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The Science, Art, and Magic of Fermentation

June 29, 2012

Kombucha brewing, salsa and sauerkraut fermenting, while ghee, lard and eggs just chill

I splurged a few days ago and ordered three new books on one of my favorite topics: the magic of lacto-fermentation, the process by which we preserve foods and “make them more digestible and more nutritious,” according to Nourishing Traditions author Sally Fallon. These are not by any means the first pickling books to find a home on my crowded bookshelves. Learning how friendly microbes transform ordinary vegetables and fruits (and more) into delicious new forms, and how those cultured foods can restore digestive health, is exhilarating.

For me, it all started with Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, which I suppose makes me a sort of early adopter. I feel like author Sandor Katz personally introduced me to sauerkraut because, well, he did. Almost 9 years ago, I was shopping at the venerable Rainbow Grocery food cooperative in San Francisco, when an announcement over the public address system informed one and all that someone was about to start an in-store demonstration of the art of making sauerkraut. I’d never liked sauerkraut growing up, because I was only exposed to the canned version, which is a pointless travesty. Yet I had recently become interested in the topic, having just bought Nourishing Traditions and entertained the idea of culturing vegetables. So I made a beeline over to the little corner of the store where a few folding chairs were set up and I grabbed one on the front row and avidly watched Katz chop and pound and squeeze a mountain of cabbage practically in my lap. Entranced by Katz’s practiced patter, and seeing that Fallon had written the foreword to the book, I bought a copy of Wild Fermentation and read it pretty much straight through, not something I ordinarily do with a cookbook. 

Full of cultural and culinary history and lore, with a multitude of intriguing recipes — from idli and dosas, to shrub and sauerreuben, not to mention kimchee, sauerkraut and ginger beer — Wild Fermentation led me through the basics of lacto-fermentation and gave me the courage to experiment. Katz’s knowledge is so vast, his stories so absorbing, and his sincerity and passion so compelling, it’s a fun book just to read, but you won’t be able to resist trying your hand at a few recipes.

Katz didn’t just inspire me to start my lacto-fermentation journey, he inspired no less than Michael Pollan, who wrote the wonderful foreword to Katz’s brilliant follow-up: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. In this beautiful, lavishly illustrated hardback volume, Katz has expanded upon an excellent base and written the definitive book on traditional fermentation techniques and history. At 528 pages, it is certainly comprehensive, covering everything in Wild Fermentation and much more (even fermented cod liver oil!). This is a book for people who like to get all over a subject. Like me. Yet, Katz’s style is so accessible, it needn’t be too intimidating for serious newbies.

What’s so compelling about Katz’s work is his ability to weave together seemingly disparate threads of history, culture and culinary lore into a cohesive whole. He presents the big picture, connecting cultured foods and culture. Some readers felt the mention of his homosexuality and HIV-positive status was too much information (or leftist propaganda!), but I appreciate knowing an author’s story and the context of a book.

Having found cultured foods vital to maintaining his health, Katz advocates “peaceful co-existence with microbes rather than warfare,” and that’s a message we all need to hear. In an age when people are afraid to touch any surface without a can of Lysol or germ-killing gel in hand, and as antibiotic overuse upsets our internal terrain, it is high time we learn to love and accept the microbes that share our world, and, in fact, our bodies. About 3 trillion wee creatures, mostly benign or helpful, inhabit the average human gut (they outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1). If there is a nuclear holocaust, it will be the microbes that survive. We’d best make peace with them and accept their help in facilitating digestion, making vitamins available to us, and protecting our skin, among other favors. As Michael Pollan says in the foreword:

The profligate use of antibiotics has produced resistant bacteria as lethal as any we managed to kill. Those drugs, along with a processed food diet lacking in both bacteria and food for bacteria (aka fiber), have disordered the microbial ecology in our gut in profound ways that we are just beginning to understand, and which may well explain many of our health problems. Children protected from bacteria turn out to have higher rates of allergy and asthma. We are discovering that one of the keys to our well-being is the well-being of the microflora with whom we share these bodies, and with whom we co-evolved. And it looks like they really, really like sauerkraut.

I found cultured foods indispensable in overcoming chronic systemic candidiasis, which had plagued me for years. Antifungal prescription drugs didn’t do it, attempting to go sugar-free didn’t do it, and taking probiotic capsules didn’t do it. Adding sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented foods to my diet did, along with otherwise improving my eating habits (adding healthful animal fats and more protein were also crucial steps).

Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen, by Real Food blogger Alex Lewin, is a delicious-looking paperback. While less ambitious in scope than The Art of Fermentation, it’s no less  beautifully done and still packed with information. It’s aimed more at beginners yet is equally appealing to diehard fermenters (culturers? picklers?) like myself who love to look at pretty pictures of crisp, colorful vegetables in jars. One reviewer chided Lewin for wasting space on photographs of him chopping and pounding, but I for one like step-by-step photos in a how-to book, as well as illustrations of unfamiliar equipment or techniques. It gives me confidence and a vicarious thrill! If you are a beginner at preserving foods through lacto-fermentation, you could hardly do better than to start with this book. It doesn’t try to cover everything, but it is still pretty broad, addressing food preservation, the importance of fresh, high-quality ingredients, the basics of sauerkraut and beyond, plus fermented dairy, fruit condiments, beverages, and meat (ah, so that’s what corned beef is!), plus helpful resources. I’ll be reading this one word for word.

My copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods hasn’t arrived yet, so I can’t say much about it, except that it has a nice cover photograph, is positively reviewed on Amazon.com, and the author, Wardeh Harmon, is a respected Real Food blogger. Given that the book is part of the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series, one can assume it will serve the needs of newbies very well.

Also on my bookshelf and deserving of mention is The Joy of Pickling: 250 Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More from Garden or Market, which covers canning as well as fresh pickles (with vinegar), salt curing and lacto-fermentation. Take author Linda Ziedrich’s advice and read her “Pickler’s Primer” chapter first for excellent background information on salts, vinegars, firming agents, aromatics, various processing methods and storage. Excellent if you want to learn additional pickling styles besides lacto-fermentation. Great recipes and tips abound. The book is beautifully designed, but has no photographs except for the cover. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation, a collection of recipes from a group of French farmers and gardeners. The title pretty much says it all. The old-time methods are fascinating, but the book is sometimes frustratingly lacking in detailed instructions.

Wow, the popular literature on cultured foods has grown rapidly since the days when there was little available on sauerkraut or other ferments except Hans Hoffmann’s slim volume, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for Lactic Fermented Food to Improve Your Health. (Yes, I have that one, too.) It seems all pickle books must have long subtitles to explain themselves. What with the healthy sales these books are generating, maybe someday that won’t be necessary — Americans will think of fermenting a few vegetables as ordinary as growing a few tomatoes in pots or shopping at the farmers market. If only!

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