Book Review – “Wild Fermentation”

In the last few years I’ve spent more time learning how to prepare food. While I’m still no wizard in the kitchen, I am learning and there are a few things I can actually do better than my wife, who is quite the cook. Most of these talents are based around fermented foods: bread, beer and wine. The process of fermentation brings many benefits to food; it can improve the flavors and nutritional value as well as greatly lengthen the amount of time it can be stored before spoiling, even without benefit of refrigeration.

With my interest in fermenting piqued, I recently picked up the book “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Cultured Foods” by Sandor Katz. Part recipe book and part manifesto, “Wild Fermentation” is a very good introduction to the world of fermented foods and beverages. In its pages, Katz details the nutritional benefits of fermenting, along with a discussion of how modern society’s obsession with eradicating bacteria and micro-organisms is in many ways counter-productive to the health of both our bodies and the planet as whole. There is a personal angle to Katz’ discussion on health; he is a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor and believes that having fermented foods making up a large part of his diet enhances his body’s ability to heal itself. He also briefly discusses the history of fermentation throughout history, showing that most every culture in the world has a history of fermenting food.

The main part of the book are the recipes. “Wild Fermentation” has recipes for vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and grains; there are no recipes for meat which is considered an advanced topic outside the scope of the book. With a nickname like “Sandorkraut” it’s no wonder that Katz has many recipes for sauerkraut, kimchi and similar vegetable dishes. He also covers a number of beverage recipes including kefir, beer, wine and cider.

A nice feature of all the recipes is their simplicity. The author lives in an off-grid intentional community in rural Tennessee, and all of the recipes in the book reflect the limitations his living arrangements dictate. Most recipes rely on a few pieces of equipment, usually a crock, jar or other container, and there is no real need for controlling fermenting temperatures beyond some rudimentary guidelines. Katz admits that his techniques are “primitive,” but that’s not a bad thing in my opinion. Learning how to prepare and preserve food without the energy inputs can be a valuable skill to have.

One part of the book I found especially interesting was the chapter on making beer. I’ve been brewing beer at home for several years, and the entire time, the one thing that has been repeatedly drummed into my skull is the need to sanitize everything. If you don’t sanitize your equipment with one chemical or another, your beer will get infected and you’ll have major problems. Katz, on the other hand, thinks that too much emphasis has been put on this, and his recipes call for clean, but not sanitized equipment, and he claims he’s never had a problem. He has a point, for I’m guessing brewers back before the discovery of micro-organisms didn’t sanitize their equipment and things turned out fine for them most of the time.

The book closes out with a discussion of fermentation, compost, and the cycle of life. Katz’ personal experiences makes this a poignant way to close out a very good book. If you’re looking for a well-written introductory book on fermenting, I highly recommend “Wild Fermentation.”

Sandor Katz has recently released a new book, “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” which is more of a manifesto against processed food and agricorps as well as a chronicle of various local food groups and underground food movements.

The author has a website at www.wildfermentation.com.

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