Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Reclaiming The Old Ways: Fermentation Expert Sandor Katz

With his new book, Sandor Katz hopes to empower people to reclaim the ancient processes of fermentation.

sandor katz and art of fermentation

Photo: sean.minteh (Flickr)

"Fermentation revivalist" Sandor Katz initially started preserving food because his garden was producing too much cabbage all at once. He decided to learn how to make sauerkraut.

Sandor Katz eats savory vegetable sour dough pancakes almost every day, and he regularly makes sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir. He says eating and preparing fermented foods has become a staple of his life. “At certain times my kitchen looks like a mad scientist zone.”

His new book The Art Of Fermentation is a massive tome that could seem overwhelming to a novice, but he stresses that the basic process of fermentation is really very simple.

“My mission in fermentation revival is to empower people with tools to reclaim these ancient processes that our ancestors have been doing forever,” he says.

Earth Eats spoke with Sandor Katz from his home in rural Tennessee.

It All Started With A Garden:

“When I moved from New York to Tennessee and got involved in keeping a garden. Suddenly all of the cabbage was ready at once and that was a little bit of a surprise to me. So, I decided to figure out how to make sauerkraut.

There are always seasonal overabundances of certain things, and then there are always seasons where there’s very little food available. So, fermentation developed as survival strategies depending on what was abundant.”

Advice For First Timers:

“The realm of fermentation that I think makes the most sense for most people who are wanting to explore this for the first time in their kitchens is fermenting vegetables. It’s incredibly simple:

  1. All you do is take some vegetables, chop them up, shred them.
  2. Salt them lightly to taste.
  3. Spend a few minutes in a big bowl with your hands just squeezing them, bruising the vegetables and they’ll start to get really wet.
  4. Once the vegetables are nice and wet, stuff them into a jar. Press really hard so they’re submerged under their own juices.
  5. Then ferment them for a few days or a few weeks.

It’s an incredibly versatile process, and it is intrinsically safe. There is no safer food. There has never been a case of food poisoning reported in the U.S. from fermented vegetables. There are very few foods you could say that about.”

New Flavors: Acarajé

“One of my new favorites that I learned about in the course of working on The Art Of Fermentation is called acarajé. It’s an Afro-Brazilian ferment of black-eyed peas:

  1. Try to remove the hulls of the peas as much as possible. I do that manually by rubbing them with my hands and fingers after they’ve soaked.
  2. Soak black-eyed peas.
  3. Blend the black-eyed peas into a batter. I let that batter ferment for a couple of days.
  4. Then I use a whisk and I beat it. Just like other kinds of proteinaceous things — whether we’re talking about cream or egg whites — the beating stiffens it.
  5. This stiffened black-eyed pea fermented dough is typically deep-fried in Brazil. I pan-fry it and made little pancake fritters out of them.

This really illustrates how most ferments are actually extremely simple. The act of adding water is what initiates the fermentation because microorganisms are present, but they are latent as long as it’s dry. All life requires water. As soon as you add water, it initiates this microbial process that transforms the food.”

From Gourmet to Everyday:

“If you walk into a gourmet food store and look around and think about the nature of the foods that you see there, almost all of the foods we elevate to that gourmet status are products of fermentation.

If you ask people what they had for breakfast, I would bet 75 percent of them had something that’s fermented — if they had bread, cheese, coffee, they started their day with some product of fermentation.”

Fear Not, Fermentation Rookie:

“There’s a lot of fear of microorganisms that many people in our culture share. They wonder, ‘How do I know I’m going to get the right bacteria growing? How do I know I’m not going to make my family sick?’ I like to remind people that these are ancient rituals that our ancestors have been doing forever without insights into microbiology, without microscopes, without thermometers and really we don’t need a lot of training or expertise or special equipment.

With a little bit of information and tools that are already in our kitchens, we can do a lot of this ourselves.”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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