Posted on August 24, 2011 - by

The Revolution Tastes Like Sauerkraut

Reviving Cultured Foods

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It all started with a pickle.

It was a sour New York pickle, to be precise, and what started was Sandor Katz’s obsession with fermented foods.

“It’s a flavor I’ve always been drawn to,” said Katz, a self-described “fermentation revivalist” and the author of the books Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. While most of the pickles that are available in grocery stores today are preserved in vinegar, the pickles of Katz’s childhood were fermented in brine, lending them the tangy flavor associated with fermented foods.

If the mere suggestion of fermentation, not to mention its taste, makes you queasy, consider this: you probably ate a fermented food for breakfast. Bread, cheese, yogurt, and coffee are just a few of the staples for which we have fermentation to thank. According to Katz, as much as one-third of food eaten worldwide is subjected to some kind of enriching microbiotic transformation.

“I’ve tried, and have not found, a tradition or culture that doesn’t include fermentation,” said Katz. “People might not have thought about fermentation, but no one is unfamiliar with fermented foods.”

Getting more familiar doesn’t only provide fodder for cocktail party conversation. It’s also a way of improving intestinal health and supporting alternative food systems, and of reclaiming a process that lies at the heart of many culinary traditions.

We’re trained to think of microbes as the enemy—evasive killers that must be boiled, steamed, fried, or otherwise driven out of the kitchen. “One of the triumphs of microbiology in the twentieth century was identifying pathogenic organisms,” Katz told me. “But now in the popular imagination, bacteria equal disease.”

Much more than disease, bacteria are essential to human existence. They are the most basic building blocks of life, and our bodies teem with them. More than a thousand species live in our stomach, intestines, mouths, and skin, but only fifty of those are known to be harmful. As Katz put it, “All life exists in a bacterial context.”

So do all cultures. Katz noted that the word culture is itself related to fermented or “cultured” foods. Farming—the cultivation of seed—and preserving the harvest through fermentation are at the core of modern ways of life. “Humans could never have made the transition to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle without insight into fermentation as a form of food storage,” said Katz. Since the microbial transformation of food is inevitable—often as rot—humans had to find a way to deal with it. And what ways they found. Culinary achievements like wine, cheese, miso, chocolate, and kimchi are all part of the legacy.

But the bacteria so fundamental to our biological and cultural existence are under constant assault thanks to an industrial food system that emphasizes processed foods, and the pervasive use of antibiotics, chlorine, preservatives, and antibacterial cleansing products. Several studies suggest that our immune and digestive systems pay the price for the latter. While a sterile environment is essential for open-heart surgery, depriving our immune systems of opportunities to develop antibodies makes us weaker over a lifetime.

Accordingly, Katz told me, it’s become important to replenish and diversify the bacteria in our gut. The easiest and most delicious way to do so is by consuming live fermented foods. Live cultures (unlike cooked fermented foods like bread, or pasteurized commercial products) contain beneficial Lactobacillus acidophilus, which produces lactic acid, a natural preservative, and a tender texture and complex flavor.

For those looking for a way into the healthy and delicious world of fermentation, Katz recommends brining any favorite vegetable. Sauerkraut was Katz’s “gateway ferment.” He made his first batch after he’d moved to rural Tennessee and planted a garden, to solve the practical problem of having too much fresh cabbage. Many years later Katz still bears the nickname ‘Sandorkraut.’

His “totally straightforward” instructions are to “chop up some veggies, salt them lightly to taste, squeeze or pound them and then stuff them into jar or crock so they’re submerged under liquid. Let them sit for two weeks, or months, or years.” Other easy ferments include mead (honey wine), yogurt and kefir, and sour-tonic beverages. “It really depends on what you like to eat,” said Katz. “You can ferment anything.”

When I asked Katz about the safety of home fermentation, he replied that fermented vegetables are really the safest kind. “There is a pervasive fear in our culture in aging food outside the refrigerator,” he said. “But according to USDA’s microbiologist, there has never been a case of food poisoning in the U.S. related to fermented vegetables. If you were to take vegetables that had been contaminated by factory farm uphill, and fermented them, the lactic bacteria would rapidly overpower pathogenic bacteria.”

The strength of fermented food doesn’t just lie in its biological capacities. “Fermentation challenges the notion that food is just another commodity that can be produced in far-away places,” said Katz. Part of  bucking the corporate system and re-localizing food is also reclaiming the processes that are essential to preserving fresh produce and enjoying its complexities.

“Empowered” is the word Katz used repeatedly , and I understood him to mean it on physiological and personal terms. And isn’t that really what it means to be fed, or nourished? We should receive nothing less from our food.

Here a few tips to get you started:

  • Make sure your vegetables are submerged in liquid—this prevents mold growth and is the difference between rotten vegetables and fermented ones. Usually the liquid is salty water (brine), but you can use plain water, wine or whey too.
  • Play with chopping your vegetables or leaving them whole. If shredded, simply salting the vegetables will typically pull enough juice out via osmosis, so adding water isn’t necessary. Whole vegetables require brine.
  • Traditionally, vegetables were fermented with lots of salt to preserve them for longer periods of time. However, less salt can be better for flavor and nutrition. Salt lightly, to taste—there’s no magic proportion. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of vegetables.
  • Use a heavy cylindrical ceramic crock, if you can. Glass containers also work well, but avoid plastic and metal, as they can leach chemicals or be corroded by the fermentation. Pack your vegetables at the bottom and submerge them with a weighted plate or jug.
  • If mold develops on the surface of the liquid, scrape it off as best you can; it will not hurt the vegetables underneath.
  • Taste your ferments early and often to find out what you prefer. Longer fermentation and warm temperatures mean tangier flavor.
  • Nearly any vegetable can be fermented—be bold! Seaweeds and fruits can be fantastic, and spices play a big role in giving kimchi and sauerkraut their distinctive flavors.

For more detailed information and recipes, check out Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation website and his books.

Photos from Flickr: little blue hen

zoe@freshthemovie.com

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6 Comments

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    August 26, 2011

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    Mark Mauboules said:

    This is something I have always been curious about. I took a ceramics course recently and another student made her own sauerkraut container. When I asked her about fermentation, she basically shared some of the same advice. Your article validates her claims. Thanks for Sandor Katz’s link. I will try this very soon!



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    August 26, 2011

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    Barbara Talbert said:

    Half-sour, or as you call them New York deli pickles are wonderful. I make them myself and add some pickling spices with the salt. Why didn’t it occur to me that other veggies might be good this way? Thank you for the suggestions.



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    August 26, 2011

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    Laurie said:

    Love these foods, I often crave a pickle, or really good organic olives. Thanks for the recipes!



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    August 26, 2011

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    Keith said:

    Glad you’ve got Sandor in your circle of friends. He’s frankly fizzing with fermentation facts and folklore. If he has a workshop in your area, you’re in for a treat!



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    August 27, 2011

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    Wendy Weiner said:

    I started fermenting last summer. I’ve been an avid canner for many years so this was a stretch for me to understand and embrace the benifits of lacto-fermenting….. and now I’m sold.
    One of the things I like to ferment is a hot sauce.
    This year its got; hot peppers, onions, carrots, garlic and tomatillos!
    Now I just need a root cellar to store my goods!



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    August 27, 2011

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    Rick Boothe said:

    Thanks for providing so much great information, that’s hard to come by . . .
    I don’t personally have any experience with fermenting foods, but I love them, and look forward to trying this out.