“For me it all started with sauerkraut. I’d always loved it as a kid in New York City, almost as much as I loved sour pickles,” says Sandor Katz, the fermentation expert. He’s the author of best-selling tome The Art of Fermentation, giving him the well-earned reputation as the go-to source on all probiotic matters—from kombucha to pickles, tempeh to sauerkraut. His classic first book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Food, was just released in an updated and expanded edition for the first time since its initial 2003 publication. Here, we got some tips from him for starting a fermentation habit of your own—even if you live in a tiny New York City apartment.
1. Start with veggies.
Fermenting vegetables is the ideal way to begin fermenting. It requires no special equipment. There’s no need for starter cultures, either; all the bacteria you need are already on the vegetables. Fermented vegetables are probiotic, improve digestion and have been credited with wildly varying benefits from preventing cancer to reducing social anxiety.
2. Find a wide-mouth jar.
The basic pieces of equipment required for most ferments are vessels to contain them. Find a wide-mouth jar and use a smaller jar that fits inside the mouth, filled with water, to weigh down the ferment. Innovate with materials close at hand. Recycling centers can be excellent sources of jars and other fermentation vessels. Do not ferment in metallic containers, which can react with salt as well as the acids produced by fermentation.
3. Do not use water that is heavily chlorinated.
If you can smell or taste chlorine in tap water, filter it or leave it out in an open container overnight (or boil it) to evaporate the chlorine before using the water for fermenting. Or use un-chlorinated water from another source.
4. Use sea salt.
I like to use unrefined sea salts, but you can use any sea salt, pickling salt or kosher salt. The reason most fermenters avoid standard table salt with added iodine is that iodine is microbial and could inhibit fermentation.
5. Taste often.
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 flavor, texture changes over time, beginning crunchy and gradually softening. Move to the refrigerator if you wish to stop (or rather, slow) the fermentation.
Feature photo by Shane Carpenter.