Category Archives: Making Ferments

How to make live-culture and other fermented foods

Thinking Categorically About Food

People often ask me where my culinary creativity comes from.  This post addresses at least one major source which I call “categorical thinking.”  Saueressen is not just an artisan cooperative delivering farm-fresh fermented foods to the community, but also an educational institution teaching live-culture life skills, empowering people toward greater freedom, nutrition and culinary capacities in their lives!  This and other posts will serve as foundations for community-based workshop curricula, part of Saueressen’s work to reskill the local foodshed.

Contents

  1. The Foundations of a Pantry Chef
  2. Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food
  3. Making it happen: abundance, scarcity and fear

The Foundations of a Pantry Chef

A huge part of working with food effectively involves what I call “categorical thinking.”  That is, thinking about the different elements of the kitchen process and how they contribute to the overall dish.  In the specific case of ingredients, something might add saltiness, or moisture, or fat, or sweetness, or sourness, or umami, or chewiness, or creaminess, or bulk, it may act as a binder or thickener, aromatic, savory, any or all the above and more.

Thinking categorically about food allows us to improvise and empowers us to explore new combinations and hone in on core ingredients to keep stocked in our pantries.  This largely distinguishes a good pantry chef from someone who feels dependent on specific recipes and tools.   Don’t have that one ingredient?  Rush to the store!  Don’t have that one kitchen item?   Better go buy it!  Pull together your weekly shopping list based on your recipe plan.  Recipes, lists, cell-phone apps, endless specialized tools, oh my!  How did people get by without these things?  Pantry chefing saves time and money while leading to amazing discoveries.  Pantry chefing generally allows us to throw together fantastic meals from ingredients on-hand, and it affords us flexibility to substitute and experiment piecemeal and bit by bit with new ingredients even as we maintain a solid foundation.

Pantry chefing means knowing the true value of what we have.  For example, that lemon balm growing like a weed outside your building isn’t just for shits and giggles — it makes a fantastic culinary herb.  The first time I made zaatar, I didn’t have sumac on-hand, so I went to the store.  I couldn’t find it at any store, after trying several.  I did, however, remember that it imparted a lemony-sour flavor to the dish.  So I minced some lemon balm and macerated it in vinegar and added that into the zaatar.  It turned out fantastic.  Not exactly the same as zaatar with sumac, but still really good in its own right.  Lemon balm also makes a great pesto.  In fact, “pesto” just means “ground into a paste.”  You can make a pesto out of pretty much any tender, leafy aromatic herb.  Not just basil. Carrot fronds, parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano, sage, etc.

Everyone knows you serve fish with a slice of lemon or lemon juice, right?  Don’t have lemon on hand?  Try another citrus fruit.  Don’t have any citrus on hand?  Well, try pan-frying fish covered in a garlic-lemon balm paste (use a fat like butter, lard or coconut oil to smear the paste onto the fish) and vinegar (either in a marinade or as a condiment).  Or, maybe you have sumac on-hand.  Congrats — by substituting things out for the “citrus” and “sour” categories, your cooking just got a whole lot more creative!

Don’t have honey?  Mollasses, maple syrup, fruit syrup, sugary fruit preserves all do the trick, and vice-versa, while adding their unique footprint to the finished recipe.

Making mayonnaise?  It requires egg yolk, right?  Well, mayo is really just emulsified oil with added salt, sweet and acid components, sometimes a fancy “aioli” with aromatics like herbs or garlic.  What else works as an emulsifier?  Try substituting avocado for the egg yolk.  You might understand this instinctively, knowing that avocado makes great smoothies or can make a fantastic egg-free banana bread.  With categorical thinking, you just landed smack dab in the middle of a delicious bowl of vegan mayo — without any of those weird ingredients you find in the commodity “veganaise” you might buy at the store!

In no way do I disparage recipes or recipe-based weekly grocery lists.  I think they are great starting points for reskilling ourselves in the art of food prep.  But I encourage everyone to move beyond that limitation and develop their own culinary repertoire, vision and style.  One major way we do that is through categorical thinking.

Taste, smell, texture, size.  What ingredients cook quickly, burning easily or turning to mush?  What ingredients take a while?  What “residual flavors” do you want to impart?  Maybe you should cook those things first, unless their flavor burns off quickly.  Then add them last or even save them as a fresh ingredient or garnish.

One of the trade-offs is specificity.  Most people who make recipes don’t really seem to know what they are doing.  But there are many recipes out there that call for specific ingredients and processes, and for good reason.  While thinking categorically in many ways lowers the bar and makes recipes easier, it also means we need to broaden our expectations about the results, because it will most often result in different tastes and textures in the end product.  It’s also possible to acheive results very close to the original recipe, but I think mimicry should take a back seat to discovery as the goal.  Different does not mean “better” or “worse.”  Our goal to produce a satisfying, delicious, pleasing result always remains, even though the result might be slightly different than that one recipe you found on that one website or in that one book.  Or maybe you have a recipe handed down to you through generations of family folklore.  You can decide whether you commit an act of tribute or sacrilege through creative categorical modification.

On a similar note, sometimes a specialized tool really does the job better, more quickly, more safely.  On the other hand, it takes a chunk of change from your wallet and will just add to the already-formidable kitchen clutter (don’t try to tell me you don’t have kitchen clutter without explaining exactly how you’ve managed to work your way around that landmine).  For the longest time, I didn’t have a double-boiler.  But I have pots and bowls. So I just nested a small glass bowl neatly inside a pot of slightly larger diameter filled with water and made sure the bottom of the bowl didn’t touch the bottom of the pot.  It worked well enough.  But the second-hand dedicated double boiler bowl I have now gives me greater capacity and it allows me to use the pot lid.  And at the end of the day it’s also, you know…a bowl.

I do the vast majority of all my food prep with a chef’s knife and a paring knife.  I love learning new knife techniques.  However, if you make a lot of julienned vegetables — consider them a staple in your weekly household fare, rather than a phase — then it might be worth getting that one device that makes julienning a little easier, faster and safer for us mere mortals.

Here’s some more examples of categories I think about, to get you started…consider this a window into my mind, how I think about “specific dishes”

Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food

Tabbouleh:  minced aromatic salad, usually with a salt and acid component, diced fruit (dried or fresh) and a minced carbohydrate (for paleo, i use apple or carrot or dried fruit; for gluten-free, try quinoa instead of bulgar wheat) and lots of olive or avocado or walnut oil to give it a moist mouth feel.  The last tabbouleh I made was from carrot fronds with lots of supplemental aromatic herbs, including mint, oregano, sage and lemon balm.  It’s a great way to dispose of a wealth of herbs.  Tabbouleh also makes a great summer dish because it doesn’t require heating up the house — another food category.  During the hottest days, I tend to focus more on light salads, coleslaws with sides of cold meats (like salami or smoked salmon or chicken).

Sausage:  minced or ground salted aromatic fatty meats
As long as the meat is minced or finely chopped, it’s fatty enough, and salty enough, it starts tasting a lot like sausage.  Beyond that, no matter what other ingredients I add, it always turns out great sausage.  I just made some ground beef sausage with finely minced fennel fronds, basil and mint blossoms (stuff from my garden), garlic, onion and wine vinegar.  The meat wasn’t fatty enough, so I minced some frozen bacon fat and added it in to the mix.  Turned out fantastic.  Consequently, this is how I started adding organ meats and other nutrient dense offal back into my diet.  Texture and taste are acquired, and I can say I have not, in the course of my life, acquired a fondness for the texture and taste of liver.  However, when I chop it and mix it with aromatic herbs and spices and salt it, I love the texture and taste.  I can still tell it’s liver, but now it’s…surprisingly good, and even more nutrient dense than plain liver (is that even possible?).  Try one teaspoon of salt per pound of meat, and go heavy on the aromatics.

Kraut:  brined and fermented brassicas, undrained, plain or with other ingredients.

Chi:  brined and fermented brassicas, drained and flavored with an aromatic paste or pesto.

Sauerchi:  The best of both worlds.

Fries:  stripped or julienned starchy vegetables, fried and salted.  Use medium-high heat (depending on the veggie) so they are a bit crispy and brown on the outside and tender on the inside.  I can’t eat potatoes, but I make fries with sweet potatoes, sunchokes, carrots and other roots and tubers, even squash strips or kholrabi.

Saag:  spiced leafy green vegetables stewed in fat and broth until tender and mellow.  I make it with bumper crops of spinach, wild spinach (pigweed/amaranth greens), and chard, mostly, but you can use pretty much any leafy green, even kale or collards (although it will take longer to cook and have a different texture).  You can get rid of a LOT of greens in a single pot of saag.  I use the tender stems, but chop them like celery and onions and add them in at the beginning with the rest of the soup base so they have extra time to heat and reduce and tenderize with the rest of the base ingredients.  Otherwise, they might ruin the smooth and creamy texture.  The spices are up to you. Sometimes I do something more mediterranean, but often I use combos of ginger and cinnamon and clove.  Meat optional, but I always cook the veggies in the base very well before adding the greens, deglazing several times to reduce and dissolve them (for texture) and caramelize their sugars, bringing natural sweetness and depth to the dish.  If I have it on-hand, I’ll add bone broth or extra fat (coconut or dairy cream, butter, coconut oil, lard, etc) to enhance creaminess.

Frittata:  a beaten egg mixture poured and cooked over stir-fried vegetables — a savory egg pie.  Prepped on stovetop w/a lid on the pan or finished in the oven to crisp the top.  A quiche is just a frittata with a crust around it.  Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo got rid of the carbs but kept the crust with her Prosciutto-wrapped mini frittata muffins (is it a muffin?  is it a frittata?  is it a quiche?  Yes!), in a great example of creative categorical culinary thought.

Soft tea:  a home-brewed soft drink made from tea, sweetened and fermented to add some sourness and carbonation.  Examples of soft tea include kombucha, which tends to be pretty acidic, bordering on unfinished vinegar (not my cup of tea), and ginger beer (which requires steeping the ginger in boiling or hot water for a while to extract the gingery goodness).  I like my soft teas with a subtle sourness that sets them apart from kombucha, very little sweetness (because the sour isn’t overwhelming and my body doesn’t do well with lots sugar and I the flavor of the tea itself to come through the sourness and the sweetness) and moderate carbonation.

Revisit what you know about “soups” and “stews” and “pies” and baked and stovetop dishes, marinades and sauces and others.  Categorical thinking tends to focus on prep techniques and processes just as much as ingredients.  Much of the results reside in the process.  For example, sometimes taste comes from process rather than ingredients. The first time I brought my ginger beer to a party, someone said, “mmm, it tastes like it has lemon in it!” I said, “it doesn’t.”  It has three ingredients:  water, honey and ginger. “How did you get it to taste lemony?” she asked.  “I sweeten and ferment it until it sours mildly with lactic and acetic acid, then I resweeten it slightly and bottle it to carbonate.  That way it stays low-alcohol.”  <long pause>  “…So, you’re saying it doesn’t have any lemon in it…?”

Categorical thinking cuts both ways, like a double-edged sword.  You can get all the ingredients right, but still screw up the process.  Or, thinking about it differently, you can create a completely different dish using the same ingredients with a different process.  Don’t want frittata?  Have an omelette instead!  Or some stir-fried veggies and a side of eggs over-easy.  Same ingredients.

Consider the techniques, texture (e.g,. fibrous, crisp, mushy), cutting/chopping pattern, tastes, smells, nutrition, tools (how are you going to get the skin off that raw winter squash?), functional roles (is that going to work as a binder?), etc.

I often substitute leeks (aka “bunching onions”) for both onion bulbs (cooked) and green onions (raw) in many dishes, because I have them on-hand (they grow prolifically in my garden with little or no help for me, stocking me with onions for months out of the year).  I sometimes also think of “alliums” as a culinary category, much like “citrus” or “parsley” (carrot greens, celery greens, etc).  Don’t have onion?  I can still add garlic or chives.  Different, but still pungent-sweet-good.

Want to do barbeque chicken, but don’t have either a grill or a barbeque sauce?  Well, barbeque sauce combines a sweetened fruit base with alliums (onions — oftened caramelized — and/or garlic), acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice) and salt.  The last barbeque sauce I made was from blueberries.  It’s a very strongly-flavored condiment that adds to and enhances the flavor of the entire dish, so don’t be afraid to go heavy on the acid, salt and sweet.  The grill adds a smokey flavor, but you can still easily achieve the browning by searing the salted chicken at high heat before slathering in sauce and baking or braising.  I can’t have tomatoes, but I also love making barbeque sauce and sloppy joe’s using applesauce or apple-based ketchups as a substitute.  Delicious!

Making it happen:  Abundance, Scarcity and Fear

In the end, the categories you use reflect your individual focus and priorities, including your skills, tools, preferences, challenges, etc.  Some people just cannot bring themselves to make tabbouleh without parsley.  Others cannot bear to think of orange as a substitute for lemon.  All of which brings up another wonderful point:  categorical thinking helps people explore and develop their individual culinary voice and vocabulary.  It leads to culinary diversity, which I find wonderful because when you and I talk shop, we’ll offer one-another unique perspectives on food prep.  Our dialog creates even more ideas and possibilities to explore.  So, you don’t like orange juice with fish because it’s too sweet and not sour enough?  Yup.  What if we add some apple cider or wine vinegar to it?  No, it’s not lemon juice but…hmmm…mmmm…interesting.  Ya know, I’d like to braise a chicken in this!  Oh, wow.

Thinking categorically starts when you flip the switch from the train of thought that asks, “what ingredients or skills or tools don’t I have?” to “what ingredients and skills and tools do I have to meet the spirit of the need at hand?”  This describes the difference between scarcity-based and abundance-based thought.  Scarcity thinking confines us in a cacoon of fear, limits and controls us.  In contrast, abundance thinking frees us to relate and experiment and experience and grow and share.  Another positive consequence of abundance-based thinking is that it implies and facilitates greater gratitude, graciousness and appreciation for life, which also helps enhance our mood and make us happier and healthier.  When I make mistakes, I now look for the lessons and growth opportunities.  Not only do I become better, stronger, etc as a result — but it also lowers my stress level a lot.  More specifically, thinking in terms of abundance about categories of food, ingredients, processes, techniques and tools provides us endless possibilities to explore.  Which of the literally infinite possible things can you do with an onion?  I know a few…and I aim to learn more all the time.

Some might think, “Ok, that’s all well and good, but where do I start?”  You start wherever you are at, with whatever you know and whatever you have.   You learn to trust yourself and your senses and your vision and imagination — the more you use them, the greater they grow in strength and sensitivity and usefulness.  I started over a decade ago with nothing but a cheap chef’s knife (that I still have and love) and the knowledge that I liked making quesadillas.  My quesadillas steadily evolved from cheese in a folded tortilla, fried.  Then I added some veggies and salsa.  Then I caramelized some onions.  Oooh.  After a year or so, my quesadillas started looking more like fried tacos, stuffed full of delicious veggies and meats and sauces, but they still had that cheese and crispy fried tortilla.  This is called embellishment, an important component of categorical thought.  Try it with grilled cheese, or pasta, or any other simple dish you know.  Then, when things get complicated, revisit the basics.  After years of making soups, I recently discovered a new favorite (and nutritious) comfort food:  rich bone broth, slightly salted, with fresh thyme and coconut milk.

You develop culinary skills by practicing and picking up hints and tips here and there and making mistakes and learning from them.  It took me ten years until I observed and learned how to hold a chef’s knife…and as long to learn how to keep it sharp and file down the spine so that it doesn’t bite into my hand.  I don’t regret those intervening years at all — far from time wasted, they remain filled with amazing adventures and discoveries along the way.  I learned many easy and difficult lessons.  Most recently, when I almost severed my pinky finger from my hand, I learned the importance of always a. staying attentive and present to the task at hand, b. clearing and maintaining a clean and uncluttered workspace for food prep, and c. letting the knife fall, if it falls, rather than trying to catch it.  I feel incredibly grateful for those lessons — they have made me a better person and contribute in many other indirect and unseen ways to my life.  Similarly, by adding too much oil or salt to a dish, I learned how to identify “enough.”

I tell people that “I eat my mistakes,” as a way to both literally and figuratively ingest them and pick them apart so I know what to do better or differently next time and really let the lessons sink in.  By relishing learning opportunity, I don’t allow my fear of mistakes to paralyze me so much anymore.  Yes, I still fear mistakes.  When I release myself from fear of making mistakes, even my mistakes become gifts.  Sometimes, they represent the greatest gifts, as some of my biggest mistakes have also led to some of my biggest successes and points of growth.  That to me represents the immense power of abundance-based thought.

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Time-Lapse Video and Troubleshooting Cultured Milk

Fermentation can be funny sometimes.  Same ingredients, same process (or so it seems), and yet different results.  Fortunately, “different” seldom means “ruined.”  But it requires us to think creatively or adjust expectations.    So my curds separated from my whey in my dairy ferment.  Ruined?  No, certainly not.  Cheese?  Well on its way!

Donna Schwenk created a short time-lapse video that effectively illustrates how temperature, time and starter ratios (the volume of starter culture compared to fresh milk) all interact to produce different results.  Watch the video here (sorry, there’s no way to embed):

http://www.culturedfoodlife.com/new-video-kefir-separating/

Milk is just a colloidal suspension (specifically, an emulsion) of proteins and fats in water.  Under certain conditions (such as acidification), these different components can separate out.  In this case, the physical process of separation involves the denaturing (curdling) of proteins, causing them to tangle and gob up with one-another, and the production of carbon dioxide, which then gets trapped among the now-solid proteins, causing them to rise to the top of the vessel.  Shaking or stirring typically disentangles and redistributes the proteins, releasing the trapped carbon dioxide as well.

In my experience, the separation tends to happen when acid-producing strains become dominant. There’s a rhythm to backslopping, so the frequency with which you use and renew the culture also affects its behavior (people who work with sourdough tend to understand this principle).  I would consider frequency a fourth variable for us to keep in mind, alongside ratio of starter used and temperature and time (as displayed in the video).

If I’m making a rennet-free kefir or yogurt cheese, then I want the curds to separate from the whey, as the video portrays.  This involves minimal disturbance so the proteins can tangle together and form a gel-matrix.  I can then further drain and salt and press and age the curds into cheese, depending on the type of cheese I want.  However, if I want my dairy ferment to stay smooth and creamy, then I’ll shake and stir it periodically as it ferments, or try making several smaller batches in rapid succession and use a smaller ratio of starter:total volume than normal to rebalance the microbial community.

Relational Note

Learning these subtleties takes fermentation and our relationship with the wonderful micro-organisms who preserve our food and nourish us to a whole new level.  It involves a dialog betwen us and them.  “Ok, this is what I want, what do you need to help me produce those results?”  We think of the industrious little critters less as slaves and more as coworkers and colleagues, and ultimately giving us better food and better emotional results (including less stress!).

Community Note

This post started as a follow up and embellishment of Donna Schwenk’s response to a confused customer’s questions.  I respect her for trying to troubleshoot problems based on 3rd party descriptions.  I wouldn’t.  Too many variables and…ever played a game of telephone?   This brings about another reason for why Saueressen exists:  to provide real-world community-based expertise.  We need to talk directly.  We need to workshop food security in the same room, compare notes as we observe the same problems and processes.  This is the next level of the fermentation revolution.  We have tons of internet experts.  Saueressen will contribute its small part.  But the we need now, more than ever, solid and rigorous community-based expertise.  Just like deli’s dot the map across the continent, Saueressens (and artisan co-ops like them) should find their niche in every community where moderate interest in food fermentation exists.

Cultural Resilience in Yogurt Making

Contents

  1. part 1: (mostly) Background and Philosophy
  2. Part 2:  (mostly) Process and Practice
  3. Epilogue

part 1: (mostly) Background and Philosophy

I’ve been making yogurt (and many other fermented foods) since 1998.  But unlike many other DIY yogurt-makers, I’ve made every batch from the same starter culture I began using when I first started making yogurt with great success.

This should come as a surprise to many other yogurt makers.  I can’t count the number of times I come across recipes on the internet that say something along the lines of, “Your starter culture is only good for a few generations.  It will begin to weaken and eventually won’t make a good yogurt.  You’ll need to throw it out and buy a new starter culture.”

This is commercialized nonsense, along the lines of those ridiculous single-purpose plug-in “yogurt maker” machines.  Some people will do anything to make a buck, preying on our ignorance and insecurity, and there’s a lot of misinformation packaged as expert advice on the internet from people who really don’t know what they’re talking about.  Beware of those who spread FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt!  In contrast, for the best discussion on yogurt making tips and techniques I’ve ever read, check out http://www.nwedible.com/do-you-need-to-heat-milk-for-yogurt-making/  It’s worth reading just to familiarize yourself with a “good discussion” to help you identify and steer clear of the many FUD-based misinformation traps.  You’ll see there are as many ways to make “good yogurt” as there are ways to define “good yogurt.”

When I first started making yogurt, I tried using one of those single-purpose “yogurt maker” machines as well.  My yogurt was consistently mediocre.  I look back at my first attempts as proof that technology is no substitute for knowledge, wisdom, experience, intuitive experimentation and keen observational skills.  Instead of giving up like many people do, I was determined to get the yogurt of my dreams at home:  sour, creamy, consistent (but not too thick!) texture.  Along the way, I learned a lot about yogurt cultures and fermentation in general.

I first began by building my own starter culture.  A starter culture is a community of micro-organisms.  Like any community, it needs population diversity.  Most live-cultured yogurt you get at the store contains only a few, largely-domesticated bacterial strands, carefully bred to perform under very specific conditions.  Consider these commercial cultures the “prima donnas” of yogurt: finicky, fragile, expensive, fickle, easy to control and manipulate.  A strong yogurt culture, in contrast, will have dozens of strains of bacteria — and maybe even some yeast, and will thrive in a wide range of conditions.  But it will be difficult or impossible to “control.”

Wait a minute, here.  Let’s stop and think about what we are doing.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is famous for pioneering more just, sustainable and productive forms of agriculture.  He sells milk, beef, eggs and poultry.  But, in his words, he’s not a milk, beef, egg or poultry farmer.  He’s a grass farmer, and maintains grass-based ecosystems.  The cows and chickens he raises are actually a “by-product” (sic) of that system.  If he has a healthy grass ecosystem, he has happier and healthier cows and chickens, who in turn provide great-tasting milk, beef, eggs and poultry that are arguably also healthier for us (e.g, in their balance of Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids).

We can use Joel Salatin’s example to describe a successful food fermentation process:  we don’t “make fermented food” — we are microbial farmers focusing on supporting communities of micro-organisms.  The fermented food is just a wonderful “by-product.”  If our microbial communities are happy, then our fermented food will turn out excellent. My yogurt is wonderful.  Batches are consistent.   I attribute my success first and foremost to a shift in my mindset away from “yogurt making” and toward “microbial farming/gardening.”  In short:  I strive to create the conditions and environment where the desirable organisms thrive.  Rather than trying to “make bacteria turn milk into yogurt” I attract the bacteria I want and keep them happy.  It’s a very different relationship — more of a partnership than the typical commercial “master/slave” dynamic.

My yogurt culture is part of the family.  It is important to me.  My yogurt culture gives me nutrition.  It turns an unedible (for me, at least) animal product into an edible, delicious and (arguably, more nutritious and safer) food that, at the very least, does not cause an acute detoriation in my health when I eat it.  I owe the yogurt culture a debt of gratitude.  I have an obligation to protect it and help it thrive.  This obligation is not just moral — it is material: epicurean, nutritional and caloric.

This mindset is also akin to the “predator-prey” bargain that Derrick Jensen mentions in his two-volume book:  Endgame.  The predator-prey bargain goes like this:

If I eat a salmon, I depend on the salmon.  Through this relationship, the salmon becomes me, and I become more the salmon.  I create an obligation to protect  the health and welfare of the larger salmon population.   I must also protect their habitat, because their habitat is now my habitat.  This is not an altruistic obligation: If I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain, the salmon and I will both suffer as a result.

I use the salmon example, because a healthy salmonid population is an indicator and steward of a vibrant terrestrial riparian ecosystem.  Thus, the clear-cutting, water damming, fish hatcheries and poisoning, industrial farming, overfishing and global warming that threaten the salmon also threaten our terrestrial forest ecosystems.  Commercial yogurt cultures are mostly like hatchery-spawned salmon or the dreaded Gammas and Deltas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Healthy yogurt cultures are more like John the Savage, in that they thrive outside the rigid confines of the factory, and die if forced into such spaces.

Part 2:  (mostly) Process and Practice

Context is important.  My job as someone who makes yogurt is not to make a batch of yogurt, but to keep the community of micro-organisms responsible for yogurt making happy and healthy.  So how do we accomplish this?  With a background in ecology, I knew that community diversity was (and still is) key to a strong, healthy starter culture — or what Sandor Katz of Wild Fermentation calls a “heritage-quality culture.”  My first goal was to cultivate microbial diversity by attracting and retaining as many different species and strains of bacteria as possible.

I use two primary techniques to attract bacteria to my yogurt culture:  In the beginning, I synthesized as many different commercial yogurt cultures as possible into a single super-culture.  I would buy a few containers of yogurt from different manufacturers with the most simple ingredient lists possible (ideally, just milk and bacteria, but I used flavored yogurt when plain yogurt was unavailable, and some yogurt has pectin or gelatin in it). I combined them into a single starter over the course of about ten generations (batches) of yogurt, giving them time to stabilize and balance, letting the finicky ones die back and the robust ones survive.  I got consistent, OK yogurt.  But I didn’t stop there.  I added raw and fermented/soured oats, sourdough starter, raw crushed fruit, and raw milk from a reputable source.  Then I let sugar ants into some milk.  They carry a lot of bacteria with them — and rumor has it — some of the finest bacteria for yogurt making the world over.

Say what?  Commercial yogurt makers want you to think that they have something mystical and special and unobtainable by mere home-fermenting mortals.  In reality, the micro-organisms responsible for fermenting yogurt exist almost everywhere in our environment, including inside of us (and the animals whose milk we drink).  Heck, you could even throw some shredded cabbage leaf into your yogurt and isolate some thermophillic lactic acid bacteria from it.  It’s a lot like making a sourdough starter.  The weird things you do to get it going needn’t exist in the finished batch.

I want to expand on the above point a little more:  many places on these interwebz train us to dichotomize and categorize fermentations, but every fermentation from a healthy “heritage quality culture” will have various yeasts, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria in it.  Once you get all the micro-organisms assembled, the medium or substrate (e.g,. the milk) and the process you use select for species dominance over time and batch.

Second, learn the difference between sanitation and sterility (more on this later).  During fermentation, we want to follow sanitary practices and avoid sterility.  We humans are mutual (or at least commensalist) symbionts with bacteria, too: The same bacteria that make yogurt also live in, on and around us.  By the time I’m ready to make another batch to restore my culture’s population, I’m sure it’s been recolonized by different genetic strains or even species of bacteria.  I get my starter for the next batch from the dregs of my last jar.  Here we see how home fermenters have an edge over commercial producers:  go ahead and check for suitable temperature with a sanitary (not sterile!) finger, because doing so helps innoculate the batch.

Many home fermentation instructions encourage home-fermenters to meticulously clean everything to “avoid contamination.”  More FUD.   Sanitary environments contain innoculants.  Sterile environments contain no micro-organisms, and, from a food-safety perspective, are highly problematic and risky.  Successful fermentation and cultural resilience is all about artistic or intentional microbial contamination of food, and the conditions and context in which the microbes develop in the food.  By following a solid process, the food and culture will innoculate and take up residence in the surrounding environment, much like how we find yeast powder coating the skin of grapes.  Environmental innoculation requires a sanitary, clean but NOT sterile environment.

Different strains and species of bacteria have different needs and preferences.  If I want to maintain the population diversity I’ve been building, then I need to maintain diversity in the population’s habitat.  This is difficult for some people to think about, because we can’t clearly see the habitat diversity inside a jar:  A good batch of yogurt looks uniform and consistent, even homogenous.  So what gives?  The habitat diversity of a yogurt culture lies within the culturing process, not so much the structural properties of the yogurt itself. Different strains of bacteria thrive at different temperatures:  Some like it hot, some like it warm, some like it luke-warm, and they’ll all continue to ferment slowly at room temperature, or even in the fridge or other cold storage.  Some function better than others in salty environments.

Different bacteria also have different preferences or requirements for nutrients and pH balance.  By feeding the bacteria more than just yogurt — such as honey, fruit, or oats, we encourage a wider range of bacteria to develop.  The longer the yogurt ferments, the more acidic it will get, and acid-tolerant bacteria will start to dominate over the earlier low-acid bacteria that started the fermentation process. If the yogurt becomes acidic enough, curds will start to separate from whey, an aesthetic that people seem to love or hate, but which is ultimately harmless or even beneficial.  The lactic acid responsible for the sourness is an effective natural preservative, so if you don’t plan on using cold storage to store your yogurt, ferment away!

My Arabic professor was a Palestinian refugee, and he told stories of his mom making large (several gallon) batches of yogurt in an open vat in the kitchen in Haifa.  It’s hot in Haifa (trust me, I’ve been there!).  My professor said the yogurt was always very sour and refreshing in the heat, and that his family ate it over the course of a few weeks.  The fact that this was a safe thing to do is probably thanks in large part to the heavy and progressive lactic acid fermentation that occurred in the Haifa heat.  I since tried this — storing a batch of yogurt at room temperature for half a year.  It got so sour that I had a hard time using it as a starter because even a little bit curdled the milk!  I found it more suitable as a creamy lemon juice substitute!  Strong-tasting, sure, but completely safe.

Cultural diversity in this way helps protect against contamination. When we ensure that the micro-organisms that produce the results we desire gain a strong foothold early in the fermentation process and become dominant, these friendly microbial allies create an environment that is toxic (acidic and even actively poisonous) and inhospitable to (lacking food or habitat for) unfriendly pathogens.  A full, unopened jar of fresh yogurt fermented at a hot temperature and stored in a relatively cool area creates a vacuum seal that minimizes the air under the lid and prevents contamination from molds and yeasts that require air to grow.  It will keep for weeks outside of a fridge, and for several months inside a fridge, easily, before souring so much you have to use it as a lemon juice substitute.

The rest of the techniques that I use are fairly standard, with one twist.  I heat the milk to where it is scalding hot to set the proteins and repasteurize it.  Sometimes, for thicker yogurt, I hold it at the scalding temperature (stirring frequently!) to evaporate and reduce the liquid.  I don’t recommend adding powdered milk, because it’s often rancid by virtue of how it’s produced, which is why it tastes weird.  I’ve never had a problem with milk sticking or burning on the bottom, but some folks have.

I don’t measure anything with instruments.  The milk is at the correct temperature when I can’t hold a warm finger in it for more than a fraction of a second.   The milk is cooled enough when it feels slightly hotter than is comfortable to hold a warm finger in it.  I say “warm finger” because cold fingers will absorb more heat from the milk over a longer period of time before discomfort appears, which might skew my perception toward using overly-hot milk.

I pour most of the heated milk into my fermentation containers, and leave a little bit left in the bottom of the pan.  To this remainder, I add my starter.  I add only about a teaspon to a tablespoon of starter per half-gallon or gallon of milk.  Why so little?  Because the bacteria grow exponentially.  Yogurt may be delicious food for us, but it is a polluted, spent growth-medium, habitat and food-source for the bacteria.  If I add a lot of starter to a little milk, I’m not inoculating the milk so much as polluting the new, pristine habitat!   The culture needs room to breathe and grow and blossom, and its food source (the milk) needs to be exponentially larger and more plentiful than its starting population.  Otherwise, the bacteria will become too crowded too quickly.  Unhappy bacteria means bad (or mediocre) yogurt.

Yogurt becomes thick through coagulation of milk proteins:  The lactic acid that the bacteria produce as they eat the sugars in the milk denature the milk proteins, causing each protein shift from a straight, slippery form into a twisted, knotty form.  When the proteins coagulate together in an undisturbed (still, motionless) environment, they knit together to create a “protein-gel matrix.”  This helps ensure consistent texture.  The higher the protein concentration per amount of liquid, the thicker the resulting yogurt will be.  “Greek yogurt” is simply yogurt made from evaporated milk, or milk fortified with a lot of powdered milk during its heating process.  We make “yogurt cheese,” in contrast, by straining out whey (proteins and acid suspended in water) from the gel-matrix.  It’s also why other protein-gel matrixes, like pectin and gelatin, get used to thicken and stabilize yogurt.  Gelatin (animal-based) has great nutritional value as a wonderful protein supplement with trace micronutrients, and pectin (plant-based) contains a lot of carbohydrates.  Both have a long history of safe use in human food, but I prefer gelatin for its higher nutritive value.   In contrast, sometimes commercial producers add other gum-like stabilizers, with dubious or unstudied health impacts.  If you want good yogurt, start with good milk and take a little extra time to reduce and concentrate it over the stove instead of diluting it with weird ingredients.

I stir the starter into the milk remaining in the bulk heating vessel, then pour this mixture into the jars with the rest of the milk, and give each a good stir to ensure even mixing and distribution of the starter culture throughout the batch.  Pre-mixing the yogurt starter and warm milk creates an innoculation solution that is of a much similar density to the actual milk, increasing the likelihood of even suspension and distribution and decreasing the likelihood of most of the starter culture sinking to the bottom, resulting in the “grainy sour bottom” problem in some people’s yogurts.  Whisks do wonderful work to break apart the gel matrix.

Here’s the twist:  I’ll add a smigeon of a mesophillic dairy culture — much like kefir — to each incubation vessel before capping.  This is a separate line of dairy cultures that I keep going in a bottomless vessel. It contains bacteria and yeasts that do best at around room temperature, and results in a thick, fizzy ferment at room temperature.  No heating, no incubation.  Just empty the vessel, refill, shake to mix on occasion, and let sit and ferment — like sourdough.  I created my mesophillic dairy culture from storebought starter, added in sourdough, fruit, oats, mollasses, sugar ants, etc.  I feel fairly confident about making it from scratch now, much like sourdough starter.  The main difference in this culture compared to my “yogurt culture” is that I incubate the yogurt (and therefore select for thermophillic dominance).  So I keep two different process lines going to maintain that diversity and add them back together with each new batch, slowly building up the mesophillic culture’s heat tolerance along the way.

Sometimes, I add oats, berries, salt, honey, or spices, etc to the mixture.  The oats, for example, absorb more of the liquid, create a thicker yogurt, and soften and lacto-ferment into a delicious porridge or “oat-cheese” — like a live-cultured version of oatmeal.  Salt selects for lactic acid bacteria and slows the ferment, resulting in a smoother and cheesier-tasting yogurt.

Regardless, I try to fill each jar close to the top, leaving between an inch to a centimeter of space, much like when canning.  This is helpful mainly as a way to store the yogurt safely for extended periods of time after fermentation — it maximizes fermentation, reduces airspace and creates a better vacuum seal.  Finally, I seal the jars, maybe give them a few extra shakes for good measure, and put them into incubation.

I put the jars into a cooler or other insulated space, and fill it halfway or up to the bottom of the lids with boiling or near-boiling water (so the jars are never completely submerged).  I poor the water over the jars to heat the remaining air inside and create a stronger vacuum inside each jar at room temperature.  A friend simply places the jars by the fridge (fridges radiate heat).  Another friend places them a closet underneath blankets or even down sleeping bags or coats for insulation and just ferments the yogurt for a longer time.  I let the batch ferment for 6-14 hours, depending on my schedule, how sour I want the batch to be, ambient temp, how often I’ve been refreshing the culture, etc.  The yogurt finishes coagulating long before it turns very sour, so much of it is preference.  Again, if you plan on storing the yogurt for a long time, consider a longer ferment. As my process has improved (as well as, I surmise, the cultural diversity), I’ve found greater and greater consistency in the quality of my batches regardless of whether I incubate for 8 or 16 hours.

However long I decide to incubate (and often time life decides for me), I make sure NOT TO DISTURB THE YOGURT WHILE IT INCUBATES AND FERMENTS.  If you jostle it around too early in the process, you’ll break the gel-matrix while its still weak and get a less consistent texture.  Practice patience and faith.

I don’t use rigid temperature control, because that will create a homogenous environment, which will tend to homogenize the culture.  Part of the process requires letting the milk go from hot to cool during the incubation and culturing period.  It gives different organisms different timelines for work.

However many hours later, I have another great batch of yogurt: smooth, creamy, even a little cheesy in texture.  Err, I mean, I have another happy, full community of lactic acid bacteria, ready and waiting for their chance to do it all over again.

Epilogue

A while ago, I came home from work and found my partner had made a batch of mac and cheese.  Except, she had used the last bit of yogurt in my last jar (the one I was going to use to start my next batch).  She had, in effect, killed my yogurt, a part of my family.  Or so I thought.

She was incredibly apologetic.  She didn’t know.  I was fraught and desparate.  “It might not be alive,” she said.  “I mixed it with the cheese when the noodles were still pretty hot.”  I worked fast:  I scraped out as much cheese/yogurt sauce as possible, including a lot of the noodles that seemed to have extra sauce on them.  I added a little bit of milk to whatever I had salvaged as a temporary feeder, and made a batch as I normally do.  I half-resigned myself to failure, half-holding my breath in suspense.   At the very least, I took comfort in the fact that I had split off my yogurt starter to several others.  Although mine may have died, its siblings still thrive elsewhere (hopefully).

The next morning, I opened the cooler with as much cold, indifferent skepticism as I could muster.  I examined a jar — it was thick.  My skepticism melted into hope.  I opened the jar and gave a taste.  It was thick, creamy, delicious and — yes — a little cheesy.  The community came out alive and well.  Another little adventure for them.  Here’s a toast to diversity and cultural resilience!

Pro-biotic Jell-O, anyone? + Protease discussion

The Background

I found some packages of Jell-O lying around. Gelatin is an incredible collagen-based nutrient for the body regarding tissue repair. Have you ever made a bone broth, and put it in the fridge, only to find that much of it had solidified into a gel (and it liquifies again when heated)? That’s because in making bone broths, we use heats and acids (like vinegars) to dissolve or extract nutrients from the bones and connective tissues. Some think that dissolved gelatin contributes significantly to the health benefits of bone broth. I definitely find it a more palatable way to eat connective tissues!

The Experiment

i’m doing a mesophillic SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) ferment of jell-o to add flavor, nutrition and reduce the finished sugar content, with added fruit (raspberries and chopped whole apple) and cinnamon (which gets slimy when hydrated, so a good option for something like gelatin/pectin). will be interesting to see how well the bacteria and yeast take to the collagen-based medium and whether i can still finish setting the gelatin after fermentation!

Troubleshooting

if this doesn’t work, i’ll use pure gelatin next time (without any of the chemical flavors, conditioners and preservatives), peel the apple and boil the apple peels in the mix water or tea (kombucha jell-o?) to add pectin and aid in the setting of the gelatin.

I also found an interesting tip on the Jell-O package: don’t add fresh or frozen pineapple, figs, ginger root, kiwi, papaya or guava because they’ll prevent the gelatin from setting. Also, not listed b/c it’s not yet commercialized, pawpaw will do the same thing. Kiwi, figs and pawpaw are all temperate climate fruits.

The above fruits contain a high density of proteases — enzymes that help digest proteins. So consider such fruits a useful addition to any protein-heavy meal or ingredient to enhance digestibility. For example, marinate or soak meats or grains in pineapple juice before cooking.  If you reduce the pineapple juice over the stove at a heat above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll likely denature and de-activate the enzymes.  Which is why it’s OK to add cooked fig or kiwi sauce to a Jell-O concoction!

On the flip-side, proteins are often used to enhance texture in or thicken foods (think: gluten, whey and egg whites for baked goods).  So we have a dilemma:  more nutritionally-available (and safer) the foods typically have a broken down protein structure, but contribute less to the “sharp” texture of the finished meal.   In this case, no Jell-o jigglers.  But the liquid version will still taste good and I suspect provide a similar nutrition.  I used to drink — and love — “hot Jell-o” as a kid…mmm…memories!

Updates

This experiement was a smashing success.  Recommended for anyone who enjoys fizzy things and jell-o.  I ate the first batch before it got very bubbly (fruit and jello-o and spices).  In the second batch, I substituted rooibos and ginger tea for the boiling water, and subbed 2 cups of fresh kombucha for the cool water.   In the future, I’ll be making this from scratch with sweet tea and finished kombucha and fresh fruit.

latest concoction: a spiced strawberry apple jell-o with homemade apple cider vinegar and a chamomile-rooibos sweet tea. Next concoction will address the banana-carob connection.  The fruit seems to ferment more readily than the sweetened gelatin.

Saueressen on salt

Although many others discuss the matter of salt in ferments, and do a pretty good job, Saueressen has yet to find a more complete practical discussion of salt.  We attempt a more complete introduction to salt use, below, in two parts:  How much salt?  (the more popular question first) and Which salt?  Please comment if you have questions or more information / experience to share.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Salt?
  2. How much salt should I use?
    1. General Guidelines
    2. Ingredients Quality
    3. Self-brining?
    4. Remember Osmosis
    5. Salt for Security
  3. Which Salt?
  4. Final Note:  The Value of Salt

Why salt?

Salt performs several functions in a vegetable fermentation process.  Among other things, it

  • inhibits the growth of undesirable organisms,
  • inhibits the activity of pectic enzymes that threaten to turn your ferment to mush
  • slows down and regulates the fermentation process,
  • draws water from the vegetables to create an anaerobic brine,
  • helps select for anaerobic lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) that create the desired end product and
  • enhances and balances the flavor of the ferment (making it taste less acidic)

Salt has a place of importance in such ferments.  That said, people can and do ferment without them.  For example, some people ferment vegetables in wine.  In Nepal people mash kale leaves and ferment them unsalted in their own juices to create gundruk, a food of great national importance (emphasis mine):

The shredded leaves are tightly packed in an earthenware pot, and warm water (at about 30°C) is added to cover all the leaves.[2] The pot is then kept in a warm place.[2] After seven days, a mild acidic taste indicates the end of fermentation and the gundruk is removed and sun-dried.[2]This process is similar to sauerkraut production except that no salt is added to the shredded leaves before the start of gundruk fermentation.[2]

Gundruk has very different characteristics than sauerkraut (including the fact that it results in a sun-dried product).  Those differences stem from different processing techniques and expectations, and have little or nothing to do with the safety, quality and performance of the ferment itself.  In fact, what makes for good sauerkraut might make for bad gundruk, and vice-versa.  So much of what makes a “good ferment” boils down to expectations formed out of preference and acquired taste.

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How much salt should I use?

Short answer: salt to taste.

Not satisfied with that answer?  Same here.  Some further guidelines and points to consider, below.

General Guidelines (longer answer)

use more salt if:

  • your ferment involves physically-delicate ingredients
  • your fermentation enviornment tends to run hot (70-75 or higher *F)
  • you do not have a reliable airlock and way to keep your ferment submerged in the brine (e.g,. a weight or various mechanical systems — ask about those and I’ll write an overview)
  • you are doing a “plain jane” ferment without other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)

use less salt if:

  • your ferment involves tougher vegetables you wouldn’t mind softening a little bit during fermentation
  • your fermentation environment tends to run cold (65-60 or lower)
  • you have a reliable airlock system (airlocked crocks, airlocked mason jars, or baile-top [fido-style] mason jars) and submersion method
  • you tend to ferment with other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)

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Ingredient Quality

Different vegetables — and even the same vegetables across different farms or harvests — contain different salt/water/sugar balances.  Celery, for example, typically has a high salt content.  I’ve worked with both relatively dry, dense and savory and relatively heavy and sweet cabbages.  Technically the same cabbage, but grown and harvested at different times and places.  The carrots I get from one of my farm suppliers taste so juicy, crunchy and sweet, it almost feels like I’m eating a fruit or a piece of candy.  That difference in going into the ferment creates a noticeable difference in the outcome as well.

Other ingredients have preservative qualities in the ferment, such as garlic, onion, antioxidant/anti-microbial herbs and spices (ginger, rosemary, tannic acids from grape or oak leaves, etc).  These “minor ingredients” help balance the finished flavor while providing additional protection for the ferment throughout its lifecycle (including in storage), potentially allowing more flexibility on salt use.  I’ve found adding such ingredients gives me much more flexibility and control over the finished flavor, quality and longevity of the ferment — so much so that it’s become a core part of the Saueressen Process and our concept of sauerchi.

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Self-brining?

Use enough salt to extract juice from shredded vegetables.  NOTE:  The more finely shredded the vegetable, the less salt needed to create the self-brine.  If the shredding is too coarse, you run the risk of oversalting to create the brine!  If you drain off some of the excess brine, it will leave the remaining vegetables much less salty.  Adding ingredients, such as an unsalted pesto, will also further reduce the salt content (which can rescue base ingredients that you accidentally oversalted).  You may also rinse over-salted vegetables, in a pinch.

Remember Osmosis

The perfect amount of salt will initially taste like too much salt, until it diffuses equally throughout the liquids and solids of the ferment over the course of about a week.  The same principle applies when adding salt to soup or sourdough bread, so if you’re used to seasoning soup, you should have an idea of what to expect when salting vegetables for a ferment.

Salt The Top for Security

A ferment will always most likely (and often does) become contaminated along its edges — especially the top.  Sprinkle additional salt over the top of the packed ferment to give the top of the brine or other surface more protection during the vulnerable, early stages of the ferment.  The salt will diffuse throughout the rest of the ferment over time.  Only take this opportunity if the ferment still needs additional salt!

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Ok, sheesh.  So, which salt?

Short answer: Use either unrefined mineral (mined) salt or unrefined sea (evaporated) salt in fine grain texture (e.g, not rock salt or flake or powder).

Both unrefined sea and mineral salts have all the good stuff the ferments need (trace minerals and nutrients, fantastic flavor) and none of the bad stuff (such as aluminum and other chemical additives).  Supposedly the iodide supplement in table salt can further inhibit or kill the micro-organisms responsible for fermentation, but I haven’t noticed a difference.  Even then, it could be useful to slow down overly-vigorous fermentations (e.g,. in a warm environment).

Consider the granularity of the salt — how coarse or fine the salt is.  Fine-grain sea salt tends to be cheap, ubiquitous and practical.  It stores compact, doesn’t require additional processing to use, is easy to measure and handle, and dissolves quickly into solution.  If you keep recipes and use different sizes of salt grains, remember to measure by weight and not volume!

Some people also consider salt a spice and pay a premium for different types of specialty or “finishing” salts to affect taste, texture and even color, such as black salt and smoked salt.  Whatever floats your boat, although such salts probably get lost in a ferment (if you’ve found specialty salts useful in ferments, please write in and let us know!).

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Final note:  the value of salt

Our bodies are self-contained sacks of salty brine.  We need salt to live.  If the concentration of salt in our bodies falls too low, our bodies stop functioning. Yet, we need freshwater, not salt water to help balance things on the other end.  Human (and probably most) life depends on a very delicate balance — a balance that requires our bodies to continually readjust.  Readjustment requires, at its core, salt and freshwater.

In light of this delicate balance, throwing something like a vegetable brine away feels to me like throwing away liquid gold.  Such a rich, nutritious and useful liquid, full of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, sugars and other nutrients.

Instead of throwing out excess brine:

  • Reduce it down to a thick, syrupy brine.  It will store for a long time in a refrigerator.
  • Use it in recipes that call for both salt and liquid.
  • Use it as a soy sauce substitute — it provides much of the same rich, umami flavor.
  • Use it to deglaze/braze pan-cooked meals (such as veggies, meat, rice, quinoa, etc; just don’t add dry salt!)
  • Create marinades and dressings with it
  • Make a stock, broth, soup or stew out of it
  • Use it as brine in non-self-brining ferments

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Wild Fermentation: the “one book to buy” about fermentation (review)

Introduction

Sandor Ellix Katz (aka Sandorkraut) isn’t the first person to evangelize fermented foods, nor thankfully will Katz be the last (not in the least because he has created so many acolytes).  But I can think of several good reasons why Sandorkraut is perhaps the best-known fermentation evangelist to-date and for the forseeable future:  For example:

  • He has a compelling personal story.
  • He researches and knows his topic well.
  • He makes things the reader knows nothing about seem both familiar and doable.
  • He communicates with humility and honesty.
  • He “writes about the transformative power of fermentation with such infectious enthusiasm that he makes you want to try things just to see what happens,” according to fellow evangelist Michael Pollan, himself no slouch when it comes to writing.

For the above reasons and more, Wild Fermentation is a classic inside and outside of its field.  If you trust our word without explanation: Saueressen strongly recommends Wild Fermentation as most people’s first purchase to help guide their foray into the world of food fermentation.  Read on for more details…

Contents

  1. Why Read Wild Fermentation?
  2. Who:  Suggested Audience
  3. How: Suggested Use
  4. To Purchase

Why Read Wild Fermentation?

Wild Fermentation looks like a modest book at first blush.  However, the number of fermentation topics it covers would be staggering and overwhelming were it not for Katz’ ability to make everything sound so darn fun, and show just how truly easy most fermentation really is.  Through this book, Katz breaks down technological, technical, cultural and psychological barriers to empower his readers to experiment and integrate fermented foods into their own lives.  He covers historical, philosophical and practical angles, including recipes and processes to get the reader started with their own projects.

Katz does a fantastic job discussing variables (such as heat, salt, sugar content), and prepares the reader to experiment and see what works best for them.  That in itself is huge.  In an internet culture spreading so much fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), with so many people posing as experts only to scare and confuse newcomers with unfounded claims, Katz stands apart from the crowd — through his life, writing and work — as an ethical model and a timeless resource of unquestionable integrity.

Wild Fermentation and its bigger (albeit younger) sibling, The Art of Fermentation (review forthcoming) bring thousands of hours and dollars of experience and expertise to their readers for pennies on the dollar.

Who:  Suggested Audience

Anyone interested food will benefit, one way or another, from familiarizing themselves with the material in this book.  This includes people who just enjoy reading about food (the Michael Pollans of the world; although they’ll probably want to start experimenting), as well those of us who enjoy preparing food from scratch.

More specifically, live-culture food and fermentation hobbyists of all types and fermentation enthusiasts and professionals alike should read the book purely on the basis that it has had such a massive impact on the revival of interest in food fermentation in the United States, and for good reason.  Wild Fermentation presents few, if any pitfalls, making it easy to recommend wholeheartedly as an introductory and foundational text in an evolving and expanding field.

How:  Suggested Use

Read the book itself straight through the first time as a sort of well-written and interesting fermentation travelogue.  Then go back and use it for inspiration and recipes, over and over again.  Katz presents a wealth of cultural information in a very concise and compelling manner, then backs up each fermentation topic with all sorts of recipes that show how quickly variations on a basic theme can lend diversity to the topic.

To Purchase

For local (Willamette Valley) residents:  Please buy the book from (and support) The Book Bin.

If you read this review and are non-local, please ask your local bookstore before purchasing online.  If you do purchase online, we ask that you purchase Wild Fermentation through us directly using the link on the sidebar to the right of this article.   Doing so directly supports Saueressen, the publisher and the author.  Thank you!