Sandor Katz is a food writer, a DIY food activist, and fermentation expert. Katz is the author of two renowned fermentation books: Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. The latter received a James Beard award. He teaches fermentation workshops around the globe.
I got Sandor’s Katz book Wild Fermentation in 2008 and started making sauerkraut. Since then, fermenting food is part of my weekly kitchen routine. For the past two years, I have been making vegan kimchi and eating it daily.
Enjoy this special interview!
What is fermentation?
Broadly speaking, in a food and beverage context, fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms. Though science has only understood the existence of microscopic bacteria and fungi for 150 years, for thousands of years, since long before recorded history, people have been working with these invisible life forces that are present on everything we eat in ways that enhance and preserve food.
What are some of the health benefits of eating fermented foods?
Fermented foods are as varied as coffee, chocolate, salami, cheese, bread, vinegar, yogurt, sauerkraut, and beer, so it is impossible to generalize. But there are some clear patterns to how fermentation transforms foods nutritionally. Fermentation pre-digests nutrients into simpler forms, often making them more bioavailable to us.
For instance, fermentation breaks down the protein of soybeans into amino acids and the lactose of milk into lactic acid. In the same way, fermentation can break down many toxic compounds found in different foods—from oxalic acid to cyanide—into benign forms. Fermentation also generates additional nutrients, primarily B-vitamins and vitamin K.
The process also generates a variety of organic acids and other metabolic byproducts, some of which have been found to have therapeutic benefit. For example, compounds called isothiocyanates, known to be anti-carcinogenic, have been identified in fermented vegetables.
Finally and most importantly, bacterial fermentation populates foods with a vast communities of probiotic organisms which help restore biodiversity in our bodies and can help improve digestion, immune function, and may contribute to many other aspects of our well-being.
How has your spiritual life been impacted by your dedication to fermentation?
Fermentation has certainly made me feel more connected to unseen worlds. The practice of fermentation is based on trust in these invisible life forces. Every time I start a new ferment, part of the process is waiting for these unseen forces to manifest in ways that are visible and tangible. This has made me pay attention to other ways in which unseen forces shape our reality.
If I were just getting started with fermentation, what 3-5 fermented foods would you recommend I incorporate into my diet?
It all depends what you like to eat. Fermented foods and beverages are so incredibly varied. I would definitely recommend fermented vegetables; sauerkraut and kimchi are the best-known variations but you can ferment cucumbers, string beans, okra, radishes, anything! A rotating variety of fermented vegetables is a great way to incorporate fermented foods into your daily routine. Yogurt and/or kefir, kombucha and/or other lightly fermented beverages. Sourdough pancakes, which I like to make savory with vegetables.
How would you recommend I begin exploring fermented foods?
I always recommend fermenting vegetables. There is no need for starter cultures or special equipment. It’s easy, you can enjoy results after a few days, and there is NO case history of illness or food poisoning. The dry-salting sauerkraut method is easiest. Chop or grate vegetables; lightly salt them and add other seasonings, if desired; squeeze or pound the vegetables to break down cell walls and release juices; taste and add salt or other seasonings as needed for flavor; stuff into a jar or other vessel; and ferment. Taste after a few days and at periodic intervals to enjoy its evolving flavors.
What are your favorite fermented foods on the market right now?
I am so excited by the explosion of small regional fermentation businesses all over North America and many other places beyond. With that geographic diversity and its accompanying diversity of people fermenting, I’m seeing many creatively seasoned krauts, innovative kombucha flavors, and novel products like dehydrated kimchi powder or kombucha jerky. I don’t have particular favorite brands but I love all the creativity and that makes me want to try them all!
If I want to buy high quality and healthy pre-made fermented foods, what should I look for?
Many mass-produced fermented foods are pasteurized for shelf stability. If you are looking for the probiotic benefit of live bacterial cultures, the most important thing to look for is the fact that it’s raw and unpasteurized. Generally you will find them refrigerated.
What tools are essential for starting to make fermented foods at home?
For fermenting vegetables, all you need is a jar, a mixing bowl, a cutting board and a knife. Certain ferments, such as yogurt, call for specific temperatures. For these I like to use an insulated cooler, pre-warmed with hot water, and I use a thermometer to get the temperatures right. Fermentation is a thousands-of-years-old practice and requires little special equipment.
What fermented foods are a part of Jewish food tradition?
I grew up eating sour pickles and sauerkraut, which are important elements of the Jewish culinary traditions of New York City, my hometown. But I have learned that these pickles are not uniquely Jewish but rather from Eastern Europe, where my grandparents came from, and where pickles and kraut are still popular everyday foods. An important reality of the Jewish Diaspora is that we become part of the food cultures wherever we go. Perhaps the ferment most central to Jewish tradition everywhere is wine.
What is it that keeps you motivated and excited to do this work?
I would say that the extraordinary curiosity about fermentation that I encounter everywhere I go is what keeps my work interesting, fun and so rewarding. Here we have a phenomenon that is nearly universal—almost every individual in almost every part of the world eats and drinks products of fermentation every day.
In our part of the world we are mostly cut off from the process; it is the realm of specialists in faraway places, and we have been taught to fear bacteria. In places where fermentation is an everyday part of life, people know how to do it but do not necessarily understand it. Fermentation is a realm of mystery and it is very gratifying to be able to help demystify it for people.
Both books are practical guides to how to ferment foods and beverages at home. Wild Fermentation is a shorter introduction to fermentation with recipes. The Art of Fermentation is much longer and more thorough, covering more topics and in greater depth, but abandoning the recipe format and instead giving general instructions, ranges of proportions and timings, different seasonings, etc.
Your turn: Please let me know in the comments what fermented foods you enjoy and whether you have tried fermenting at home.