It started in 2003 with the publication of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Katz: chefs, foodies, hipsters, and foodie hipsters rediscovered the magical process of fermentation—and the endless culinary possibilities that lay within. Maybe it’s something about the experimental DIY-ness of fermenting your own unique take on sauerkraut. Maybe it’s the vague sense that you’re breaking some kind of food safety law, somewhere. Maybe it’s just that pickled stuff tastes awesome.
Whatever the case, the fermentation infatuation is sweeping the nation. And Sandor Katz, fermentation guru of the highest order, is there to guide us through it.
Fermented “live” foods are the next bacon. There’s Kombucha, the fizzy health tonic made from a Himalayan fungus. Homemade sauerkraut is being served as a side at artsy barbecue joints in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. You’ll find kimchee stuffed inside a croissant at New York City’s Milk Bar. These unpasteurized, rustic preparations, made, essentially, by purposefully letting food rot so the beneficial bacteria in the air leave behind sour flavors and a healthy zing, are ancient. Live fermentation and old-fashioned pickling, using just salt and the air rather than vinegar, were ways of preserving foods before refrigeration, from meat to milk to vegetables. But the recent fermentation craze among chefs and DIYers can be directly traced to Sandor Katz, whose 2002 book, Wild Fermentation, is still the most exhaustive, info-packed exploration of the topic ever written.
Katz, who calls himself Sandorkraut, lives off the grid in a queer intentional community in the mountains of Tennessee and teaches workshops all over the world. His book, which is a cross between a cookbook and a science-experiment manual, is a compendium of years of research from cultures around the world. Besides covering pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, tempeh, beer, and breads of many kinds including sourdough, there’s obscure stuff like chicha, a Latin American corn beverage made with human saliva now being adapted by the brewery Dogfish Head (see Sam Calagione). “There’s a hunger for this information,” says Katz, whose recent Portland, Oregon, workshop saw 25 people approach him with samples [of fermented things] they’d made. “A mystique, and a little fear.”