If you’ve ever fermented sauerkraut on your kitchen counter or kept a sourdough starter alive, you can probably thank Sandor Katz. When Katz released “Wild Fermentation” in 2003, it instantly became a household bible for homemade fermented foods and inspired a new generation of home cooks. Since then, knowledge and desire for fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and kosher dill pickles have spread, driving new products onto grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Twenty years later, Katz is to fermented foods what Julia Child is to French cuisine, or Roy Choi is to taco trucks.
Katz returns to Santa Cruz on Wednesday to promote the release of her latest book, “‘Fermentation Journeys'” at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I can’t wait to hear him speak again.
I saw him speak in 2013 when I was in my early twenties with a newfound interest in local foods. I had only recently become aware of fermented foods and, with the exception of cheese, I was a little wary of them. I walked into the lecture hall at UC Santa Cruz hoping he would answer questions like, “Do fermented foods taste weird?” and “Could I get sick if I ate them?” At the end of the night, I came away so inspired that I bought a head of cabbage the next day, and a few days later enjoyed my first batch of sauerkraut. This experimentation turned into a passion, and over the past 10 years I have filled ceramic pots and glass jars with kimchi, pickles, olives, sourdough, yogurt, butter, cider, soda and beer.
Originally from New York, Katz grew up around fermented foods and admits he was a shameless pickle thief as a child: “If there were a few pickles left in the jar and they disappeared, it was usually me.” He never thought about it being fermented foods, he just loved the tangy flavor which he later learned to recognize as lactic acid, a by-product of the fermentation of lactobacillus bacteria.
As an adult, he followed a macrobiotic diet that emphasized the digestive benefits of pickles and other live ferments, and began incorporating miso, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables into his meals. But his fermentation journey really began when, while living in rural Tennessee, harvest time arrived and he realized he had to do something with all his cabbage. Following a recipe he found in “The Joy of Cooking”, Katz made his first batch of sauerkraut, and his interest quickly snowballed into an obsession.
Since then, Katz has become a full-time writer and teacher and has traveled the world discovering and sharing her knowledge of fermented foods. In his “Travels of fermentation”, he shares some of these discoveries. I spoke with Katz from his home in Tennessee to discuss how people’s awareness around fermentation has changed over the past 20 years and what role he thinks he has played in its expansion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Warning: Some people think fermented foods are “strange” and consider fermented foods to be on the fringe of the American diet. What would you tell them?
Sandor Katz: They may have grown up not knowing about fermented foods or not thinking about fermented foods, but if they ate bread or cheese or deli meats, if they ate the standard American condiments, all of those things involve fermentation. Fermentation is part of everyone’s life. It’s just that most people in the 21st century don’t think about it. They just eat it.
When I was growing up, nobody talked about fermentation. I didn’t think about what things like yogurt and pickles and the beer and wine my parents drank had in common. Once I got interested in fermentation, I realized that all these different things are fermented, including chocolate.
Most people in the world who like fermented foods don’t know they’re fermented or think about the fact that they’re fermented. Nevertheless, the products of fermentation enjoy lasting popularity everywhere.
Warning: since the publication of your book “Wild Fermentation” in 2003, the popularity of fermented foods in the United States has exploded. What role do you think you played in this growth?
Katz: I guess I was part of that change, but really, until the start of the new millennium, all we heard about bacteria was how dangerous they were. I would really credit the Human Microbiome Project by slowly helping people realize that bacteria in general are not our enemies that need to be destroyed, but rather an essential part of us. In terms of evolutionary biology, all life forms are descended from bacteria and other prokaryotic organisms. Rather than viewing bacteria in general as our enemies, people today recognize that our health and well-being, the health of the soil, the health of other creatures, and the health of plants are interdependent. Bacteria help us live.
Fermented foods have been part of our various culinary traditions for thousands of years. They help improve biodiversity in the gut and thus potentially improve digestion and immune function, and even mental health. I would like to think that I had some sort of small role in popularizing fermentation and making people aware of fermentation. But I think receptivity to fermentation has everything to do with people’s more nuanced ideas about bacteria and the recognition that bacteria are important to our well-being.
Lookout: What did traveling teach you about fermentation and how did that influence your latest book, “Fermentation Journeys”?
Katz: I have always loved to travel and, thanks to the interest in fermentation and the success of my books, I have taught in nearly 30 countries. When I go somewhere to teach, I don’t just teach, I also meet people who introduce me to distinctive local foods. My education in fermentation really expanded through this and I got to know a lot of different fermented foods from different parts of the world. My knowledge is certainly not exhaustive – there are so many different types of fermented foods and drinks that people enjoy all over the world. As I got to know them, experimented with them, documented them, and in some cases learned to make them, I took notes and shared them with people in a more informal way. I always thought I’d eventually write a book like “Fermentation Journeys” to share some of the fermented foods and drinks I’ve come across.
Warning: Can you share a fermented food or drink from your new book that people may not know about?
Katz: One of the places I sought to go where I wasn’t specifically invited to teach was China. One of my Chinese-American students and her mother organized a trip to this small rural village in Guangzhou. There, people live pretty much a subsistence life and produce pretty much all the food they eat, and they do a lot of fermentation.
What got me so interested in going to China was that all of the historical stories about sauerkraut repeat the same general idea that sauerkraut originated in China. The nomadic peoples of Central Asia encountered cabbage, preserved cabbage in China, and then brought the idea westward to Europe. So I became interested in the historical roots of sauerkraut and the discovery of China pao cai. It’s a Chinese style of fermenting vegetables in a nice spicy brine. One of the great things about this process is that it becomes a perpetual brine, so the first batch of pickles might take two weeks to make, but once the brine matures, you can put vegetables in for much shorter periods and having them acidify quite quickly. So maybe the second batch would take a week, then the next batch might only take three or four days and then you know, once the brine is fully matured, just a day or two is enough.
I learned so much in China that I share in this book, including the use of a rice-based batter with some spices and salt to preserve fish and meat. Chinese rice wine is so wonderfully simple to make and I have a recipe for mi jiu, which is a fermented rice wine. These are just a few examples from China, but everywhere I went in all parts of the world I discovered interesting and distinctive foods.
Warning: with fermented foods so widely available these days, why should people try to make them at home?
Katz: Well, I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to make fermented foods at home. As you say, there are plenty of great quality products available, and you can enjoy some truly wonderful fermented foods that other people have made. What I mean is, if you’re interested in making fermented foods, there’s nothing to be intimidated about. Many people just assume that because fermentation involves bacteria, you need a degree in microbiology, a microscope, and specialized starter cultures. My interest is to demystify fermentation and make it accessible so that anyone wishing to ferment can do so with confidence. There are all sorts of compelling reasons to do it yourself, but I’m not on a mission to convince anyone that they shouldn’t ferment. My experience through teaching is that all kinds of people project all the anxiety they have been taught about the danger of bacteria onto the idea of fermentation, and I want to dispel that anxiety.
Sandor Katz’s Wednesday in-store appearance at Santa Cruz Bookstore is currently sold out. Additional places may become available depending on attendance. More information at bookstoresantacruz.com.