We could pickle that...

My thoughts on The Art of Fermentation

Fermented foods have been a part of traditional diets for centuries. Why is that? Were our ancestors somehow more tuned into the benefits of all that healthy bacteria created during fermentation? No. No they weren’t. At least not at first. Fermentation was simply an accessible way to preserve otherwise easily spoiled foods. Using the bacteria occurring naturally, foods could be safely preserved and consumed year round. While many cultures also ferment meats, today most of us are more familiar with yoghurt, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and beer, wine and cider.

If you follow me on social media—and if you don’t you should—you know I’m currently on a huge fermented foods kick. I don’t know if it’s because of the weather, or if it’s some strange genetic craving, or because I gave up my very favorite fermented food, wine, for Lent. Whatever the reason I’ve been wearing out my kitchen thermometer and non-reactive cookware lately. At the moment, I  have a bowl of mangoes and vinegar on the counter on their way to becoming a tasty Shrub.* Last night I made a batch of yoghurt, and hopefully tonight I’ll start the process of growing a SCOBY so I can make my own Kombucha. I may even revisit my fermentation nemesis, Sauerkraut. Perhaps I can invoke the spirit of my Great-Grandfather Piotr, who legend has it, made some kick-a-- kraut back in the day.

Maybe you’re wondering why there is even an interest in home-fermentation now that refrigeration and commercial food preservation are ubiquitous. There are many answers to that ranging from the popularity of DIY projects, the rise in urban gardening and homesteading, to a renewed interest in finding natural ways to support our health. Hopefully by now we are all aware of the importance of a healthy gut. Our guts and their microorganisms are responsible for so much of our overall health that anything we can do to support, improve, and maintain good gut health should be done with gusto. And of course now we understand that fermented foods provide us with not only delicious flavors, and an easy means of preservation,  but a fantastic source of probiotics. Why take a pill when you can eat your medicine? By including fermented foods in your diet you get the double whammy of eating delicious nutrient dense foods and getting beneficial bacteria. BAM!

Unfortunately many of the foods that we look to for their beneficial fermented properties are now processed and pasteurized, killing off all those happy little bacteria we need and want. Sauerkraut, and pickles, in particular come to mind. If you’re lucky enough to have a health food store or co-op near you or a local farmer’s market, you can usually find raw kraut and pickles….but what if you live somewhere remote? Or what if you’re like me and like to play in the kitchen and amaze your family with new things for them to try? Well, have I got a book for you! 

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, is my fermented foods bible. Seriously. I was given this book as a Christmas gift two years ago, and have spent too many hours pouring over it. If you are interested at all in the history, benefits, or how-to of fermentation, you need this volume.

With a foreword by Michael Pollan, The Art of Fermentation covers everything you could ever want to know about the culture of fermentation. Within the 14 chapters and 498 pages, you’ll find recipes, equipment guides, lore, and troubleshooting information, as well as resources for hard to find equipment and ingredients. There’s a chapter on every food group, including alcoholic beverages,  meats and fish. Want to know how to make Gravlax or Mead? You’ll find everything you need to know in the appropriate chapter. The research that went into compiling this volume is astounding. But lest you think this is just about the more commonly known European fermented foods, Mr. Katz includes recipes and interview excerpts from quite a wide ranging population, covering every continent and culture. I’m especially looking forward to trying some of the Asian fermented rice recipes he’s included. Congee for breakfast sounds like a perfect antidote to a grey, chilly, Spring morning.  

Mr. Katz also has a chapter on non-culinary uses for fermentation. He includes sections on Medicinal applications, skin care, art, bioremediation, and building, among others. And if you’re looking to go into business selling your fermented goodies, he covers some basics on that topic as well. This book really is the most comprehensive text I’ve seen on the ins and outs of fermentation and its many uses and applications.

If like me, you don’t have an in-person fermenting mentor, this book can help fill that gap. While reading through the various chapters ( I tend to skip around based on what I’m interested in working on at the moment), I am encouraged by the sense of adventure and experimentation Mr. Katz brings to his writing. His descriptions of what to expect, as well as what to watch out for help instill confidence in what could otherwise be a frightening undertaking. I grew up being warned off of home-preserving with stories of exploding pressure cookers and botulism. While those are certainly bad things, with the proper care and techniques in this book, I’m reasonably sure I won’t kill myself or anyone else with my food.

In my coaching practice I always advise my clients to include something fermented in their daily diet. But as stated earlier, it can be difficult to find options that still contain live cultures. With this book as a guide you’ll soon be on your way to making and customizing to your taste, an unlimited array of delectable fermented comestibles.

And if you were wondering, my yoghurt came out perfectly! I used a Skyr culture and let it sit on a heating pad set on low for 12 hours. The result was a fantastically creamy, thick and tangy batch of what I’m calling Skyoghurt, a hybrid of the Icelandic tradition and the more familiar Greek yoghurt. The mango shrub is still waiting for me to try it, but it smells wonderful, and I’ll be using the strained fruit as an ingredient in tonight’s Mango Ginger Rice to accompany our Chicken Teriyaki.  

*Update: The Mango-Ginger Shrub is delicious! I’m considering a Peach Shrub next.

What are your favorite fermented foods? Have you tried home fermenting? Let’s talk about it in the comments!


*** This is the “full disclosure” notice. If you click on the link for The Art of Fermentation, I receive a small percentage of the sale price. You probably already know all of that, but I like to be upfront about it anyway. ***