In 1993, Sandor Katz moved from New York City, where he was a self-described “policy wonk,” to Cannon County, Tenn.,where he says he became a “fermentation revivalist.” He may be making headway, because fermentation has become quite trendy.
Since 2003, when his book “Wild Fermentation” was published, he has taught workshops in the U.S. and Europe to demystify fermentation. He reminds people that many of their favorite foods and drinks are fermented: bread, cheese, wine beer, chocolate, coffe, tea, pickle, soy sauce, yogurt, vinegar. Not to mention the popular fermented tea kombucha as well as miso and tempeh. His second book, “Art of Fermentation,” was published in 2012.
Katz’s path to fermentation emerged from his interests in cooking, nutriton and gardening. Especially gardening. He began to garden in Tennessee where, he writes on his website, “I am part of a vibrant extended community of queer folks.” He planted cabbages and got such a big yield that he had to find a way to preserve his crop. He started making sauerkraut. “Its sharp flavor sent my salivary glands into a frenzy,” he writes. His prolific sauerkraut production has earned him the nickname “Sandorkraut.”
Katz, 50, has been living with HIV since the 1980s and considers fermented foods to be, in his words, “an important part of my healing.” He recently talked with American Food Roots about the increased interest in the ancient practice of fermenting food. (For more on fermentation, listen to AFR managing editor Bonny Wolf’s piece on NPR.)
AFR: You call yourself a fermentation revivalist. What does that mean?
SK: I’ve come to use this term because fermentation is practiced nearly universally and yet since we’ve all been indoctrinated in a war on bacteria, people are not fermenting at home. Fermentation has largely disappeared from the fabric of our lives and people have developed a huge amount of fear about bacteria. Yet, everyone eats fermented foods. All our greatest delicacies are products of fermentation. There has never been a single documented case of food poisoning in the U.S. from sauerkraut, yet I get mail every week about sauerkraut from people who don’t want to kill their children. I’m trying to demystify, remove the fear and encourage people to try it.
AFR: Do you have a science background? Can you give a definition of fermentation non-scientists can understand?
SK: The last biology class I took was in ninth grade. I studied history in college. I describe fermentation as the transformative action of microorganisms. It is an intentional or desirable transformation.
AFR: What led you to fermentation?
SK: I grew up in New York City and loved sour pickles – what people call kosher dills. Those are fermented pickles. I always was drawn to this flavor. Twenty years ago, I moved from New York City to rural Tennessee and started keeping a garden. The first year my row of cabbage was available all at once and I decided to make sauerkraut. One thing led to another and I made yogurt and sourdough and started learning about fermentation in different parts of the world.
AFR: How are you getting the word out?
SK: I wrote two books about it and do a huge amount of traveling and teaching. And I have seen growth in interest since “Wild Fermentation” came out in 2003. The book became my calling card. I continuously run into people with memories of grandparents with fermentation practices – annual winemaking, sauerkraut, sourdough bread. I have run into a huge amount of that, but also a break in passing down traditions. Grandparents die without passing on the traditions.
What has aroused the most sensational response [in my own fermenting] has been various fish ferments. I’ve done fermented Filipino shrimp and rice with this strong aroma that my friends are still talking about two years later.
AFR: Do you see fermentation becoming more mainstream? Is it more at home, in restaurants, retail shops?
SK: You can see a revival of small, mostly local artisanal or craft enterprises whether talking about beer, bread, cheese, sauerkraut, kombucha and other possibly more obscure foods. And there is an increase in doing this at home. I see a revival of fermentation as an aspect of increased interest in getting closer to the source. There’s a huge revival in restaurants. Fermentation is cutting edge on the coasts, but now I’m meeting people starting small enterprises in Arkansas, Iowa, Arizona.
This recipe is adapted from Sandor Katz’s sauerkraut recipe in “Wild Fermentation” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003) and his online video about fermenting vegetables to make what he calls “kraut-chi.” Although Katz now avoids writing strict recipes, this one represents his general recommendations. You will need a wide-mouthed clean (not necessarily sterilized) jar, 1 quart or larger. The kraut will take 2 days to 4 weeks to ferment, depending on your taste. Ingredients are given per quart.
- 2 pounds green and/or red cabbage (and/or other vegetables of your choice)
- Salt, to taste
- Garlic, ginger, chili pepper, caraway, juniper berries and/or other seasonings of your choice (optional)
Chop the vegetables finely or coarsely, however you like. Place them in a large bowl. Lightly sprinkle salt on the chopped vegetables as you go, adding seasonings if you like. Squeeze the chopped mixture with your hands until it releases liquid. Taste and add more salt as necessary. If you are unable to squeeze vegetables or cannot get enough juice out of them, add a little (dechlorinated) water.
Stuff the mixture into the jar a bit at a time, packing it down hard as you go. Make sure vegetables are submerged under liquid, and leave a little space at the top of the jar for expansion. Close the lid on the jar.
Leave the jar on the kitchen counter or somewhere where you will see it every day. Pressure from carbon dioxide will build in the jar, so uncrew it each day for the first several days to release pressure. Press down on the top layer that floats to the top to submerge it. Screw the lid back on.
Taste the kraut every few days. Remove any surface growth that forms at the top where the vegetables might be exposed to air.
Depending on the ambient temperature in your home, the kraut will start to become tangy after a few days. Ferment until it tastes the way you like. You can then store all of it in the refrigerator in sealed jars, or just scoop out a portion for refrigeration and let the rest continue to ferment.
Eat as a condiment in small amounts with meals.