferment food without salt, and here are some necessary prerequisites to do so. 

#1: Fermenting in a Cold Environment

As I’ve mentioned before, salt inhibits the rate of fermentation and slows it down. To skip adding salt, you’ll have to consider fermenting in cooler weather to slow the fermentation process. 

An unheated room or a cold basement works best to ferment food at a slow rate and gives the tissue of the vegetable time to colonize with the good bacteria

#2: Using Starter Cultures

The natural rotting process is slowed by using salt so mold and other harmful bacteria won’t feed on the vegetables. The sodium will also absorb moisture and juices from it. If you add a starter culture, the good bacteria will multiply rapidly and perform the same function as salt

Liquid from a previous batch of fermented vegetables can function as the starter culture. Another option could also be whey from yogurt or cheese. Aside from enhancing the rapid crowding of the bacteria, the starter culture will also shift the pH in the ferment to an acidic level. 

NOTE: This step does not have an alternative if you’re using reduced salt or not using salt at all. Make sure to add a good starter culture.

#3: Using Vegetables with High Sodium

Some vegetables have higher amounts of sodium than others. For salt-reduced fermentation, use vegetables that have the necessary sodium levels to ensure a safe fermentation. 

Sea vegetables are rich in sodium and other minerals like:

  • magnesium
  • iron
  • iodine
  • phosphorus

Use these vegetables sparingly during fermentation. The sodium present in these vegetables is more straightforward to utilize than the ones that are typically fermented. 

Some examples of sodium-rich vegetables are:

  • celery
  • kelp
  • dulse
  • spinach
  • beets
  • carrots
  • Chinese cabbage
  • red and green cabbage
  • parsley
  • coriander

#4: Chop the Vegetables in Small Pieces

Chopping the vegetables into smaller pieces will expose more surface area to the bacteria. You can also use a kraut pounder (sold on Amazon) to make the leaves release more juice. 

Sometimes, adding salt can cause the ferment to fail because it is necessary to use just the right amount. You can’t use too much or too little, and the amount depends on several factors. 

The process of making a fermented dish without salt is not so different from the ones that do use salt. You’ll need to add these four steps to have a successful batch of the fermented dish and reduce salt. 

How to Make Kimchi Without Salt

Here’s a delicious traditional kimchi recipe without salt for you to have a basic understanding of how to ferment foods without salt. 

This dish uses celery and a starter culture instead of salt in regular kraut. It’s a spicy, sour, lemony, and fresh version of the conventional Korean cabbage kimchi. Going salt-free may be a bit riskier, so I recommend attempting this recipe in winter. Also, it’s best if you monitor the whole process

A half of a cabbage next to a bowl of kimchi on a wood cutting board.
Kimchi can be made without salt

No Salt Kimchi Ingredients

  1. Two cups of Chinese cabbage, sliced finely 
  2. Five peeled garlic cloves 
  3. One peeled and chopped onion 
  4. Five finely chopped celery stalks 
  5. Five peeled and coarsely grated carrots 
  6. Raw ginger, peeled and grated (2-inches) 
  7. Two finely chopped and seeded hot peppers 
  8. Daikon radish, peeled, and grated (4-inch)
  9. A bunch of finely chopped parsley 
  10. 11 grams of dried dulse 
  11. Half a cup of juice from a previously fermented batch 

No Salt Kimchi Recipe 

  1. First, wash and finely slice the cabbage and place it in a large non-metallic bowl. Add the other prepared vegetables and combine them in the bowl and mix until combined. 
  1. Put the vegetables inside a sanitized mason jar and press them with a kraut pounder to release all the juice. Once the juice rises to the top, place a cabbage leaf over the mixture to ensure that it’s not exposed to air. Then, secure and lock the lid. 
  1. The bacterial cultures will ensure the shift towards an acidic environment without the salt. The contents of the ferment should become more acidic and ready within five days. 
  1. After five to seven days, refrigerate the kimchi, which should have a more tangy flavor and be free of active bubbles. Kimchi will keep in the refrigerator for about a year without losing quality. 

Pros And Cons Of Fermenting Without Salt 

There are several pros of fermenting without salt. Fermented food adds depth to your diet, even without added salt. Too much salt can cause a risk of:

  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • headaches

Here are a few benefits of eating fermented foods without added salt:

Pros of Fermenting Without Salt

  1. Fermented foods boost the immune system and digestive systems. 
  2. Fermented food is an excellent addition to your diet. They are rich in probiotics and nutrients.
  3. Fermented foods taste great

Some experts don’t recommend eliminating salt in a ferment because many things can go wrong if it’s not done properly. Too little salt or no salt at all in a ferment has risks.

Here are the issues you might face if you don’t add any salt:

Cons of Fermenting Without Salt

  1. Harmful fungi, bad bacteria, and yeast that produces alcohol can breed.
  2. The probiotic effect can be lost, which is what protects the vegetables and makes the dish rich in nutrients. 
  3. It’s difficult to determine if the fermented dish is safe to consume.

HOT TIP: Avoid these outcomes by using alternatives to salt. The other options will provide a similar, if not identical, environment for developing lactic acid bacteria and still ensure the protective probiotics in the ferment. 

Alternatives to Salt for Fermenting Food 

If you don’t have salt in your home or avoid using it, fermenting is still an option with some of the alternatives mentioned in this section. While it’s difficult to guarantee success with salt alternatives, these three should work to make a ferment that is safe to consume

Chopped up celery on a wood plate, some full celery stalks, and a cup of green celery juice.
Use celery or celery juice as a salt alternative

#1: Celery for Fermenting

Celery is an excellent alternative to salt. It’s naturally rich in sodium, with 80 mg of sodium per 100 grams. 

Finely chop the celery and add five stalks to every quart of other vegetables. If you are more comfortable with using celery juice, use five stalks to make it and add to the fermenting vegetables

#2: Seaweed as a Salt Alternative

Seaweed is the second alternative to salt with high sodium doses. Some types of seaweed to use are:

  • dulse
  • kelp
  • bladderwrack

Dry the seaweed before using it to ferment. Dried kelp and dulse contain 4,457 mg and 1,743 mg of sodium per 100 grams. 

Add a half cup of dried seaweed to the fermenting vegetables. These ingredients will contribute sodium and other minerals necessary for nourishing good bacteria and reducing the growth of undesirable ones. You can get seaweed at your local herb store

#3: Whey Instead of Salt to Ferment

As whey is a dairy-based product, it may not work for everyone, but it is undoubtedly an excellent salt alternative. Add half a cup of whey from cheese, or strain yogurt to make yogurt cheese and reserve the whey.

The whey will crowd out the harmful bacteria and inoculate the vegetables in your fermented dish with beneficial Lacto bacteria. Make sure that the whey is fresh and properly strained.

#4: Probiotic Capsules for Fermenting

I’ve already mentioned how salt ensures the presence of protective probiotics in fermented food which has health benefits. You can also ensure this effect with the use of probiotic capsules

To use this alternative, you will have to add three probiotic supplement capsule contents to every quart of vegetables in the preparation stage. The tablets will inoculate the vat.

#5: Dried Yogurt Culture as a Salt Alternative

If you’re familiar with making yogurt at home, you know already that you’ll need to begin with a starter culture. You can use this very culture to protect the fermented vegetables

You’ll need to mix half a teaspoon of culture with half a cup of water and mix this solution in every quart of fragmented veggies. Another option is to use a half cup of liquid from a successful batch of fermented vegetables. 

#6: Other Fermented Liquids

You can use water kefir or kombucha as a starter culture for fermenting foods. Make sure that these ingredients are unflavored and finished. About ¼ cup of liquid should do a good job inoculating the vegetables for fermenting.   

#7: Freeze-Dried Culture

Some freeze-dried cultures are appropriate to use without the addition of salt. For the best results using this alternative, make sure to follow the instructions thoroughly. Also, make sure to choose the best quality freeze-dried culture (I like this one from Amazon). 

Some Useful Tips On Using Salt Alternatives 

There’s almost always room for substitution in a recipe, no matter what the fermentation recipe demands. Here are a few pointers to successfully make these substitutions:

  1. Use a starter culture from a previous ferment. Whey, water kefir, or brine can be used interchangeably in a new ferment.  
  2. To use pre-packaged culture, substitute the salt. Every quart of fermented vegetables needs about a couple of teaspoons of salt or ¼ a cup of liquid starter
  3. Fruit, salsa, condiments, and chutney don’t require as much salt as some vegetables, so they can be made without salt or with an alternative to salt
Kefir in a glass on a wood surface, a wooden spoon is resting on top of the glass with kefir grains in it.
Use kefir as a starter culture for a new ferment

Is It Safe to Ferment Without Salt? 

If you’re not using salt, you’ll need to use a starter culture to ferment food. It is possible to ferment without salt, but experts don’t recommend it as there’s a chance that harmful bacteria may not die without the salt

Foods fermented without salt might not taste as delicious either. The cultures and other salt alternatives may successfully eliminate the harmful bacteria but can’t compensate for the taste of the ferment

If you try fermenting food without salt, don’t skip any of the prerequisites as each method is important for food safety.  


If you want to prepare a fermented dish without salt, start small. Experiment with the flavors and see what you like about the salt-free fermented dish. Fermented food without salt is excellent for those on a low-sodium diet but still want probiotic benefits

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