The popularity of probiotics has been rising for the last decade or so, growing from a health food market niche to a booming industry with over 150 companies and 1.3 billion dollars in revenue each year. In short, fermentation is the practice of breaking down foods with natural microorganisms, helping them to become more stable and transforming them in various ways. This process also brings food “to life”: the microorganisms involved in fermentation live on the food and are probiotic, giving helpful bacteria to our digestive systems. Probiotic capsules are often expired and full of dead microorganisms that render them useless, but fermented foods naturally contain plenty—and many have been making use of them for several millennia.
Cultures across the world have incorporated fermented foods into their daily diets for flavor, health, and preservation. These foods ought to be a staple in the diet of any health-conscious individual, and even the busiest among us can find the time to prepare them at home with a bit of effort. I spoke with three experts on fermentation about the necessity and simplicity of this key group of foods.
Sandor Katz and Why You Should Care
Sandor Katz is an author, educator, and activist whose passion for fermentation goes back over two decades. He hosts and teaches at a residency program in Liberty, TN. An indisputable leading expert on the subject of fermentation, Katz was happy to speak with me about how easy it is to begin fermenting at home and exactly what the process does to our food to make it more beneficial.
The first issue we discussed was the fear people have today of germs and doing it incorrectly. While fermentation is the process of inviting certain microorganisms into one’s food, it also prevents others from coming in. Bad bacteria simply cannot make a home in a very salty, anaerobic environment. As the art of fermentation has existed for so long, its origins involve very little equipment, only simple observation. Interestingly, no new methods of fermentation have been created for hundreds of years.
Fermentation also breaks down other elements one would prefer not to have in their meal through the process of predigestion and detoxification. This is when, over time, nutrients are broken down into easily digested amino acids and others (like cyanide and sialic acid) are broken down, rendering them harmless. An example of this is the soybean: a rich plant protein that is totally indigestible on its own. When fermented, the nutrients in the soybean become more easily digestible. East Asian cultures have been fermenting about as long as anybody, inventing delicious offerings like miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and natto using this bean that otherwise would be nutritionally useless. Natto contains a valuable medicinal enzyme called nattokinase, a natural blood thinner that is often used to relieve those suffering from blood clots. Nattokinase has even begun to be synthesized into capsules and given as a medicine to those suffering from cardiovascular diseases like heart disease and hypertension.
The live bacteria in fermented foods are the same probiotics you might buy in capsule form at CVS, but with the guarantee that they are still kicking. These bacteria are what promote the biodiversity we all need in our digestive systems. Today, many suffer from a lack of this biodiversity, leading to heart problems, obesity, cancers, and more. This largely has to do with the high degree of chemical exposure in our food, and a distinct lack of fiber. Why not let some of those neglected crisper drawer residents sit in salt water and avoid all of those terrible things?
The other main benefit of fermentation is preservation. “Most houses in 2022 on planet Earth do not have a refrigerator,” notes Katz. While I would assume most of the readers of this article do, fermentation can be an easy answer to a crisper drawer that seems to be more of a “rotter drawer.”
The most important thing to keep in mind when embarking on your own fermentation journey, Katz emphasizes, is understanding what conditions you are trying to create. This means sauerkraut is submerged in its juices, and yogurt is fermented at a temperature range of 105 to 110°F, and it’s really that simple. “There is literally no case history in this country of food poisoning from sauerkraut,” he explains. While it’s easy to project modern anxiety around bacteria onto the idea of fermentation, the facts don’t bear out that anxiety. Salmonella is destroyed in the highly acidic environment, and fermentation actually makes many foods safer. Again, this way of processing our food has been in practice for thousands of years, and the notion that it only got figured out in Portland, Oregon circa 2005 is ridiculous. While some may find trusting the process of fermentation difficult, Katz reminds us: “In our immediate gratification culture, it’s very profound for people to do something for next week or next month, trusting that there are invisible forces at play.”
Austin Durant and How It’s Done
Austin Durant is a former student of Katz, the founder and president of the Fermenter’s Club, recent speaker at the Wise Traditions Conference in Knoxville, and a soon-to-be author. The easiest thing to begin fermenting, he says, is a vegetable like carrot sticks. “If the idea is just to get the basics down, salt and a vegetable and sometimes water,” he explains. One of Durant’s favorite recipes, Chiles in Escabeche, or “taco bar veggies” falls into this category. This is probably a good place to start over something like pickled cucumbers, which need to be very fresh and can sometimes get soggy in the fermentation process.
A pandemic staple across many urban kitchens, sourdough bread was largely the only bread before Louis Pasteur came along. While it became popular as urbanites were going stir-crazy in apartments, it really doesn’t take as much as some may lead you to believe. “I started a few months before the pandemic,” Durant explains, and he finds the time investment to be fairly manageable. All a sourdough needs is a little flour and water— the flour brings its own bacteria that has hitched a ride over, and together they will attract beneficial wild microbes in the air. Whole wheat is a great option for your first “feeding” as the extra bran and nutrition provided for the starter are akin to fertilizing some freshly turned soil. From here, feed your starter once a day, and in one to three weeks, you should see the telltale sign that it is healthy: the volume of your dough will double in six to eight hours. As for the hot button issue of humidity, Durant doesn’t dither around with it. “Most people have one humidity in their home,” he laughs.
Durant prefers to keep things simple with a 1:1:1 ratio: that’s equal parts starter, flour, and water by weight. While he’s sure there is merit to another popular ratio of 1:2:2, he prefers not to mess with his recipes, stating “If you’re always doing [1:1:1 ratio] it’s just simpler math.” However, as you feed a starter even at this ratio, it is regularly tripling in size, and can quickly get out of hand. This is why many discard some starter before they feed. Durant likes to use bonus starter in other recipes like these Sourdough Brownies. Instead of simply discarding the extra starter, it can be moved to the fridge which he describes as a “fermentation super slow-mo button” and used in other recipes. This can buy you some time, as refrigerated, the starter will only need to be taken and returned to room temperature for a feeding once a week before getting popped right back in the fridge. Durant reminded me that his catchphrase is fermentation is about the idea that it’s just as easy to make a lot as it is to make a little, declaring: “You may as well make a lot.”
As for the fears around fermentation (a focus area for Durant whose upcoming book will be titled Fearless Fermenting) he knows that they can be a big inhibitor for people. “People are curious enough to come to the class but concerned that they would be making something lethal or that would make their families sick,” he says, but echoes the sentiment of Katz—there’s no documentation of this happening.
For those who still have anxiety, he recommends trusting your senses. If you bring food to your face and want to wretch, don’t fight that instinct to eat it anyway—no one is grading you. Durant himself will sometimes find a strange growth at the top of a jar of kraut, scrape it off, toss the top layer, and know the rest is safe. “It’s fine under the brine,” he rhymes, rending that salt lets in the “good guys” and not the “bad guys.” He agrees with Katz (and me) that the practice can be meditative and beneficial in that way, noting that a little preparation goes a long way just as with any crockpot of sous-vide cooking. About an hour of prep and a weekly reminder on your phone or calendar are all it takes. “There are very few fermenting emergencies in the world,” he laughs. Along with a private meditation, he loves that fermenting food can be a social activity: “The social aspect is very important… you can look at anything as a chore, or you can look at it as a way to connect.”
Hannah Tidman & Short Mountain Cultures
Hannah Tidman and her partner JP are the masterminds behind Short Mountain Cultures, a small company based just an hour from Nashville who specialize in fermented products. Their range includes kombucha, kimchi, beet kvass, water kefir, milk kefir, coconut kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and a very popular hot sauce. In a small Woodbury, TN space that used to be a restaurant, Tidman and JP make quality small batch ferments and engage in education and activism for the food.
In 2002, Tidman herself lived in an intentional community (a group of people with their own small village on a shared chunk of land) with Katz while he was writing his book Wild Fermentation. Through osmosis and the “process of trying to shake off suburbia,” Tidman found a passion for fermentation. Like Durant, JP also took part in Katz’s residency program, falling in love with Middle Tennessee after a period of making tempeh in a small New York apartment to bike around to friends. They started Short Mountain Cultures in 2016, as the combination of interest, a rural home, and aversion to commuting an hour into the city for work pushed them to go professional. “No one was really doing what we could envision doing,” Tidman muses. At the start, this was a grind at farmer’s and wholesale markets, waking up at 4 in the morning and lugging around coolers of homemade food. Through farmer’s markets, the two made enough connections to open their own retail shop right where they manufacture, eventually developing a good community of homesteading people who frequent it. Today, Nashvillians can find their products at nearby shops like the Turnip Truck, Produce Place, the Mitchell Deli, and Honeytree Meadery.
Short Mountain tries to keep products local and seasonal, a somewhat simpler feat when selling fermented goods, though products still run out. The Chili Garlic Sauce is usually made in advance and bulk (hot peppers in Tennessee have a long season) but due to the degree of its popularity, sometimes customers find themselves asking when it will be back. The answer? Whenever you see peppers at the farmer’s market again. Short Mountain Kimchi is a strictly seasonal good that will be available shortly—Tidman received a massive shipment of the currently in-season napa cabbage as we spoke on the phone. The Jun Kombucha is the company’s answer to this desire to stick local, featuring green tea and honey as opposed to black tea with sugar. You can pick some up at their shop or Honeytree Meadery.
Like Katz and Durant, Short Mountain blends their business with a fair amount of what Tidman calls “baby activism” and education around their products. Tidman explained that anyone in a small fermenting business will tell you that there’s a lot of talking and a lot of educating the consumer. They love to encourage new people to ferment their own foods, and the incorporation of classes and books into their everyday business keeps things interesting for them. The degrees of passion and craftsmanship at Short Mountain Cultures are absolutely one-to-one. “More is more,” Tidman declares, proud of her part in encouraging newcomers to the fermentation game. She feels fortunate to be a part of the culturing culture, have the freedom to run a locally-based, quality shop, and “have customers that are willing to enjoy the ride along with [them].”