The Art of Fermentation

The Art of Fermentation

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An In-Dept Exploration Of Essential Concepts And Processes From Around The World

Sandor Ellix Katz

Foreword by Michael Pollan

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 906 p
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 PDF format
 978-1-60358-286-5 (hardcover) 
 978-1-60358-364-0 (ebook)
 2012 by Sandor Ellix Katz 

Little could I have imagined, as a New York City kid who
loved pickles, that those delicious, crunchy, garlicky
sour pickles would lead me on such an extraordinary
journey of discovery and exploration. In fact, products of
fermentation—not only pickles, but also bread, cheese,
yogurt, sour cream, salami, vinegar, soy sauce, chocolate,
and coffee, as well as beer and wine—were prominent in
my family’s diet (as they are in many, if not most,
people’s), though we never talked about them as such.
Yet, as my path through life led me to various nutritional
ideas and dietary experiments, I did learn about the
digestive benefits of bacteria present in living fermented
foods and began to experience their restorative powers.
And when I found myself with a garden, faced with a
surplus of cabbages and radishes, sauerkraut beckoned
me. Our love affair endures.

The first time I taught a sauerkraut-making workshop, at the
Sequatchie Valley Institute in 1999, I learned that there is a
tremendous fear in our culture of aging food outside of
refrigeration. In our time, most people are raised to view bacteria
as dangerous enemies and refrigeration as a household necessity.
The idea of leaving food outside of refrigeration in order to
encourage bacterial growth triggers fears of danger, disease, and
even death. “How will I know whether the right bacteria are
growing?” is a common question. People largely assume that for
microbial transformations to be safe, they require extensive
knowledge and control and are therefore a specialized domain best
left to experts.
Most food and beverage fermentation processes are ancient
rituals that humans have been performing since before the dawn of
history, yet we have largely relegated them to factory production.
Fermentation has mostly disappeared from our households and
communities. Techniques evolved by disparate human cultures
over millennia, through observation of natural phenomena and
manipulating conditions with trial and error, have become obscure
and are in danger of being lost.

I have spent nearly two decades exploring the realm of
fermentation. I do not have a background in microbiology or food
science; I am just a food-loving back-to-the-land generalist who
became obsessed with fermentation, spurred by a voracious
appetite, a practical desire for food not to go to waste, and a willful
desire to maintain good health. I have experimented widely, talked
to many, many people about the subject, and done a lot of reading
on it. The more I experiment and the more I learn, the more I
realize how little of an expert I remain. People grow up in
households in which some of these traditional ferments are the
daily context, and their knowledge is far more intimate. Others
become commercial manufacturers and develop technical mastery
in order to produce and market consistent and profitable products;
countless such people know much more than I about brewing beer,
making cheese, baking bread, curing salamis, or brewing saké.
Microbiologists or other scientists who study very specific facets of
the genetics, metabolism, kinetics, community dynamics, or other
mechanisms of fermentations understand it all in terms I can only
barely comprehend.

Nor do I possess anything approaching encyclopedic knowledge of
fermentation. The infinite variation that exists in how people on
every continent ferment all the various foods they eat is too vast for
any individual to have comprehensive knowledge. However, I have
had the privilege to hear a lot of wonderful stories, and taste many
homemade and artisan-fermented concoctions. Many readers of
my books, visitors to my website, and participants in my workshops
have recounted tales of their grandparents’ fermentation practices;
immigrants have excitedly told me about ferments from the old
country, often lost to them through migration; travelers have
reported on ferments they have encountered; people have divulged
their quirky family variations; and other experimentalists such as
myself have shared their adventures. I have also fielded thousands
of troubleshooting questions, causing me to research and think
about many more aspects of the inevitable variations that occur in
home fermentations.

This book is a compendium of the fermentation wisdom I have
collected. I have included many other people’s voices throughout.
Though I have made an attempt to be thorough, this book is far
from encyclopedic. My intention with it is to identify patterns and
convey concepts to empower you with tools so you can explore and
reclaim fermentation into your life. I am on a mission of sharing
skills, resources, and information related to this important art, in the
hope that these long-standing coevolutionary relationships,
embedded in cultural practices, are not lost but rather spread,
cross-pollinated, and adapted.

One word that repeatedly comes to the fore in my exploration and
thinking about fermentation is culture. Fermentation relates to
culture in many different ways, corresponding with the many layers
of meaning embedded in this important word, from its literal and
specific meanings in the context of microbiology to its broadest
connotations. We call the starters that we add to milk to make
yogurt, or to initiate any fermentation, cultures. Simultaneously,
culture constitutes the totality of all that humans seek to pass from
generation to generation, including language, music, art, literature,
scientific knowledge, and belief systems, as well as agriculture and
culinary techniques (in both of which fermentation occupies a central role).

In fact, the word culture comes from Latin cultura, a form of
colere, “to cultivate.” Our cultivation of the land and its creatures—
plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria—is essential to culture.
Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means
of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and
infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking
back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.
This is not just about fermentation (even if, as a biological force
upon our food, that is inevitable), but about food more broadly.
Every living creature on this Earth interacts intimately with its
environment via its food. Humans in our developed technological
society, however, have largely severed this connection, and with
disastrous results. Though affluent people have more food choices
than people of the past could ever have dreamed of, and though
one person’s labor can produce more food today than ever before,
the large-scale, commercial methods and systems that enable
these phenomena are destroying our Earth, destroying our health,
and depriving us of dignity. With respect to food, the vast majority
of people are completely dependent for survival upon a fragile
global infrastructure of monocultures, synthetic chemicals,
biotechnology, and transportation.

Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater
resilience requires our active participation. This means finding ways
to become more aware of and connected to the other forms of life
that are around us and that constitute our food—plants and
animals, as well as bacteria and fungi—and to the resources, such
as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation, upon which we
depend. It means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and
figuratively. We can become creators of a better world, of better
and more sustainable food choices, of greater awareness of
resources, and of community based upon sharing. For culture to be
strong and resilient, it must be a creative realm in which skills,
information, and values are engaged and transmitted; culture
cannot thrive as a consumer paradise or a spectator sport. Daily life
offers constant opportunities for participatory action. Seize them.
Just as the microbial cultures exist only as communities, so too do
our broader human cultures. Food is the greatest community
builder there is. It invites people to sit and stay awhile, and families
to gather together. It welcomes new neighbors and weary travelers
and beloved old friends. And it takes a village to produce food.
Many hands make light work, and food production often gives rise
to specialization and exchange. And even more than food in
general, fermented foods—especially beverages—play a significant
role in community building. Not only are many feasts, rituals, and
celebrations organized around products of fermentation (such as
bread and wine), ferments are also among the oldest and most
important of the foods that add both value and stability to the raw
products of agriculture, essential to the economic underpinnings of
all communities. The brewer and the baker are central participants
in any grain-based economy; and wine transforms perishable
grapes into a stable and coveted commodity, as does cheese for milk.

Reclaiming our food means reclaiming community, engaging its
economic interconnectivity of specialization and divisions of labor,
but at a human scale, promoting awareness of resources and local
exchange. Transporting goods around the globe takes a huge
amount of resources and wreaks environmental havoc. And while
exotic foods can be thrilling treats, it’s inappropriate and destructive
to organize our lives primarily around them; most globalized food
commodities are grown in vast monocultures, at the expense of
forests and diverse subsistence crops. And by being totally
dependent on an infrastructure of global trade, we make ourselves
exceedingly vulnerable to disruptions for any number of reasons,
from natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, tsunamis) and
resource depletion (peak oil), to political violence (war, terrorism,
organized crime).

Fermentation can be a centerpiece of economic revival.
Relocalizing food means a renewal not only of agriculture but also
of the processes used to transform and preserve the products of
agriculture into the things that people eat and drink every day,
including ferments such as bread, cheese, and beer. By
participating in local food production—agriculture and beyond—we
actually create important resources that can help fill our most basic
daily needs. By supporting this local food revival, we recycle our
dollars into our communities, where they may repeatedly circulate,
supporting people in productive endeavors and creating incentives
for people to acquire important skills, as well as feeding us fresher,
healthier food with less fuel and pollution embedded in it. As our
communities feed ourselves more and thereby reclaim power and
dignity, we also decrease our collective dependency on the fragile
infrastructure of global trade. Cultural revival means economic revival.

Everywhere I go I meet people who are making the choice to be
part of this culture of revival. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the
growing number of young people who are choosing to take up
farming. The second half of the 20th century saw the near
extinction of the tradition of regional food self-sufficiency in the
United States and many other places. Today that tradition is in
revival. Let us support and become part of it. Productive local food
systems are better than globalized food for many reasons: They
yield fresher and more nutritious food; local jobs and productivity;
less dependence on fuel and infrastructure; and greater food
security. We must become more closely connected to the land via
our food, and we must have people willing to do the hard physical
work of agriculture. Value and reward that work. And get involved with it.

I don’t want to give the impression that this culture of revival is
brand new. There always have been holdouts who resist new
technologies, such as farmers who never adopted chemical
methods, or never stopped using and saving the legacy of seed
resources they inherited, or still use horses in lieu of tractors, or
families who have unceasingly maintained fermentation practices.
There have always been seekers looking to reconnect to old ways,
or unwilling to accept the “conveniences” of modern culture. As
much as culture is always reinventing itself in unprecedented ways,
culture is continuity. There are always roots.

Cultural revival certainly does not require abandoning cities and
suburbs for some remote rural ideal. We must create more
harmonious ways of life where people and infrastructures are, and
that is mostly cities and suburbs. “Sustainability” or “resilience”
cannot be remote ideals you have to go somewhere else to fully
realize. They are ethics we can and must build into our lives
however we are able to and wherever we find ourselves.
Nearly 20 years ago, I moved from a lifetime in Manhattan to an
off-the-grid rural commune in Tennessee, and I’m so glad I did.
Sometimes a dramatic change is exactly what you need. I was 30
years old, had recently tested HIV+, and was searching for a big
change I could not yet imagine, when a chance encounter led me to
a communal homestead of queers in the woods. I can personally
testify that rural resettlement can be a rewarding path. But rural
living is certainly not intrinsically better or more sustainable than city
life. In fact, rural dwelling, as most of us (myself included) are
practicing it, involves driving frequently to get around. In the city I
grew up in, most people do not have cars and get around using mass transit.

Cities are where most people are, and much incredibly creative
and transformative work is being done in urban and suburban
areas. Urban farming and homesteading are on the rise, flourishing
especially in cities with large expanses of abandoned properties.
The revival of artisan fermentation enterprises is centered around
cities, mainly because they hold the major markets, no matter
where production may occur.

The late, great urbanist Jane Jacobs put forth an intriguing theory
that agriculture developed and spread from cities rather than rural
outposts. In her book The Economy of Cities, Jacobs rejects the
prevailing assumption that “cities are built upon a rural economic
base,” which she calls the “dogma of agricultural primacy.”1 Instead
she argues that the inherent creativity of urbanism fostered the
innovations that spawned (and continually reinvent) agriculture.
“The first spread of the new grains and animals is from city to city. .
. . The cultivation of plants and animals is, as yet, only city work.”2
Her basic idea is that a trading settlement that is a crossroads for
people migrating from different areas provides a dynamic
environment for incidental seed crossing and selective breeding, as
well as greater opportunities for specialization and the development
and spread of techniques.

If Jacobs’s theory is correct, then fermentation practices must
also have urban roots. Rural dwellers may frequently be guardians
of inherited legacies such as seeds, cultures, and know-how;
however, it is primarily urbanites who are spurring agricultural
change in the countryside by creating demand—starting farmer’s
markets and providing the bulk of the community support for what
is known as community supported agriculture (CSA). Urbanites can
grow gardens and ferment, just as rural dwellers can. They can
also tap into the deep currents of creativity that exist in cities, and
the inevitable cross-pollination that occurs there, to foster change.

That change can incorporate ancient wisdom that is in danger of
disappearing, just as much as it can foster innovation. In any case,
cultural revival is not exclusively or even primarily a rural endeavor.
Much of the 20th-century literature of fermentation promoted
moving production away from small-scale community-based
cottage industry into factories and replacing traditional starter
cultures passed down from generation to generation with
laboratory-bred improved strains, in the name of improved hygiene,
safety, nutrition, and efficiency. “When an attempt was made to
introduce Western-type beverages such as beer, Coca-Cola, and
other soft drinks to the Bantu people, they were rejected,” Clifford
W. Hesseltine and Hwa L. Wang, of the US Department of
Agriculture Fermentation Laboratory, reported in 1977, “so the
Bantu beer process, as practiced in the native villages, was
investigated. When the native process was understood and the
yeast and bacteria occurring in the process had been isolated, an
industrial fermentation process was developed using modern
malting and fermentation equipment. The Bantu beer made in these
modern fermentation plants was readily accepted. . . . The product,
produced under sanitary conditions, is of uniform quality and sells
at a low price.”3 A cheap and uniform product, mass-produced
under sanitary conditions, is taken as unequivocally superior to the
traditional village-produced product, regardless of the cultural and
economic importance of the practice in the village context.
Meanwhile, Paul Barker, from South Africa, writes: “Traditional
fermentation along with many other practices are dying out in our
African cultures and need to be recorded before lost to the likes of
KFC, Coca Cola and Levi’s.”

My objective with this book is to encourage a reclaiming of
fermentation in our homes and in our communities, as a means of
reclaiming food, and with it a broad web of connections. Rather
than fermenting just grapes, barley, and soybeans, let’s ferment
acorns, turnips, sorghum, or whatever food surpluses we can
access or create. The great global monoculture ferments are
wonderful, indeed, but the practical thrust of localism must be
learning to make the most of surpluses that make themselves, such
as acorns, or are so well adapted that they practically grow
themselves with only a minimum of intervention, such as turnips or
radishes in Tennessee gardens.

This book is organized around types of ferments, and specifically
how to make them. The first three chapters are broad overviews,
contextualizing fermentation in terms of evolution, practical
benefits, and basic operational concepts. Most of the rest is
organized by substrates—what foods are fermenting—and whether
or not the products are primarily alcoholic. The end chapters
address considerations for people
thinking about turning their
passion for fermentation into a commercial enterprise, non-food
applications of fermentation, and finally a cultural revivalist manifesto.

In the processes-focused core of the book, I have abandoned the
recipe format (aside from a few sidebars with recipes contributed
by others). Rather than specific recipes, I wish to communicate
concepts with broad applicability. I offer general proportions, or
ranges of proportions, and process parameters, and sometimes
even seasoning suggestions. I have attempted to explain what to
do in each ferment, and why. Fermentation is more dynamic and
variable than cooking, for we are collaborating with other living
beings. The hows and whys of these sometimes complex
relationships are more important than the specific quantities and
combinations of ingredients, which inevitably vary among recipes
and traditions. I want to help you understand the hows and whys of
fermentation. With that understanding, recipes are everywhere, and
you can creatively explore.

Table of Contents
Praise for The Art of Fermentation
Foreword by Michael Pollan
Chapter 1. Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force
Bacteria: Our Ancestors and Coevolutionary Partners
Fermentation and Culture
Fermentation and Coevolution
Fermentation as a Natural Phenomenon
The War on Bacteria
Cultivating a Biophilic Consciousness
Chapter 2. Practical Benefits of Fermentation
The Preservation Benefits of Fermentation, and Their Limits
The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermentation as a Strategy for Energy Efficiency
The Extraordinary Flavors of Fermentation
Chapter 3. Basic Concepts and Equipment
Substrates and Microbial Communities
Wild Fermentation Versus Culturing
Selective Environments
Community Evolution and Succession
Cleanliness and Sterilization
Darkness and Sunlight
Fermentation Vessels
Jar Method
Crock Method
Crock Lids
Different Crock Designs
Metal Vessels
Plastic Vessels
Wooden Vessels
Gourds and Other Fruits as Fermentation Vessels
Pit Fermentation
Pickle Presses
Vegetable Shredding Devices
Pounding Tools
Alcohol-Making Vessels and Air Locks
Siphons and Racking
Bottles and Bottling
Cider and Grape Presses
Grain mills
Incubation Chambers
Curing Chambers
Temperature Controllers
Masking Tape and Markers
Chapter 4. Fermenting Sugars into Alcohol: Meads, Wines, and
Simple Mead
Botanical Enhancements to Mead: T’ej and BaŠlche
Fruit and Flower Meads
Simple and Short Versus Dry and Aged
Continuous Starter Method
Herbal Elixir Meads
Wine from Grapes
Cider and Perry
Sugar-Based Country Wines
Alcoholic Beverages from Other Concentrated Sweeteners
Fermented Fruit Salads
Plant Sap Ferments
Carbonating Alcoholic Beverages
Mixed Source Legacy
Chapter 5. Fermenting Vegetables (and Some Fruits Too)
Lactic Acid Bacteria
Vitamin C and Fermented Vegetables
Kraut-Chi Basics
Salt: Dry-Salting Versus Brining
Pounding or Squeezing Vegetables (or Soaking in a Brine)
How Long to Ferment?
Surface Molds and Yeasts
Which Vegetables Can Be Fermented?
Chinese Pickling
Indian Pickling
Fermenting Hot Sauce, Relishes, Salsas, Chutneys, and Other
Himalayan Gundruk and Sinki
Considerations for Salt-Free Vegetable Ferments
Sour Pickles
Brining Mushrooms
Brining Olives
Dilly Beans
Lactic Acid Fermentations of Fruit
Adding Starters to Vegetable Ferments
Liquid Forms of Vegetable Ferments: Beet and Lettuce Kvass,
Cultured Cabbage Juice, Kaanji, and Şalgam Suyu
Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Styles
Cooking with Fermented Vegetables
Laphet (Fermented Tea Leaves)
Chapter 6. Fermenting Sour Tonic Beverages
Ginger Beer with Ginger Bug
Tepache and Aluá
Water Kefir (aka Tibicos)
Whey as a Starter
Roots Beer
Sweet Potato Fly
Inventive Soda Flavors
Kombucha: Panacea or Peril?
Making Kombucha
Kombucha Candy: Nata
Chapter 7. Fermenting Milk
Raw Milk: Microbiology and Politics
Simple Clabbering
Other Milk Cultures
Plant Origins of Milk Cultures
Crème Fraîche, Butter, and Buttermilk
Factory Versus Farmstead Cheesemaking
Non-Dairy Milks, Yogurts, and Cheeses
Chapter 8. Fermenting Grains and Starchy Tubers
Engrained Patterns
Soaking Grains
Fermenting Oatmeal
Atole Agrio
Millet Porridge
Sorghum Porridge
Rice Congee
Old Bread Porridge
Potato Porridge
South American Cassava Breads
Fermenting Potatoes
Sourdough: Starting One and Maintaining It
Sourdough Bread
Sour Rye Porridge Soup (Zur)
Sierra Rice
Kishk and Keckek el Fouqara
Fermenting Grains with Other Kinds of Foods
Fermenting Leftover Grains (and Starchy Tubers)
Chapter 9. Fermenting Beers and Other Grain-Based Alcoholic
Wild Yeast Beers
Sorghum Beer
Merissa (Sudanese Toasted Sorghum Beer)
Asian Rice Brews
Basic Rice Beer
Sweet Potato Makgeolli
Millet Tongba
Malting Barley
Simple Opaque Barley Beer
Cassava and Potato Beers
Beyond Hops: Beers with Other Herbs and Botanical Additives
Chapter 10. Growing Mold Cultures
Incubation Chambers for Growing Molds
Making Tempeh
Cooking with Tempeh
Propagating Tempeh Spores
Making Koji
Plant Sources of Mold Cultures
Chapter 11. Fermenting Beans, Seeds, and Nuts
Cultured Seed and/or Nut Cheeses, Pâtés, and Milks
Coconut Oil
Cacao, Coffee, and Vanilla Fermentation
Spontaneous Fermentation of Beans
Acarajé (Afro-Brazilian Fritters of Fermented Black-Eyed Peas)
Using Miso
Soy Sauce
Fermented Black Beans: Hamanatto and Douchi
Dawadawa and Related West African Fermented Seed Condiments
Fermenting Tofu
Chapter 12. Fermenting Meat, Fish, and Eggs
Drying, Salting, Smoking, and Curing
Dry-Curing Basics
Brining: Corned Beef and Tongue
Dry-Cured Sausages
Fish Sauce
Pickled Fish
Fermenting Fish with Grains
Filipino Burong Isda and Balao-Balao
Japanese Nare Zushi
Fermenting Fish and Meat in Whey, Sauerkraut, and Kimchi
Fermenting Eggs
Cod Liver Oil
Burying Fish and Meat
High Meat
Meat and Fish Ethics
Chapter 13. Considerations for Commercial Enterprises
First Steps
Scaling Up
Codes, Regulations, and Licensing
Different Business Models: Farm-Based Operations, Diversification,
and Specialization
Chapter 14. Non-Food Applications of Fermentation
Waste Management
Disposal of Human Bodies
Fiber and Building Arts
Energy Production
Medicinal Applications of Fermentation
Fermentation for Skin Care and Aromatherapy
Fermentation Art
Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
A Note on References
Books Cited
Color Gallery


Printed in the United States of America
First printing April, 2012
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 12 13 14 15 16

Project Manager: Patricia Stone
Developmental Editor: Makenna Goodman
Copy Editor: Laura Jorstad
Proofreader: Eileen M. Clawson
Indexer: Margaret Holloway
Bacteria Border Illustration: Caroline Paquita
Chapter Illustrations: Elara Tanguy
Designer: Maureen Forys, Happenstance Type-O-Rama
All photographs by Sandor Ellix Katz, unless otherwise credited.