Yes, you can ferment your food: Review of “Wild Fermentation”

A Reuben

A Reuben: From the sauerkraut to the corned beef to the sourdough rye bread and fermented mustard, this is the ultimate fermented sandwich. Photo: Incase via Flickr.

If you’re an old hand at all things DIY, congratulations. The following review may or may not be for you.

But if you’re like me, and devoted to a low-impact lifestyle but a newbie when it comes to all the skills to get you there, read on.

Like bread making, about which I wrote a few weeks ago in the beginning of my Yes, You Can…series, fermentation can easily scare the living daylights out of you. Not only does it operate on the presumption that you’re working with the bacterial world (a concept modern people are taught to fear like the Plague itself) but it also requires that element that we’re taught to believe is in ever short supply: Time.

I dare you to stop me

In the spirit of not only bucking those fake obstacles, but embracing them with decided exuberance, author Sandor Ellix Katz has created a little masterpiece with his book Wild Fermentation, The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

I suppose it would have been a bit much for Katz’s title to also include “the history, politics, policy, and culture of food in general,” but indeed he’s covered these topics, too, as a way of setting the mind up for why we should ferment foods, and what obstacles have gotten in the way of it. Yet Katz does this and much more in an economical 187 pages that are also chock full of recipes, tips, and techniques for making an array of fermented foods — from beers and wines to krauts, breads, meats, yogurts and more.

All this and still Katz is an unapologetic eccentric to the core, which only makes his book more charming to anyone with a love for the peculiarities of people. I loved it and adored his personality in the writing. I think most people will.

Which is all to say that that Wild Fermentation is one of those books that, with the help of its charismatic author, takes the fear out of what seem like exotic food preparation techniques, even if they’ve been done since the dawn of humankind and without any special equipment.

In other words, if you really want to learn to ferment food, you can learn to ferment food. And that’s exactly what I’ve been setting out to do.

It takes gutty wutts

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandoor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 187pp, $16.50.

In part motivated by a desire to disconnect from the industrial system but also to get healthier while saving money on everything from yogurt to condiments, I took up Katz’s book with enthusiasm.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a total novice.

But because his book offers the perfect mix of compelling rationales along with a friendly and authentic writing style intended to bolster the confidence of the novice, I felt empowered, intrigued and eager while reading Wild Fermentation. I also kept finding myself passing on Katz’s engaging anecdotes to others, a sure sign that I was truly moved by his advice to try fermentation in spite of any fears.

In essence, to start successfully making your own fermented food at home, Katz says that all you need is:

  • Reverence
  • Patience
  • A mind toward experimentation

Key ingredients

You need reverence, says Katz, because the real magic of fermentation is coming to a place of coexistence with the microbiological world. He even uses magical language like “welcoming” microbes and yeast forms into your life as the most local of local foods because it is precisely the yeast and bacteria invisibly inhabiting your very own kitchen, home, and town that you’re inviting in and which most nourish you.

Katz sets up the problem:

Our culture is terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene. The more we glean about disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, the more we fear exposure to all forms of microscopic life.

But, Katz adds,

Health and homeostasis require that humans coexist with microorganisms. Bacteria-counting scientists have quantified this simple fact, estimating that each person’s body is host to bacterial populations in excess of 100 trillion…

It takes time

You need patience because fermentation, as a process, happens as life is given a chance to multiply, unleashing subsequent processes and products that are not only healthy for humans, but actually essential to our lives. You also need patience with yourself, as you embrace a culture of cultured foods that’s no longer really a part of the culture you’ve lived in, however much it’s needed.

But in spite of those barriers, fermentation is simply not so esoteric:

My advise is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated. Remember that all fermentation processes predate the technology that has made it possible for them to be made more complicated. Fermentation does not require special equipment. Not even a thermometer is necessary (though it can help). Fermentation is easy and exciting. Anyone can do it. Microorganisms are flexible and adaptable.

A little bit iffy

While veggies and some fruits might seem more adaptable to fermentation, it turns out that yogurt, kefir, certain meats (including ham), other dairy products and an assortment of grains also lend themselves readily to fermentation today, as they have for millennia. But it might seem scary to give meat or dairy time to unleash their alchemical magic when we’ve been told that to do so endangers our very lives. That’s where Katz’s research and practice goes a long way to assuaging any fears.

Read Katz’s book, get inspired, heck even e-mail the guy (he readily invites this with his book) and live in the world of living experimentation. As I’ve said before — and will say again — if I can do it, anyone can!

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

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Comments

  1. says

    Lindsay –

    Thanks for reviewing this important book! I jumped into fermenting last summer (with another book: Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning – a real delight) and am loving it. My greatest tragedy was running out of fermented radishes last month. This year, I plan to ferment gallons of radishes, carrots, peppers (sweet and hot) to last through the winter. I still have some great kosher dills in the fridge, along with sauerkraut, and fermented turnips (sauerrueben in Katz’s book). If I had a root cellar, I would have stored all my ferments there over the winter, but alas no root cellar.

    The best thing about fermenting is the low or no energy input. This is especially important if we are trying to keep the house cool in the summer – no massie boiling cauldrons on the stove to steam up an already steamy kitchen!

    And, like you, “If I can do it, anyone can!”

    Diane

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