The fermenting process has been used to preserve food for centuries, and, as people become more interested in knowing what goes into their food, is becoming an increasingly popular method used by home cooks. We asked fermentation expert Sandor Katz, author of the book The Art of Fermentation, about his tips and techniques, favorite foods and what every home cook should know to get started. Read on to find out more.
What are the benefits of making sauerkraut at home, as opposed to buying a jar of sauerkraut? Why should a home cook make the effort?
As with any food, the krauts you can make yourself are much more delicious than most of what you can buy, and you can be wildly inventive, varying and combining vegetables and seasonings, as well as other ingredients such as fruits or fish. But really, the most compelling reason to make your own kraut is to start cultivating bacteria in your life, and eating them regularly, in order to support good health.
What are some tips and techniques that you can recommend for home cooks interested in making their own fermented food stuffs?
Most importantly, do not be afraid. Fermentation is not difficult or dangerous. Growing up in the midst of the War on Bacteria, many of us worry that we will not know whether the bacteria we get growing are the right ones, but we need not worry. In general, the practice of fermentation involves subtle manipulations of environmental conditions to encourage the growth of certain bacteria while simultaneously discouraging others. Make sure you understand the conditions you are trying to create, create them as best you can, and don’t worry.
What inspired you to write The Art of Fermentation?
My explorations of fermentation have taken me on a long journey. I spent ten years experimenting, reading, and otherwise indulging my obsession leading up to the publication of my earlier book on fermentation, Wild Fermentation, in 2003. Since that time, my education has been enhanced considerably by the opportunity to teach, talk to, and correspond with literally thousands of people interested in fermentation. There is a huge hunger for this vital cultural information. The people I have communicated with have told me their stories, asked me questions that caused me to research in order to answer them, and sometimes shared tastes of their ferments. I also continued reading, and began to educate myself in microbiology and the role of bacteria in our guts. A few years ago, I realized that it was time to write a more in-depth book to share my deepening understandings and broader experience with the many people reviving the fermentation arts.
Were there any things about fermentation that surprised you as you were writing your book?
When I first started teaching about fermentation, I was struck by how much fear there is. Then, in writing The Art of Fermentation, it surprised me that the USDA microbiologist who is the government’s top expert in pickles and sauerkraut stated emphatically that there never has been a case of food poisoning reported in this country from fermented vegetables. Fermenting vegetables is intrinsically safe, as are most realms of fermentation, as long as you effectively maintain the environmental conditions you are trying to create.
What is the most common misconception about home fermenting, and fermentation in general?
That it is dangerous.
What are your favorite fermented foods? What is your favorite thing to make at home?
I love sauerkraut, pickles, and all the many variations on fermented vegetables. I also love to eat savory sourdough-vegetable-cheese pancakes. I also love yogurt, and kefir. I also love miso. I make all these foods, and wines, and sorghum beer, and mauby, and kvass, and an ever-changing rotation of different ferments regularly at home and with students in my workshops.
Are you seeing an increase in home cooks fermenting their own food? Why did the practice lose popularity to begin with? If it is becoming more popular, why do you think that is?
There is definitely a growing interest in fermentation. People get interested for different reasons: the do-it-yourself spirit applied to favorite foods; desire for probiotic live-culture foods or other nutritional quests; preserving the harvest; trying to eat locally through the winter. Fermented foods are as popular as ever. Think bread, cheese, beer, wine, salami, yogurt, coffee, chocolate, vinegar, soy sauce. By some estimates, as much as one-third of all food that humans consume has been subjected to fermentation. But over the past several generations, fermentation has been industrialized and increasingly removed from community and household production. Fermentation is not unique in this regard. As food production has become increasingly more specialized and globalized, people have been severed from the sources of our food, and with it many vital cultural practices that evolved with it, such as growing food, harvesting it, saving seeds, preserving the harvest, and seasonal foodways. More and more people are practicing all of these things (or trying to figure out how to, since most of us did not grow up around these practices).
These and most ferments are quite simple and can be done using jars, bowls, and other vessels you already have in your kitchen. That said, a beautiful ceramic crock is a joy to work with. I have also come to love working with a small kitchen scale for ferments where i’m aiming for specific salt proportions. And I use thermometers all the time.