Sandor Ellix Katz, the man who fermented everything.
By Prabhu Sukh
Sandor defines himself as a fermentation fetishist: he is seduced by its aromas, its hints, but, above all, he loves the interaction between the basic elements that take part of this process. The wide understanding of the humble but excellent natural mechanism.
Sandor leaves a trace to whoever read his books and publications. He changed the way I understand life. His direct and clear style, his ‘fermented’ humor and his global view of reality make him a referent both for chefs and activists and also for people with social conscience with the aim of growing as a person, those ones who want a better tomorrow.
Sandor, what does fermentation mean for you?
Fermentation is many different things. First of all, it is a force of nature, part of the continuous cycle of life. Microorganisms are present on all of our food, and we harness the power of fermentation to preserve our food and make it more delicious, more digestible, and more nutritious. Fermentation is an essential element of culture, and in nearly every cultural tradition, practices have been passed down for countless generations. Fermented foods and beverages can help to restore biodiversity in our intestines and improve our digestion, immune function, and even mental health. Fermentation is also an engine of social change.
How do you think fermentation influences the human and social development, nowadays?
We understand better than ever how important bacteria are for out well-being. Digestion, immune function, liver health, even our mental health is related to bacteria in our intestines. Meanwhile, with so much chemical exposure, as well as processed food, we are experiencing diminished biodiversity in our intestines. Live culture ferments (not cooked or heat processed after fermentation) help restore this important biodiversity. We need fermentation more than ever!
How do you see the future of fermentation?
I think increasingly people will recognize how important bacteria are, and how much bacteria-rich foods can help us. Fermentation will become increasingly important.
Why do you think that most of the chefs of the haut cuisine really want to work with you or to take part of one of your workshops? Some of them considered you a fool some years ago…
For chefs, fermentation is a way to create unique and compelling flavors. The only is wonder is that any chef could have ignored this transformational phenomenon!
Could you tell us what are you going to do in Spain?
I’ll be presenting at the Basque Culinary Center, at a workshop in Barcelona, and at a weekend-long workshop in Mallorca. Check my website www.wildfermentation.com for details and registration information.
We hope you spend such a great days in our country and you will come back many times. We can not wait to take part of your workshops.
The sauerkraut method is also referred to as dry-salting, because typically no water is added and the juice under which the vegetables are submerged comes from the vegetables themselves. This is the simplest and most straightforward method, and results in the most concentrated vegetable flavor.
3 days to 3 months (and beyond)
1-quart/1-liter wide-mouth jar, or a larger jar or crock
Ingredients (for 1 quart/1 liter):
2 pounds/1 kilogram of vegetables per quart/liter, any varieties of cabbage alone or in combination, or at least half cabbage and the remainder any combination of radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, greens, peppers, or other vegetables.
Approximately 1 tablespoon salt (start with a little less, add if needed after tasting).
Other seasonings as desired, such as caraway seeds, juniper berries, dill, chili peppers, ginger, turmeric, dried cranberries, or whatever you can conjure in your imagination.
Prepare the vegetables. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and reserve. Scrub the root vegetables but do not peel. Chop or grate all vegetables into a bowl. The purpose of this is to expose surface area in order to pull water out of the vegetables, so that they can be submerged under their own juices. The finer the veggies are shredded, the easier it is to get juices out, but fineness or coarseness can vary with excellent results.
Salt and season. Salt the vegetables lightly and add seasonings as you chop. Sauerkraut does not require heavy salting. Taste after the next step and add more salt or seasonings, if desired. It is always easier to add salt than to remove it. (If you must, cover the veggies with dechlorinated water, let this sit for 5 minutes, then pour off the excess water).
Squeeze the salted vegetables with your hands for a few minutes (or pound with a blunt tool). This bruises the vegetables, breaking down cell walls and enabling them to release their juices. Squeeze until you can pick up a handful and when you squeeze, juice releases (as from a wet sponge).
Pack the salted and squeezed vegetables into your jar. Press the vegetables down with force, using your fingers or a blunt tool, so that air pockets are expelled and juice rises up and over the vegetables. Fill the jar not quite all the way to the top, leaving a little space for expansion. The vegetables have a tendency to float to the top of the brine, so it’s best to keep them pressed down, using one of the cabbage’s outer leaves, folded to fit inside the jar, or a carved chunk of a root vegetable, or a small glass or ceramic insert. Screw the top on the jar; lactic acid bacteria are anaerobic and do not need oxygen (though they can function in the presence of oxygen). However, be aware that fermentation produces carbon dioxide, so pressure will build up in the jar and needs to be released daily, especially the first few days when fermentation will be most vigorous.
Wait. Be sure to loosen the top to relieve pressure each day for the first few days. The rate of fermentation will be faster in a warm environment, slower in a cool one. Some people prefer their krauts lightly fermented for just a few days; others prefer a stronger, more acidic flavor that develops over weeks or months. Taste after just a few days, then a few days later, and at regular intervals to discover what you prefer. Along with the flavor, the texture changes over time, beginning crunchy and gradually softening. Move to the refrigerator if you wish to stop (or rather slow) the fermentation. In a cool environment, kraut can continue fermenting slowly for months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid; eventually it can become soft and mushy.
Surface growth. The most common problem that people encounter in fermenting vegetables is surface growth of yeasts and/or molds, facilitated by oxygen. Many books refer to this as ‘scum’, but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. It’s a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. If you should encounter surface growth, remove as much of it as you can, along with any discolored or soft kraut from the top layer, and discard. The fermented vegetables beneath will generally look, smell, and taste fine. The surface growth can break up as you remove it, making it impossible to remove all of it. Don’t worry.
Enjoy your kraut! I start eating it when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks (or months in a large batch). Be sure to try the sauerkraut juice that will be left after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice packs a strong flavor, and is unparalleled as a digestive tonic or hangover cure.
Develop a rhythm. Start a new batch before the previous one runs out. Get a few different flavors or styles going at once for variety. Experiment!
Variations. Add a little fresh vegetable juice or ‘pot likker’ and dispense with the need to squeeze or pound. Incorporate mung bean sprouts . . . hydrated seaweed . . . shredded or quartered brussels sprouts . . . cooked potatoes (mashed, fried, and beyond, but always cooled!) . . . dried or fresh fruit . . . the possibilities are infinite.