Michael Pollan calls him “the Johnny Appleseed of fermentation,” but his friends just call him “Sandorkraut.”
Sandor Ellix Katz is an evangelist for fermentation in all its forms. In the new third edition of his classic book, Basic Fermentation: A DIY Guide to Cultural Manipulation (previously Wild Fermentation), he makes the case for never underestimating the power of bacteria—and offers a variety of accessible, low-cost options for experimenting with your own cultures.
Katz, who is best known for his award-winning fermentation bible, The Art of Fermentation (2013), keeps it simple in this low-fi, pocket-sized volume from Portland, Oregon’s Microcosm Publishing. With black-and-white art, a simple design, and a conversational tone, Basic Fermentation has the feel of a zine you’d pick up in an anarchist bookshop—which is entirely in keeping with the do-it-yourself ethos of the recipes inside.
A brief introduction encapsulates Katz’s approach to fermentation, which is all about embracing human beings’ connection with nature through wild yeast. Fermented foods have existed all over the world since ancient times: cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, wine and beer, pickles, miso, and many more foods and beverages all owe their flavor, their nutritive powers, and their extended shelf life to the transformative power of bacteria. Before refrigeration, fermentation was a practical way to preserve food supplies. It still is—and modern science has found that the live bacterial cultures present in many fermented foods are extremely beneficial to what’s known as the microbiome, the complex ecosystem of bacteria inside the human gut. The health of our gut flora affects not only digestion but our mental health, our ability to handle stress, and our immune systems. We’re just beginning to understand all of these connections, but the more scientists learn, the more it becomes clear that fermented foods have been important components of the human diet for many reasons.
The bulk of this small book, however, consists of recipes: step-by-step instructions for fermenting your own sauerkraut, kimchi, vinegar, cheese, capers, kefir, injera bread, pickles—you name it—all of them vegetarian. These instructions are highly detailed and clearly the product of many years of experience; not only are they clear and straightforward, they also address problems readers new to DIY fermentation might encounter and give practical advice for handling them.
Katz is, to put it plainly, a hippie. He lives, cooks, and ferments in a rural, “off the grid” commune and credits fermented foods with spiritual as well as physical health; as a queer activist who’s been HIV-positive since the 1980s, Katz is passionate about the role fermentation has played in his healing process. There’s plenty of spirituality suffusing the book, too. References to magic and life forces abound: in a sourdough recipe, yeast is “magically finding its way to the dough” with “gratifying purity”; wild foods, Katz tells us, “possess great power, some direct unmediated force of the rhythms of the earth.”
While readers’ reactions to this might vary, there are other aspects of his hippie-ness that are undoubtedly assets to the book. For example, many home cooks steer clear of fermentation projects because they envision having to purchase complicated equipment, boil it all within an inch of its life, and then perform exacting steps to achieve precise temperatures and conditions. Though Katz deals with this sort of project in the larger and more comprehensive The Art of Fermentation (which might be a better choice for more experienced home fermenters looking to get serious), he declines to do so here. This book stays where his heart is, “in a communal kitchen that I share with twenty other people—heated in winter by a wood stove with no thermostat.” There’s no beer brewing here (and only one very simple wine); the recipes here are the basics, those that “predate such technology and can be done low-tech.”
This approach makes the book highly accessible. Everything in it can be done not only low-tech but at low cost. A few ceramic crocks and glass jars, some plastic wrap, and a cooler will take you far in Katz’s world of fermentation, making it an inviting, unintimidating venture for the inexperienced. Katz holds the reader’s hand every step of the way, encouraging us to overcome any squeamishness about the thought of bacteria in our food and embrace the funky, tangy workings of the natural world. Does your fermented miso have a gross outer layer when you open up the crock? “Skim it off, throw it in the compost, and trust that below the surface the miso will be gorgeous and smell and taste great.” Moldy scum on the surface of your sauerkraut? “Scrape it away. Taste the kraut.”
Techniques for avoiding contaminating bacteria—as opposed to the good kinds—are laid out in detail, and Katz explains the principles behind them. Once you understand the organisms you’re dealing with and how they work, you can approach them without the fear that our modern antibacterial-everything society has inculcated—just as home fermenters have done for thousands of years. The “cultural manipulation” in the title is about bacteria cultures, of course, but it’s also about nudging our own US food culture in a new direction, one that’s less anodyne and a lot funkier.
There’s a certain trust in the reader here that’s evident in Katz’s writing. He tells us everything we need to know, but he’s not one for rigid procedure and lets readers know where there’s room for experimentation. When making tempeh on the commune, he tells us, he jerry-rigs his oven to maintain a constant temperature of 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit; he also incubates tempeh in the commune greenhouse or uses a wood stove in a small room. “Be sure to maintain good air circulation around the incubating tempeh,” he tells us, but trusts that those of us who don’t live on communes will find solutions that fit our living spaces: “Innovate, make it work.” Raising colonies of bacteria is, perhaps, a little more like parenting than like manufacturing; it can be unpredictable and each individual attempt turns out a little differently, but approach them with love, care, and some ancient common sense and you’ll grow something (or someone) amazing.
There are a few things about the book that don’t quite work. A one-page section on chocolate tells us only that fermentation is somehow involved in the cacao-roasting process, but offers no details or recipes, and ending the book with a rambling two-page quotation from the 1944 Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on fermentation is a puzzling choice, unlikely to appeal to readers who aren’t already fermentation wonks; it feels like padding. But these are minor flaws, easily skipped over.
In the end, Basic Fermentation does exactly what it sets out to do. It invites readers into Katz’s kitchen to try some extra-funky homemade yogurt and fresh-baked sourdough—and to learn the theory, practice, art, and magic of fermentation. Don’t be surprised if you get hooked.
Book cover and Author photo courtesy of Microcosm Publishing