Wild Fermentation

What a delight to spend an evening with Sandor Katz, and to hear all about his latest methods of fermenting foods. His 2003 book, Wild Fermentation, is a well-worn reference on my cookbook shelves, and I was so excited to actually have the opportunity to hear him talk.

His seminar drew a large audience for Gainesville, Florida, where he set up a table with some fermented foods at an alternative reading room called the Civic Media Center. Sandor jumped right in with some background about fermented foods, reminding us that fermentation and drying were the original ways of storing food. All cultures, he said, developed ways to “culture” milk products in various ways with various names.

One such culture called “yogurt” became popularized world-wide through the efforts of the Dannon Company, originally founded in 1919 in Barcelona, Spain, by the Carasso family who obtained cultures from Bulgaria and the Pasteur Institute, where the bacteria strains were first isolated by Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate who attributed the long life of Bulgarians to one of the two bacteria that converted milk into yogurt.

Sauerkraut is the most common “ferment” in the U.S.; however, the commercial sauerkraut available in supermarkets may be fermented, but it is also pasteurized, which sort of begs the issue of the health benefits of live microorganisms.

There are much more exciting options for fermenting food than just cabbage and yogurt,  as Sandor soon showed us. He had already cut up all the vegetables because he told us it would be pretty boring to watch him chop and slice and if he tried talking while chopping, well, who knows what might end up in the fermentation!

While he acknowledged Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions method of using whey for fermentation, which he says will speed things up, he advocates just using the vegetables own juices and a little bit salt. How much salt? He said it depends on your tastes.

He reminded the audience of about 100, most of whom seemed familiar in some way or  another with the process of fermentation, that this stuff keeps forever and he noted that he has a 55-gallon drum of fermented vegetables in his basement at home in Tennessee. He even brought some for us to try, a delicious, pungent mix of various vegetables and cabbage.

Why should you ferment vegetables?

Lots of reasons including improved digestibility; additional nutrients formed by the fermentation process; long-term storage of fresh food; enhancing your immune system by promoting microbial diversity in your body; and for many, the sheer enjoyment of the taste!

Ferments are typically stable due to the salt and the acidity.

And it is safe to ferment just about anything–even meat, but there are special more complicated processes for this that are best left to professionals or the very conscientious.

For successful fermentation, remember this important rule, which applies to infusing herbs as well:  Keep the material out of the air, that is, keep it covered with liquid.  Exposed parts grow mold which will ruin a good ferment.

Sandor’s latest  “no fuss” fermentation process:

  1. Use glass or ceramic jars or crocks.
  2. Chop, grate, or use a food processor to cut up vegetables.
  3. Add salt (not mandatory but better because the salt holds the water out of the vegetable through osmosis).
  4. Bruise the vegetables with a rolling pin, or your hands (about five minutes or so).
  5. Press vegetables down into their own juices and put something heavy (and non-reactive) on top.
  6. Do not fill jar to top and do not seal jar! (Keep vegetables covered with liquid.)
  7. Leave your vegetables out at room temperature. Look at your ferment everyday and taste it. The tartness of the ferment is personal, and you should slow the process when you think its right. (You do this by placing the ferment in the refrigerator.)
  8. Keep mold off the vegetables. A little whitish top mold won’t hurt anything if you catch soon enough. Brightly colored molds can be dangerous, so throw out the ferment, sterilize the jar and start over. One of the participants suggested putting a slice of onion on top the ferment to further retard mold.

What can you ferment?
Just about anything. Cabbages, of course! Radishes, beets, celery, turnips, onions, beans, ginger, garlic, carrots, and the white part of bok choy and other Asian greens. Herbs, including dills heads and seeds, celery seeds, seaweed, and caraway seeds, can be added for flavoring.

Greens can be fermented, but they are not so crunchy. Sandor does not recommend fermenting tomatoes unless they are green, but some red ones may be added for color or flavor. They don’t hold up well, he told us.

And don’t forget fruit! You make a fruit kimchi with a variety of fruit, and adding spices such as garlic cloves, hot chilies, cilantro, and/or ginger. You can add nuts, too! Sandor mentions adding the juice of one lemon in this fruit ferment he learned from a neighbor in Tennessee, Nancy Ramsay. Peel the fruit if you like or not. Leave the grapes whole, but chop everything else and prepare as you would the vegetables, adding water if needed to cover mixture.

My neighbor Joni, who joined me for the evening talk, got so excited about the fermentation process that she attended an impromptu community fermentation workshop the following Sunday. “It was great,” she said. “What a perfect winter activity.”

Especially since the last 10 days continuous days of nighttime temperatures below 32 degrees here in Florida  have pretty much wiped out our typically abundant winter gardens.

Time to  harvest and preserve. Toast the New Year with a glass of kavass!

Meanwhile, it’s Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, so join in the fun,  learn lots, and eat well!


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