The Revolution is Coming, One Bubble at a Time….

wild-ferm.gifBook Review: Wild Fermentation
(Sandor Elix Katz | Chelsea Green Publishing) 

*Stay tuned to the Jew & The Carrot in the next few days for an interview with Sandor Elix Katz and a chance to win a copy of Wild Fermentation!

When I describe my hobby of “recreational fermentation” in my urban life, I often get some funny looks.  When this happens, I frequently find myself wishing that more of my friends had read Sandor Elix Katz’s pickling classic, ” Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” - a book that brings down the ancient wisdom and practices of fermentation in simple, easy to understand language.

What is fermentation?  For Sandor, also known as Sandorkraut, “fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.” On a practical level, fermentation is the process of preserving foods while making them more digestible and nutritious through the action of beneficial micro-organisms, or “cultures.” These are the same cultures that are in your yogurt, and as Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions writes in the forward, “The science and the art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture.”

So what does fermentation have to do with us today, in an age of pasteurization, preservation, and refrigeration?

Fermented foods, such as traditional pickles, sauerkraut, kim-chee, beers, wines, yogurts and raw cheeses are full of essential creatures that our bodies need; “Microbial cultures are essential to life’s processes, such as digestion and immunity.” Most foods in natural states spoil quickly, but fermentation is a fantastic way to retard the process of spoilage as lactic acid and alcohol, both preservatives, are by-products of fermentation. Besides preservation, fermentation also makes food easier to digest. Little creatures break down complex molecules in grains, milk, and beans into simpler components, making them much easier for our stomachs to handle.


Lactose, the milk sugar that so many Americans cannot process, is broken down by fermentation into lactic-acid, which is much easier to digest. While Wild Fermentation offers many other great reasons to enjoy live foods, my particular favorite is that live foods contribute to biodiversity in the gut. Every healthy intestine is home to a diversity of beneficial bacteria which help break down the food we eat into more usable raw materials. Sandor writes; “your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse species of micro-organisms” and “By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body.” By practicing fermentation at home, in addition to linking ourselves to a chain of ancient traditions, we can incorporate the very organisms that make up our unique ecosystems into our own ecology.

Wild Fermentation opens with three hugely informative chapters giving the reader a brief historical and social context for the exploration of the art of fermentation. Sandor details the health and food-preservation benefits of fermentation, and moves on to fermentation’s social benefits, which he sees primarily as resistance towards today’s cultural homogenization brought about by the commodification of the food system. For Sandorkraut, “Wild fermentation is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake is your own home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial creatures present there to produce your own unique fermented foods.” Small scale fermentation is truly an act of subversion in today’s world; cultivating unique strands of bacteria in your kitchen while surrounded by a society purchasing anti-microbial soaps, scrubs, and yes, even anti-microbial earplugs.

In the fourth chapter of Wild Fermentation, Sandor explains the do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude that serves as a frame for the practical notion of fermentation. When you choose to DIY, you get to decide when something is “ripe” or “rotten”, both totally subjective concepts. The DIY attitude that Sandor introduces holds from everything to finding equipment (usually just vessels and lids), experimenting with recipes, or even growing your own ingredients. Sandor calls Wild Fermentation a “process oriented cookbook. That is, “the techniques I describe are what is important. The specific ingredients are in a way arbitrary and mean to be varied… Deviate from the recipes…” This attitude is extraordinarily empowering, and such a refreshing change from so many other cookbooks which can be condescending and didactic.


After the first four chapters, Wild Fermentation becomes much more like a traditional cookbook, organized into sections such as “Vegetable Ferments,” “Bean Ferments,” “Dairy Ferments (and Vegan Alternatives),” etc. He covers sourdough (how to make your own sourdough starter), beer, wine, and even vinegars. Additionally, Sandor includes an extremely helpful recipe list in the beginning and an appendix of cultural resources in the back to help your find a few harder to come by ingredients and pieces of equipments. The entire book is written in an appealing and friendly style.  Just about a month before I read Wild Fermentation I started baking sourdough breads, but I found most cookbooks to be extraordinarily complicated, relying on exact and precise measurements that I just could not handle.

Imagine my delight when I read Sandor’s introduction to baking bread: “As we embark upon breadmaking together, let me confess that I never ever measure anything when I make bread. I find appropriate proportions through texture.” Take that all you expensive bread books!!

While Wild Fermentation is worth buying just on the merit of Sandor’s tender and accessible style of writing, just as compelling is his artful understanding of fermentation as a social metaphor. In the final chapter, Sandor contrasts fermentation with fire, an unpredictable and often destructive force. “Fermentation,” he writes, “is not so dramatic. It bubbles rather than burns, and its trans formative mode is gentle and slow. Steady, too. Fermentation is a force that cannot be stopped. It recycles life, renews hope, and goes on and on.”

Fermentation is all around us, and with Sandorkraut’s help we can all begin to appreciate the power of those tiny, almost invisible, creatures that are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives.

Selected Book Reviews on The Jew & The Carrot

- Enlightened Kosher Cooking, by Nechama Cohen
- The Flexitarian Table, by Peter Berley

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One Response to “The Revolution is Coming, One Bubble at a Time….”

  1. Says:

    I study a lot so use ear plugs often. My favourite pair were custom moulded from a kit, they are far more hygienic than foam ear plugs and don’t seem to wear out. It’s far cheaper than having your earplugs custom made by a professional; I would recommend them to anyone who uses them often.

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