We all have our heroes. One of mine is Sandor Katz the man who changed the world of fermentation by explaining it to the rest of us. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend several days with Sandor both at his workshops and when he stopped in to visit my remote homestead in New Mexico. His books and style of teaching are casual and inviting just as he is in person. Please enjoy this brief five question interview with Sandor Katz which follows.
Your book “Wild Fermentation” was released in 2003 and has been called by the New York Times “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene”. Now there is an updated highlighter pink version. Can you tell us about what is new in this version?
A book is like a time capsule, what I was thinking at a particular time when I wrote it. When I wrote Wild Fermentation, I had 8 years of fermentation experience and had taught only a handful of workshops. Following its publication, I become a popular fermentation educator. I have now taught nearly 1000 workshops, I’ve been fermenting three times as long, and my education has been ongoing. I understand the processes of fermentation much better now, and I know even more about how to explain them to people. There are some new recipes, some old ones culled, most of them improved, and lots of great color photos; but the big difference in my mind is that in the revised edition that I develop concepts better and explain things more clearly.
The gut micro biome has become a hot topic. Researchers are making connections between our microflora and our mental health, physical performance and common ailments. You have been a long time believer in eating fermented foods. Are there any recent discoveries that surprise you?
It’s very exciting to be doing this work while there is a revolution happening in microbiology! I am not a scientist and I don’t always understand the research I see, but it confirms so much that these connections are being made between gut bacteria and so many aspects of our physiology and function. None of it specifically surprises me, except maybe how far-reaching the influence of bacteria seems to be in regulating our bodies.
Sauerkraut was the food that started your fermentation frenzy. What other foods do you recommend for people just getting into making their own ferments?
I think fermenting vegetables is the ideal place to start. There’s no need to obtain starter cultures, because lactic acid bacteria are already present on all plants. Although there are many elegant crocks you could use, a jar already in your pantry works just fine. If you’re nervous, don’t be, because there are no documented cases of food poisoning or illness anywhere from fermented vegetables. Plus, they are easy, delicious, preserve vegetables effectively, and are a great source of biodiverse probiotics. Fermented vegetables are infinitely flexible. You can do classics like sauerkraut or kimchi, or relishes, infused beverages, whole vegetables, any kind of spicing; it’s an extremely versatile process that begs for unique creative interpretation.
Another great project is sourdough. Beyond bread, I use mine for savory sourdough vegetable pancakes, for soup (zur), and for a lightly fermented beverage, kvass.
And/or, yogurt, and/or kefir, and/or koji…..
Once you get started in fermentation, the possibilities are endless.
What fermented foods do you find have the most health benefits?
My particular passion is for live-culture foods and beverages, meaning those fermented with bacteria, that are not cooked or heat processed after fermentation, so that the bacteria are still intact and alive. I think the most profound benefit that fermentation holds for us at present is broad communities of bacteria that can help to restore biodiversity in the gut. There is evidence that probiotic stimulation can improve digestion, overall immune function, and more, even mental health. But there is no single bacteria that does all this; it is a function of biodiversity. No single ferment is the most effective probiotic; the most effective probiotic is a variety of live ferments.
Aside from temperature controllers is there any other electronics that you have used or observed to assist fermentation?
For home fermentation, I can’t think of anything more; it’s really very simple. Maybe a humidity controller as well. For industrial fermentation, the engineered systems are incredibly elaborate. I visited a sake-maker in Japan with an automated koji-maker that not only monitors and maintains temperature, humidity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide; it also responds by mixing up the koji to break up clumps and release heat and carbon dioxide. Clever programmers and engineers are certainly creating very sophisticated machines.