The Art of Fermentation
by Sandor Ellix Katz
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012
If there is one method of preparation that marks the divide between traditional and modern foods, it is fermentation. If there is one kind of food that unites the many corners of the food revolution, it is fermented foods. And if there is one who has led the clarion call to renew the fermentation traditions, it is Sandor Ellix Katz.
When his book, Wild Fermentation, was published in 2003, it opened a wide door to young and old and all in between to renew the home preparation of live-cultured foods. But the book was just a step in Katz’s extensive travel and web presence to teach ferments, which in turn aided his exploration of the global phenomena. The Art of Fermentation, subtitled “an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world,” contains practical information on fermenting vegetables, fruits, milk, beans, meats and more is the result of that considered and continued research. It is a fermenter’s compendium (over five hundred pages all told) that considers the warp and woof of ferments world wide, both practical and philosophical.
The introductory chapters, “Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force” and “Practical Benefits of Fermentation” are concise and inspiring reflections on the role of microorganisms not only in our diets and health but also in the natural world at large. Given our modern antibiotic practices, we are introduced to a radical notion that is illuminated throughout the book: bacteria, yeasts and molds are our invisible flavoring, preserving and health agents. The microorganisms of a place create the particular and captivating flavors of the world’s cuisines. By cultivating them, societies have nurtured the esteemed terroir of their land and enriched their larger culture in countless ways. And Katz astutely cautions, “If our evolutionary imperative is to adapt to shifting conditions, then we must embrace, encourage and work with microorganisms rather than attempting, however futilely, to eradicate them or imagining that we can engineer them to our will in precise and predictable ways.”
What follows is a wide-ranging consideration of all things cultured: vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains, tubers, legumes, nuts, meat, fish and eggs, and, of course, forays into the world of fermented drinks, alcoholic and non. And the book is cultured in more ways than one, as it explores ferments both familiar and exotic from all continents, save Antarctica. (Even so, many ferments of the cold extremes are described, including those of Alaskan Inuit and a number of Scandinavian traditions.) While Katz himself observes: “The realm of fermentation is too vast and non-standardized to be comprehensively contained in one volume,” he has nevertheless produced an amazingly thorough one. There is a great deal of information on obscure ferments, which are difficult to find even in our web-based information age. (Try finding, for instance, reliable reports on Jun or ground fermenting outside of the book.)
While the book contains a staggering number of ferments described in detail, including ingredients, proportions, methods and “troubleshooting,” The Art of Fermentation is not a recipe book, and those seeking hard and fast instructions will be disappointed. Katz continues the old fashioned narrative descriptions of recipes, outlining the range of possible techniques but never imposing one way to ferment. His suggestive style is both incredibly inviting and frustrating as, at times, we are left to figure things out for ourselves. But this, I believe, is his point. When we ferment food, we are working with live microorganisms, numerous food possibilities and varied environments. Fermenting is, as the title reminds us, an art. There are traditions and processes to understand, but the possibilities are endless.
Yet Katz does not shy away from scientific information where it exists, even when controversial. In the section on “Kombucha: Panacea or Peril?” he informs us that in numerous laboratory tests, the famed glucaronic acid (thought to be the source of its detoxifying action) has not been found in kombucha, and likely the ingredient claims are a confusion with gluconic acid which is in kombucha. But Katz does not therefore dismiss kombucha’s experienced benefits. Unsubstantiated accusations that kombucha is dangerous are also logically addressed.
Related to concerns that fermented raw meat is unsafe, he reports on a notable study of dry cured raw salami. The researchers inserted E. coli and L. monocytogenes into the raw meat at much higher levels than ever likely to occur, but they then followed traditional fermenting instructions. After the salami was cured, the meat was tested again. No evidence at all could be found of any E. coli or L. monocytogenes in the meat! This study enabled the USDA to accept the fact that traditional fermentation “makes raw meat safe to eat” despite their theoretical presuppositions otherwise.
There are also technical explanations throughout the book. Many phenomena I have observed in fermenting but didn’t understand are made clear, such as why more salt causes a crisper ferment. (Salt hardens the pectin in vegetables and prevents the microorganisms from digesting the vegetable into slush.) Even a possible origin to kefir grains is considered. (A Mexican plant naturally exudes a growth of kefir-like microorganisms.) All in all, cultured food and drinks are surveyed in an exploratory way, recognizing many overlooked benefits, but not making any overreaching claims.
The scope of the book is extensive and offers a clear sense of a dynamic reinvigoration of fermentation traditions. But Katz also makes us aware that much is in danger of being lost. When a tradition of local fermentation dies away, so do the particular microorganisms that offer unique flavors and likely particular health benefits. For example, many lesser-used dairy ferments are now cultivated in a lab and no longer have the bio-diverse strength to be continuously stable for the home fermenter. Many other obscure cultures are rapidly disappearing or have disappeared. Despite the phenomenon of raw sushi enjoyed worldwide, Katz reports that its ancient precursor, Nare Zushi—fish and rice fermented together—is in danger of dying out. Hopefully, the consideration of our age-old ferments will help spur the preservation of particular microbial cultures, just as we seek to preserve the biodiversity of other kingdoms of life.
I was pleased to see a whole chapter devoted to “Commercial Enterprises,” which is critical to helping the larger population have access to live cultured foods again. Small artisanal food businesses also help to spur diverse local economies in significant ways. The compendium is rounded out with final inspiring consideration of many “Non-food Applications of Fermentation” such as pickling of food waste (including meat, bones and fats) with EM (“effective microorganisms,” commonly known as Bokashi) to create nutrient-rich soil. After these past weeks immersing myself in The Art of Fermentation, it is now affectionately referred to as the “The Art” in my home. And truly the book is well named. With this distillation of the vast scope of world-wide culturing practices, these almost lost arts can find their rightful place in nurturing and inspiring our greater human culture once again.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2012.