The process of fermenting our food isn't a new one: Evidence indicates that early civilizations were making wine and beer between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago — and bread even before that.
But was exactly is fermentation? And how does it work? Those were the questions that fascinated Sandor Katz for years. Katz calls himself a "fermentation revivalist" and has spent the past decade teaching workshops around the country on the ancient practice of fermenting food.
Katz collects many of his recipes and techniques in a new book, The Art of Fermentation, in which he describes fermentation as "the flavorful space between fresh and rotten."
"If you walk into a gourmet food store and start thinking about the nature of the foods that we elevate on the gourmet pedestal, almost all of them are the products of fermentation," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Fermentation creates strong flavors. But they're not always flavors that everybody can agree on."
Hardcover, 498 pages |
In addition to enhancing flavors, fermentation also allows food items to be preserved well past their shelf-life date, says Katz.
"It's not forever like canned foods that you can put into a pantry or storm cellar and forget about for 10 years and still eat it," he says. "These foods are alive, they're dynamic, but they're extremely effective strategies for preserving food through a few seasons, which is really the point."
Starting With Sauerkraut
For fermentation newbies, Katz recommends starting with sauerkraut because it's particularly easy to make. To begin, take a cabbage and any additional vegetables you want and chop it up. Put your chopped veggies in a large bowl and lightly salt them. (Katz notes that he never measures the salt because there's really no "magic number for how much salt to use.")
After salting the veggies, which helps get rid of excess water, Katz squeezes them for a few minutes to release their juices, so that they can be submerged under their own liquid. (Katz says he hardly ever adds water to his kraut, because the flavor is more concentrated if you use only the vegetable juice.) He then stuffs the veggies and the juices they've released into a jar.
Katz recommends checking the jar on a daily basis to release the pressure — and then after maybe 3-5 days, enjoying your new creation.
"The flavors transform very quickly," he says. "The bacteria proliferate, the texture changes, and what I recommend to people experimenting for the first time, is just to taste it at periodic intervals. And then you're getting a sense of whether you're liking it more and more as the flavor gets more acidic or whether it's acidic enough and you want to move it into your fermentation-slowing device, which is your refrigerator."
Once you've mastered the simple kraut, Katz says you can add spices and/or other items like apples or cranberries to your jar. "You can basically use any season you like," he says.