Fermentation has been around for thousands of years. Luckily, with the popularity of gut health, the art of fermentation is becoming more well known. I had the pleasure of speaking with Sandor Katz. Sandor has been flying the fermentation flag for years. He is a fermentation revivalist and he has been obsessed with fermentation for 25 years. I wanted to know what he believed was the origin of some of these fermented foods, how he got started with fermenting foods, and some tips he has for you to start fermenting!
What Led You To Discover Fermented Foods?
I grew up with fermented foods. There are 3 main periods of my life where I gained an interest in fermentation:
- As a kid, my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and we always ate pickles from a corner store. Ever since then I have loved pickles and the sour taste.
- When I was in my mid 20’s I spent years experimenting with a macrobiotic diet. Not for any reason, I was just in a phase in life where I was interested in trying different things. Macrobiotics really emphasizes the digestive benefits of pickles and other live ferments. During this period I started noticing that the pickles that I had been enjoying my entire life triggered my salivary glands to start just by thinking about them. I started connecting these foods with getting my digestive juices flowing. But I still wasn’t making any fermented food myself.
- I then moved from NYC to rural Tennessee and I started a garden. I never thought about all the cabbages and radishes being ready at the same time. So once this happened I decided I should learn how to make sauerkraut. I knew it was a practical way of preserving vegetables so I looked in a cookbook called “The Joy of Cooking” and I learned how to make sauerkraut. The first batch was so good and it was so easy…..
You chop cabbage, you salt it, add caraway seeds, any other vegetables, squeeze them so they are juicy, then pack them into a jar and leave them for a few days, weeks, or months. Once I saw how easy it was I got hooked. Then I started making:
I found it to be fascinating and delicious. It is much easier than you think to create these fermented vegetables. And if you do them yourself instead of buying them from the store, you know that the bacteria will be fresh and you will reap the true prebiotic AND probiotic benefits.
Can The Bacteria That Grow In Fermented Foods Be Dangerous?
When I first tried to teach people how to make sauerkraut is when I encountered this fear around fermenting and bacteria. People have been told all of their lives how dangerous bacteria are. They were panicked when they thought of putting vegetables in a jar and having them grow bacteria. The question was, “how can I be sure that I have good bacteria growing and not dangerous bacteria that might make me sick?”
They can easily project all the anxiety they ever had about bacteria onto a jar of sauerkraut.
Did you know that there are barely any other foods that are as safe as sauerkraut? The statistics are remarkable. There are no cases of any type of food illness from fermented vegetables. The reason you know that your jar of sauerkraut isn't going to make someone sick is that it never makes anyone sick. Even if you were to take vegetables that were exposed to accidental contamination in the field or in handling, the reality is the bacteria in the cabbage would easily dominate the introduced contaminants. As they begin to acidify the cabbage they would knock out contaminants.
One of the facts about fermentation and acidifying food is that it preserves it so safely because the organisms that have the ability to make us sick can't survive in acidic environments. Once you reach a pH lower than 4.5 there is practically very little chance of food poisoning. I made it my mission to demystify the process. I wanted to help people understand how they can do it:
There has recently been heightened awareness in the phenomenon of fermentation. This is because of the awareness of the microbiome because people are recognizing for the first time ever how important bacteria are to our overall health and well being.
Eating bacteria-rich foods is a great way of increasing biodiversity in the gut.
There is no danger in eating these bacteria-rich foods. All of the bad bacteria simply cannot live in that acidic of an environment. Do not be scared of fermented foods and start with my book The Art of Fermentation to give you some ideas!
Should You Start Eating Fermented Foods At A Certain Age?
It is important to expose kids to the sour taste of fermented foods. If you expose them at a teething age they will love it forever. If a child's first introduction to them is at 9 years old, they are generally not going to embrace it enthusiastically. Our supermarkets are so laden with sweet flavors, that most kids are exposed to sweet rather than sour. Give your children fermented foods as early as feasible so they do not turn their heads up at these strong flavors.
Many of the strongest flavor foods out there are the products of fermentation such as:
-Koji rice. Cooked rice that has been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, a mold that is used often in Japan.
-Swedish fermented fish. There are also other types of fermented fish such as fish sauces, and the tradition of sushi is using rice as a bed to ferment fish as a means of preservation.
These are acquired tastes. If you are not growing up in a context of food tasting like this you may find them very off-putting when you encounter them. BUT fermented foods don't always have a strong flavor. It depends on how long it has been fermenting. Any ferment can be done in a milder less strong flavor version. There are different types of products such as fish sauce, coffee, chocolate that you don't realize are fermented and their flavors are not as strong as other ferments. Introduce these fermented foods to your children at a young age and watch them grow up to love the acquired taste!
What Is Your Favorite Fermented Food?
This is almost impossible for me to answer. I got into fermentation because I love lots of different kinds of foods. I am devoted to:
I am thankful that the world is full of a diversity of different fermentation processes. That is part of what I love about fermentation, how diverse it is. You can take something that is so traditional in a certain part of the world and you can take the basic process and play with it. You can take a process that is applied to soybeans in Japan for thousands of years and then try it with black-eyed peas. People are taking traditional processes from one part of the world and applying them to very different kinds of ingredients. No one has invented any new fermented food for hundreds of years but there is a lot of “cross-pollination” happening.
Fermenting Meat And Preservation?
The limitations of preserving meat or fish are that the fermentation by-products that preserve (the acids and alcohols) ferment from carbohydrates. Meat and fish have a lot of protein, fat, but they never have a lot of carbohydrates. When you ferment them with rice, grains, or starchy tubers, you are producing a very rich carbohydrate base. The carbohydrates ferment and the acids produced from the fermentation of the carbohydrates can preserve the meat or fish. You need to introduce some type of carbohydrate to get the full preservation effect.
While making salami, you add a little bit of sugar in it. That is enough carbohydrates for the acidification to happen. When I was in high school, one of my neighbors was Hungarian and he first introduced me to Hungarian Salami. That was one of my first experiences with a proper fermented food. They were making it themselves and it was amazing. It is still one of my favorite foods until this day. But you have to beware because things like salami have become so processed these days. Try to find something as natural as possible so you know it doesn't have chemicals and preservatives. You need to be mindful of not just the taste, but the overall quality of the meat that you are eating.
Which Fermented Food Has The Most Probiotics Benefits For Gut Health?
I approach fermented food with a health perspective. I tend to favor certain fermented foods from a scientific perspective for the different types of bacteria. And then you have other people, like yourself Sandor, that favor certain ferments because of the love of food and flavors. -Kriben Govender
If you are thinking of fermented foods strictly in terms of probiotics and optimising the probiotic benefit of fermentation then I would say that the objective of probiotic therapy is through diversity. It is:
There is no particular food that is the “be all end all” because each different kind of fermented food will have different microbial communities. Some will have a higher bacterial count but more diversity. Eating and drinking a diversity of live fermented products definitely gets a broader range of organisms into our bodies rather than if we were to just pick one as the answer to our problems. You can get a consistent flow of bacteria from eating the same food every day, but you get a more varied flow of bacteria if you mix it up a bit. Have some yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and ginger beer. Not one of them is the ultimate source of probiotics, but all of them together are.
The benefits are magnified by diversity.
If you look at the science coming out on the microbiome there is a lot of debate on many topics but when it comes to biodiversity in the gut everyone is in agreement. It is like a rainforest, the more different types of organisms that are in there, the more likely that your body will be in a healthier state. I recommend introducing as many different types of fermented foods as possible - Kriben Govender
Thoughts on Kefir For Gut Health?
I love the flavor and how I feel but it is a big responsibility. Once you have kefir grains you have to keep feeding them. They do not take to long periods of neglect. I do not currently have my own kefir grains but I have seen many kefir grains in my travels.
Example: A guy in California who I met had a single blob of kefir that was connected and it took two hands to hold it.
Sadly there is very little commercially available true Kefir. In the USA and Australia, it is virtually impossible to buy authentic Kefir. There are products that you can buy and they are called Kefir but they are made from a powdered starter culture that may be originally started from kefir but does not have all of the benefits. Out of the 30 probiotic organisms that are part of Kefir one of them is fungus called Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. This fungus will transform Lactose into Alcohol and in parts of the world where the legal threshold for beverages is 0.5% (like the USA and Australia,) it's just not practical to sell true Kefir. Unless you were just trying to sell it as an Alcoholic beverage.
In other parts of the world such as the UK, the threshold is 1% and people are marketing true Kefir.. Even water Kefir because they are so strict on the regulations. If it is tested above 0.5% you need a liquor license. If you aren’t in a place to buy true Kefir, the best thing to do is to make your own. You can buy a kit HERE and get started on your authentic Kefir journey!
Milk kefir has solid research on the efficacy of it. We have done a full genomic study on Kefir grains and there is a host of different types of beneficial bacteria and yeast. They work symbiotically together. -Kriben Govender
You can feel the difference when you have Milk Kefir. It is energizing. The nutrients in it and all fermented foods are very bioavailable. You don’t have to have a strict diet when it comes to fermented foods, just try to get them in every single day. Think of fermented foods as condiments. It may be something you put on a sandwich, on your eggs, or something that you can mix in with rice. Put a little bit on your plate every day and feel the difference.
What is a very interesting type of fermented food that people may like to explore?
I would encourage people to not assume that they know everything about sauerkraut or kimchi because there is a vast amount of variation. You can ferment any vegetable:
-For different lengths of time
-Cut them up differently
You can also:
There are A LOT of different possibilities because you can ferment anything.
Preservation is usually the primary objective of fermenting vegetables because they are highly perishable. In temperate climates, you can only grow them for certain times of the year. So the preservation of vegetables has really made sustaining a healthy life possible through the winter.
BUT when you ferment grains it is not about preservation. Grains in their mature dry state preserve perfectly. But some of the same qualities that enable grains to be able to be stored so long make them difficult for us to digest. The fermentation of grains makes them:
-It makes the minerals in them more accessible to us.
-It gives something that has plain flavors, a more pronounced flavor.
-Makes something that is dense into something light and more pleasant to eat.
First Option- There are many ways you can ferment grains. I love the South Indian method of fermenting rice and lentils. They are called Dosa’s and they are a crepe. You soak the rice and lentils and put them in a blender with a little bit of the water and grind them into a paste. Let them ferment in a hot tropical place for 8 hours, a more temperate place for 24 hours, and a cooler place for 48 hours. Once it rises then you can make the Dosa’s.
Second Option-There is an Afro-Brazilian ferment called Acarajé. This is where you take black-eyed peas, soak them overnight, blend them into a batter, let them ferment for a few days, and make them into a pan-fried bread.
Third Option- You can make buckwheat bread. This is where you take wild buckwheat and soak it, blend it into a batter, let it rise for 24 hours, put it into a well-greased loaf pan with seeds and bake bread or pancakes out of that.
Using these simple techniques, we can make grains:
Fermentation is also a great way to up your vegetable intake because you can play around with the different flavors and textures and get all the qualities of the food. Whatever can get us into the plant food diversity I am 100% supportive of. I have a bunch of great recipes in my book “Wild Fermentation.”
What do you believe is the origin of Kefir and Yoghurt?
We have that old joke “what came first the chicken or the egg?” We have rough ideas about the geographical origins of these foods. Kefir comes from the Caucasus Mountains. They believe that the kefir grains were a gift for the people from Allah. I am a little more of a skeptic and don’t follow the origin stories at face value. I am picturing a region where a lot of families had goats and people typically stored the milk in an animal lining such as skin. They would hang this above the door and part of the ritual was that people agitated that fermented milk as they walked in. Then, some families started finding these little blobs (the kefir grains) in their milk and it had a great flavor and texture. People started associating the texture with the little blobs that formed in the milk. They started sharing them with their neighbors, families, and friends. And eventually, it became a speciality.
As for yoghurt, we can say that the origin is the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Sometimes these spontaneous events happen. It doesn't mean you can replicate them in any environment. It happened in a place with a certain set of conditions and people figured out methods where they could replicate it. That's what fermentation is, a set of techniques that people figured out in the absence of scientific information for how to perpetuate the results of some accidental thing that was pleasing in some way:
-Made the food more delicious
-Made the food more stable
-Removed some toxic or foul compound
People recognized some benefit, therefore, they sought to replicate the process.
The origins of water Kefir are vastly different as well. There is no relationship between milk kefir and water kefir. Water kefir has its origins in Mexico where it is known as Tibicos. The origin story is that the first crystalline structures were found in the subcutaneous layer of prickly pear. I have explored prickly pears looking for them and have not found them. But they may have developed under a specific condition.
What is one thing that someone can do to improve their gut health?
Something more important than the probiotics are the prebiotics. Eating lots of high fiber foods such as tubers and leafy green vegetables. You can have all the probiotics in the world but if you are not eating the kind of nutrients that can nourish them along the entire length of the intestine they are not going to flourish as good as they could. Eating the right kinds of complex carbohydrates will nourish the probiotics that we are eating.
You can put the good guys in there but you have to also put the food in there for the good guys for them to flourish in the gut.- Kriben Govender
There are many different ways to incorporate fermented foods into your life. You can start with sauerkraut and go from there or you can buy a Kefir starter kit and try your hand at that. Remember that if you are in a country like the USA or Australia, the Kefir sold in stores is NOT going to give you all of the necessary benefits. Try new fermented food today to help diversify your gut bacteria and your palate. Share this with a friend that you would like to start fermenting with!