The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz was published two weeks and I got a copy from the publisher. It has a few conceptual chapters (“fermentation as a coevolutionary force”, health benefits, small business)  but most of it is DIY, how to ferment X, Y, and Z. Unlike a set of recipes, he includes background with each food so the result is a cross between an encyclopedia and a cookbook. There are also several pages of color photographs, cute marginal drawings, and excellent lists of references and sources. It covers lots of stuff I rarely see. For example, there is one page on fermenting eggs. When I’m in China, I eat lots of fermented eggs. The book doesn’t mention the controversy in China about heavy metals in the fermented eggs.

The author’s enthusiasm is contagious and I’m sure the book will encourage me to ferment more stuff. Nowadays I just make yogurt, kefir, and kombucha — not even sauerkraut. I once got a book called something like The Book of Yogurt that consisted of 30 different yogurt recipes — which differed from each other by only about 5%. Page after page the same with only minor differences. Talk about cut and paste! I got rid of it (“this is useless!”) but now I wish I had saved it because it was so funny.

Which is only to say that food writing is either incredibly difficult or incredibly awful. I used to subscribe to Saveur. Some of their recipes were very good. The writing was awful, however — like something from a tourist guide. Please, don’t tell me how beautiful the country, how friendly the cook, or how tasty the food! Katz does better than that, especially when he is describing what he has actually done. But about half of the book reminds me of my first piece of extended writing — a “state report” about Maine that I did when I was in fifth grade. I went to several encyclopedias and copied the interesting stuff. Katz has gone to quite a few books and copied the interesting stuff.

In at least one case, he has copied too much. I have made yogurt hundreds of times. Only in the beginning did I do something like what practically everyone in America, including Katz, advocates: heat the milk up, let it cool, put in the culture. Now I just take the milk from the refrigerator, put in a tiny amount of culture, surround the milk with hot water (using a Chinese yogurt-making machine that keeps the water warm), and wait. So much easier. The final product is better (smoother, thicker) than the old hard way, especially when I learned that tiny amounts of culture work better than large amounts. “In my experience, cultures from commercial yogurts never maintain their viability beyond a few generations,” Katz writes. My experience is different: I’ve never had a problem using them.

In contrast to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Art of Fermentation is more personal, more hands-on, and less scientific, all of which are improvements, in my opinion. It is also more opinionated, which since the opinions are commonplace, is bad. “I too love the beer they are usually thinking of . . . However I define beer more broadly than the famous 1516 Bavarian beer purity law . . . I define beer as a fermented alcoholic beverage in which . . . ” At another point, to my surprise, he mentions Jane Jacobs and her theory that agriculture began in cities. “If Jacobs’s theory is correct, then fermentation practices must also have had urban roots,” writes Katz. This is not interesting. The small business chapter is interesting whenever Katz is telling the story of a small business and uninteresting the rest of the time (“Consistency is not necessarily important to the home experimentalist”).

Oh well. I am glad to have a book that will encourage me to ferment more stuff and from which I can learn a lot about fermentation. The book is obviously a labor of love and there are not many of those.

6 Replies to “The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz”

  1. I’m going to get the book because I’ve become very fascinated with fermentation – made yogurt a few years ago using a heating pad for a constant heat source. The first pad was new, however it would automatically shut off to keep from burning the user – obviously that didn’t work. Got an old style pad from a neighbor who had two – it worked great, yogurt turned out great, burnt out the heating pad on the second batch – haven’t made yogurt since.

    I like sauerkraut (Bubbie’s), but get a little bored with it – my 93 yr old, Swiss heritage, Kansas farm girl mom says it tastes just like her mom’s. They kept it in a crock in the cellar.

    Found Sonoma Brinery barrel fermented Kosher pickles at WF – really good (most Koshers have too much garlic for my taste – not these – they even have little red chillies floating in the container with them).

    Really like kombucha (would really like to know how to pronounce that correctly) – but find it sometimes gives me stomach problems – a little heartburn – could be the carbonation – any ideas? I only drink the “original” flavor, so it’s not any added ingredients.

    Have you posted your fermentation recipes? If not, would you?


    Seth: I too like Sonoma Brinery products, the kosher pickles and the “raw sauerkraut”.

  2. Would you give us your recipes for kombucha and yogurt? It sounds as though you have figured out lots of shortcuts.

  3. Sonoma Brinery Outrageous Bread and Butter pickles are Outrageous too. My daughter has a friend who is a chef and says they’re the best pickles he’s ever eaten.

    Do pickles in vinegar count as fermented food?

    Seth: that’s good to know about the Bread and Butter pickles, which I haven’t tried. I like to think that sour pickles count as fermented food. They’re aged at room temperature.

  4. I think Chuck’s point is probably that you can imagine different ways for something to get sour: (A) It is sour because it contains bacteria that are producing some kind of acid (lactic, acetic). (B) It is sour because it contains a product that itself contains/contained bacteria that produced some kind of acid (e.g. vinegar, yogurt). (C) It is sour because someone simply added a bunch of acid (lactic, acetic, citric).

    (A) obviously counts as a fermented food.

    (B) depends a little on why fermented food is healthy, but it could be considered a fermented food to the extent it contains the relevant stuff. Some vinegar is distilled, some isn’t. Maybe non-distilled vinegar has good stuff from the aceto bugs.

    (C) probably doesn’t count as fermented food. And distilled white vinegar is basically (C), it is hard to imagine that it contains any bacteria cells or even bacteria by-products (other than the acetic acid itself).

    So if you make pickles by soaking cucumbers in room-temperature distilled white vinegar, you may not be getting any real benefit beyond flavor. I suppose there are probably a few bacteria in there, but it’s hard to imagine they are numerous/active enough to provide real benefit.

  5. Incidentally, if you are going to try to home-brew beer, I suggest starting with an actual homebrewing guide, not a chapter of a larger book on fermentation. Brewers are doing lots of interesting stuff, e.g. this:

    In general there is a large, thriving community experimenting with beer (and mead and wine), and people who are operating outside that community tend not to be up-to-date and to make a lot of rookie mistakes. E.g.:

    Many homebrewers, myself included, think that John Palmer’s How to Brew is the best starting place:

    (The website is free, the book is more extensive and is probably worth buying.)

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