Meet the Fermentation Revivalist

If you haven’t heard of the self-described “Fermentation Revivalist” Sandor Katz, it’s time you did. As a well-known author and expert on the subject, his books have been referred to as fermenting bibles. Clean Eating’s Kathrin Brunner chatted with him to get his advice on leaping into the world of fermentation.
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Want more? Read The Benefits of Fermented Foods. 

CE:When did you start fermenting? 

SK: The catalyst for me was keeping a garden. And it was really the practical benefit of preserving the fleeting abundance from the garden that got me practicing fermentation. 

CE:I think there’s a misconception that fermenting at home is unsafe. What do you say to people who are concerned that a home-fermented food will make them sick?

SK:What I generally suggest to people as a first fermentation project is fermenting vegetables. In the realm of fermented vegetables, there has never been one single documented case anywhere of food poisoning or illness resulting from it. 

CE: OK, you’ve got a first-time fermenter and they see a scum or mold develop – what do you do?

SK: I have yet to hear of any kind of reaction to a sauerkraut because it had mold growing on the surface of it. What people throughout time have done – what I typically do – is just sort of skim off that surface growth and any vegetables with it that seem like they are discolored or softened by that growth. Don’t worry too much if little bits of it dissipate into the brine. It’s safe. 

CE: What’s the shelf life of fermented foods?

SK: In a refrigerator, a full jar of fermented vegetables, like a salty, acidic jar, with a very limited amount of oxygen at the top, should be fine in a year. It should be fine in 5 years. A half-empty jar is a whole different story because all that air space will translate into aerobic life-forms that, if left for a long time, will totally turn your kraut into mush and it won’t be pleasant to eat. It won’t be toxic – the acidity is really going to prevent it from being toxic – but it’s not going to be very pleasing. 

CE: There’s a massive buzz about the microbiome. Do you find this rise in popularity is creating more interest in learning to ferment?

SK: Definitely. One piece of it is the interest in bacteria, interest in the health of our own microbiome and using probiotic foods as a strategy for building biodiversity and potentially improving different aspects of our bodily functions. But I think that’s only one aspect. In an era of prepared foods, one-stop shopping and centralized agriculture, I think people have started to develop a strong desire to be more connected to their food and to understand where their food comes from, how it is produced and how they can get closer to the source of our food. 

CE:What appeals to you about the flavor profile of fermented foods?

SK: Well, everything. If you walk into a gourmet food store and look around, what you see and smell are products of fermentation. Fermentation creates compelling flavors. I think stinky cheeses are a really great example of this. As my tastes evolved, I love stinky cheeses. I wasn’t born loving them. You know, a lot of the most renowned fermented delicacies, nobody likes them the first time they taste them. Nobody likes stinky cheese the first time they taste it. Nobody likes coffee or beer the first time they taste them. So, you know, a lot of our love for the flavors produced by fermentation are acquired.

CE: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations when fermenting fall vegetables?

SK: Almost anything in the fall vegetables – any kind of cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, celeriac. Those are all great
places to start. 

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Sandor Katz's books, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, 2nd Edition (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016) and The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), along with his fermentation workshops around the world, helped catalyze a revival of the fermentation arts. A self-taught experimentalist living in rural Tennessee, the New York Times calls him “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene.” He is the recipient of aJames Beard Award and many other honors. Check out his website, wildfermentation.com.