Fermentation bubbles back into the mainstream
House-made cultured, cured, fermented foods are multiplying in restaurant and home kitchens
Adapted from Sandor Katz's "Wild Fermentation" and his online video about fermenting vegetables to make what he calls "kraut-chi." (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)
It's called fermentation. Its adherents are called fermentos.
And its unofficial guru is a lanky Manhattan-raised, Tennessee homesteader with mutton chop whiskers called Sandor Katz.
For a couple of decades now, Katz has been studying and experimenting with fermented foods. And he's collected much of that knowledge in books that include his 2003 "Wild Fermentation" and his new best-selling tome "The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World."
In them, he notes that fermented foods — which include beer, olives, cheese, pickles, miso, yogurt, cured meats and sourdough bread — are nothing new or radical. In fact, they represent some of the highest achievements and oldest food traditions of their respective cultures.
What is fairly recent, however, is the notion that these foods were supposed to be made in a factory rather than our own homes.
"Almost everyone above a certain age has a memory of a grandparent who did some fermentation in the household," Katz said from his home in the Short Mountain Sanctuary about 60 miles southeast of Nashville. "It was something that was always a part of the household and the community. But with mass consolidation of the food system and centralization of production, sourdough bread took the form of Wonder bread and home-brewed beer took the form of Budweiser. … Coming back to it today is all a part of our desire to get closer to the source of our food and food traditions."
Even first lady Michelle Obama has gotten in on the act by posting a recipe for the first White House kimchi.
Restaurant trend magazine Plate, based in Chicago, recently devoted a whole issue to fermentation. Editor Chandra Ram notes that the trend taps into a growing desire among chefs and home cooks to preserve seasonally purchased foods, produce uniquely flavored menu items that tell a story and create pickley house-made garnishes that can hold their own with richer cuts of meat and charcuterie (also often house cured) that proliferate on menus today.
"Finally, there is a small but growing interest in probiotics, and fermented and preserved foods fill that need quite nicely," Ram said. "Add to all of the above the fact that more people are interested in cooking but only have time for projects on weekends, and small batch fermentation and preservation is an easy fit."
Katz found fermentation an easy fit in the early '90s when he unearthed a crock in an old barn on the Short Mountain property. By washing it and stuffing it with salted cabbage from the communal garden, he produced the first batch of what would become his signature ferment, eventually earning him the nickname Sandorkraut. Today, he travels the world giving fermentation workshops but believes he'll always be in the process of learning, especially from other fermentos, "who have taught me more than I ever could have learned through my own experimentation," he says.
This view of fermentation as a continuing, personal, intuitive process rather than a rule-based one has led Katz to abandon recipes in his new book — although he included dozens in "Wild Fermentation."
"I've given (readers) demystifying information without giving them hard and fast rules," he says. "There are no right or wrong answers. It's about how you like it. If you do a blind taste test with a dozen people, they will have very different conclusions about how much sugar and how much time kombucha needs, for instance. ... I just don't think there are generic answers for things like that."
In the new book, Katz offers generous helpings of history, microbiology and culinary advice on how fermentation can make our food more delicious. He explores, without embracing, all of the health claims attached to fermented foods, even as he gives them some credit for his robust health more than a decade after being diagnosed as HIV positive.
One of the many fans of Katz's work is food writer Michael Pollan who wrote the foreword to "The Art of Fermentation" and features Katz prominently in his upcoming book "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." In his graceful foreword, Pollan admits to having caught the fermento bug himself and describes the various crocks and jars that gently gurgle and bubble around his house.
Katz also has earned a host of admirers among chefs, including Kory Stewart of San Francisco's Americano. Drawing inspiration from Katz's books and his own travels to Southeast Asia, Stewart has added a growing repertory of house-fermented dishes to his menu including fermented padron chili paste that he adds to half a dozen dishes.
"We start with roasted chilies and salt and the paste tastes good," Stewart says. "But once you ferment it, you get these complex flavors of oil-cured olives and preserved lemons. For me that's the test (it passes): that it tastes better than what you started with before fermentation."
Although Stewart says he's had no fermentation-linked health inspection problems, Katz says he knows many celebrated chefs who must hide ferments from inspectors "because they don't fit into the food safety paradigm that we've organized the rules around."
A basic rule of this paradigm prohibits holding food for certain periods at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees, but as Katz notes, most fermented foods were developed precisely to keep food safe at those temperatures.