Fermenting has been on my list of “skills I want to learn/get better at” for at least two years. The fact that it remains on that list — and doesn’t get moved to, say, the “skills I practice regularly and with confidence” list — tells me something. What’s holding me back?
It’s not that I haven’t dipped my toes in. Many of the kitchen projects I undertake regularly involve a process that’s essentially fermentation: making yoghurt, making cheese, baking sourdough bread. Yes, I’ve experimented with ginger beer and sauerkraut and kombucha. Yes, I’ve started thinking of our culinary world more in terms of cultures, and making friends with some of them. But I haven’t really, fully delved into the how and why of fermentation, or expanded my repertoire of fermented foods. Until finally, this winter, there’s been a shift. I can largely attribute it to a book I’m sure many of you are already familiar with (What took me so long, anyway?): Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation.I’d had and used his book Wild Fermentation for recipes before. But in The Art of Fermentation Katz goes far beyond, sharing in much greater depth his incredible knowledge about the processes of fermentation, its health benefits, the equipment needed for it, the cultural customs around it all over the world… the culture of cultures, really! I’m enough of a book nerd that I learn best this way: with the background knowledge, the theory part of how it all works, and ideally some illustrations, accompanying the practical tutorials. And sure enough, reading the book made me realize that behind my subtle hesitation about fermenting — specifically, fermenting vegetables — was a certain irrational fear about spoiled food. A fear that is quite common among people who, like me, have been raised in the era of refrigeration and anti-bacterial everything, relatively removed from the ancient rituals and rhythms of preserving food through fermentation. We have to re-learn to trust these processes, the fact that nature knows how to do this, how to “ripen” food in ways that don’t cause it to spoil, but on the contrary transform it into something tastier and more easily digestible. Katz really hammers it home to the reader how safe these processes are — safer than canning, for example, which I’ve been doing for years now. And he makes you really start to crave for all of those good bacteria and enzymes in your system!
And now I’m hooked. I can’t wait to start exploring this world further. It probably didn’t hurt that I finally splurged on the lovely Ohio Stoneware fermentation crocks, which I found much easier to work with than glass jars. I inaugurated them with a batch of sauerkraut, which was a success. Sauerkraut is ridiculously easy to make, but if you’re a visual learner like me, you might enjoy this video by Sandor Katz as an accompaniment to the recipe in Wild Fermentation. This time, I went with a fairly basic cabbage mix. Next I might try this recipe by my permaculture teacher Robyn Francis, sauerkraut with juniper berries and caraway seeds. And after that, as I’ve realized, the possibilities are endless. More to come!