Over the past two decades, Sandor Katz has been chipping away at misconceptions about fermentation, one jar of sauerkraut at a time.
After winning a James Beard Award for his 2012 book The Art of Fermentation, Sandor returned to the work that launched his career as a "fermentation revivialist": 2003's Wild Fermentation. (Newsweek even called it the fermentation bible.)
The updated and revised edition is a more accurate reflection of the recipes Sandor makes at home (like sourdough pancakes and fruit kvass) and the knowledge he's accrued by teaching workshops to eager students: He's reorganized the book so that it, too, functions like a course, building on key concepts as the chapters progress.
When he wrote Wild Fermentation, Sandor told me, "literally I had taught two sauerkraut-making workshops. Now I've done over 1000. I’ve become much more experienced at how to present this information to people." (He's still heading classes around the world, and this August, in Vermont, at Sterling College's School of the New American Farmstead.)
So who better to ask for a few key takeaways on fermentation? I pestered Sandor to figure out what—in 2017 (amidst a thick fog of fermented food fever)—he wants us to learn about this ancient art of processing and preserving:
"People tell me that they don’t like fermented foods because they don’t like sauerkraut," Sandor told me, "but it would be hard to eat in our US society, or anywhere in the world" if you were avoiding fermentation.
"Everyone eats products of fermentation every day," he reminded me—like sourdough, miso, yogurt, tofu, pickles, cheese, sour cream, beer, wine, salami, vinegar. (Vinegar!)
"People talk about fermented food as a fad or something, and I strongly reject that," Sandor told me. "Tell me, when did bread suddenly become popular, when did cheese suddenly become popular?"
Instead, a renewed interest in fermented foods in the popular culinary vocabulary (in January, for example, Bon Appétit published 178 funky fermented foods from restaurants across the US; the Boston Globe called fermentation "the newest food trend" in back in 2016), is part of a much broader interrogation of the food system.
In the last several decades, people have started questioning where food comes from, Sandor thinks—asking how the animals were raised, how the vegetables were grown, what kinds of chemicals were used. "In formulating a critique of the food system, people started asking more questions about their food—and fermentation is part of the answer."
Along with a growing understanding of the importance of the bacteria in our bodies and in our environment, this critique of the centralized food system (which has shrouded many food production processes in mystery) has brought a renewed interest in fermentation—"it's sort of inevitable," said Sandor.
While kombucha and kimchi may be more common in US grocery stores than ever before, the great majority of fermented foods have yet to be commercially prepared in this country for a number of reasons.
In some cases, it's because the foundational ingredient is not commonly available or mass-produced here. The Caribbean soft drink mauby, for example, is made from the bark of a small tree that's native to the northern Caribbean and south Florida.
In other instances, it's due to legal snafus ("most of the extreme cheese in the world could never be imported into the United States," he told me), or because the food is, in Sandor's words, "beyond our typical American palate." You can buy hairy tofu at many markets in China, but you'll have trouble finding it in the US (Sandor has never seen it).
Other fermented foods are commercially available here but have yet to become widely beloved outside the communities where they're already familiar: Consider natto, a popular Japanese food made from fermented soybean. Even though you can buy it in a grocery store in this country, "because of the sliminess and mouthfeel, it's a little bit elusive for many Western-raised people," Sandor theorizes.
Many fermented foods are either heated in their genesis (think sourdough bread baking in a screaming-hot oven) or else pasteurized or otherwise heat-treated in order to extend shelf life.
"Ferments that are still alive generally include in the label words to the effect that they 'contain live cultures,'" Sandor writes in the introduction to the updated Wild Fermentation: "If you want live-culture fermented foods in our world of pre-packaged mass-produced food commodities, you have to seek them out or make them yourself."
As particular fermented foods have become trendy, Sandor has noticed "unscrupulous marketing and unsubstantiated claims" that enable their prime location on grocery store shelves. ("Drink kombucha everyday! It’ll prevent your hair from going grey! It’ll cure everything!")
At the same time, though, it's important not to throw the baby out with the bath water—to think that just because some claims are hyperbolic, there is no basis of truth.
The rewards of live-culture fermented foods, Sandor explained to me, "can be really profound, but I think the benefits are kind of generalized. They may improve digestion, they may improve immune function, they may improve mental health—but if I were diagnosed with a brain tumor, I wouldn’t want someone to tell me, 'Eat more sauerkraut and you’ll be fine.'" (Though Sandor's philosophy is that if eating fermented foods might decrease the chances of developing brain cancer in the first place, why not eat them.)
"I try to steer people away from making outrageous, unsubstantiated claims, but I think there are really broad and significant ways that these foods can help us. I get to hear peoples’ stories of this all the time, but I’m always reminding them that one person’s experience does not lead to a conclusion."
Though, when Sandor began, he was just that. His obsession took hold during a decade spent on a commune in rural Tennessee. His days were, as he writes in Wild Fermentation, "devoted to the land and the people and the animals and the plants there, and I became a fervent student in seeking to learn the practical skills of the homestead. My exploration of fermentation emerged as an element of this."
But if you're not living off the land and are, instead, simply trying to make it through your 6 AM to whenever-PM workday, fermented foods are a low-maintenance way to supplement pantry meals and snacks on-the-go with a nutritional boost.
"Although fermentation takes time, it’s not active time," Sandor reassured me. "I would say to anyone who has a really busy life and feels like they end up eating meals on the run that having a jar of sauerkraut fermenting in your kitchen will take you ten minutes: Chop up the vegetables and salt them. And then for weeks you can have this really nutrition-packed embellishment that you can put on your meals on the run. When you’re eating a quesadilla or a piece of bread with cheese, you can add a vitamin- and probiotic-rich kraut to that."
"Fermentation is a way of making food more delicious, more nutritious, and more stable for storage. It can really improve your food and it doesn’t take much time at all."
When our editorial team was brainstorming questions for Sandor, most of my colleagues had food safety inquiries. And Sandor has clearly anticipated these sorts of questions: "Do not be afraid. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Reject the cult of expertise. Remember that all fermentation processes predate the technology that has made it possible for them to be made more complicated," he writes in Wild Fermentation.
Sandor encourages novices to start by fermenting foods where there's no potential for danger—which is true for fermented foods that start with raw plant materials. "In a short workshop setting, I focus on vegetables—you can learn everything you need to know in thirty minutes and you don't need special equipment or starter cultures." (It's when you're dealing with animal products—fermented meats and fish—and tofu that botulism becomes a risk.)
As for why people are scared, Sandor thinks that it's because "they’re taking a generalized anxiety that we’ve all been taught to have—that bacteria is suspicious and scary—and projecting that on a jar of cabbage they’ve just chopped up, or the pot of yogurt they’re making. "It's just a cultural anxiety we’ve been taught to have. I do a lot of reassuring people and holding their hands."
"When I was learning to make hairy tofu, and trying to get beautiful clouds of white hairy mold, I got bright-colored molds instead. When talking about molds, I reinforce the idea that white molds are harmless but bright-colored molds have potential for danger" and should be disposed of.
But Sandor, who's been experimenting with fermentation for nearly twenty-five years, has never once been wronged by his kraut, brew, or 'buch: "I’ve tasted a couple of things I've spit out," he told me, "but I’ve never gotten sick."
And that is encouraging for all of us.
What fermented food do you want to know more about? Tell us in the comments below.