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In a Ferment with Sandor Katz

by Katherine Rogers

Farmers, restaurateurs, artisans, and activists' Middle Tennessee is overflowing with people who are passionate about where we live and how we eat. But did you know there is a fermentation specialist amid our growing community? Sandor Katz, also known as Sandorkraut, moved to Tennessee over a decade ago, and has been sharing his love and knowledge of fermentation ever since.

His first fermentation experiment involved an abandoned old crock that he rescued, and cabbage harvested from the garden. The strong taste and pungency of the resulting sauerkraut instantly hooked him on the process. He began to combine his interest in gardening and nutrition into a passion for fermented foods. Delving deep into the process, he explored methods and discovered many important nutritional benefits. Katz's acclaimed fermentation guidebook, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods is a result of his study and his desire to spread the word.

* If you are a novice, Katz encourages you to start where he did, by fermenting vegetables from your garden. "None of this is rocket science..."

If you are a novice, Katz encourages you to start where he did, by fermenting vegetables from your garden. "None of this is rocket science," Katz says, explaining that successful fermentation processes are "ancient rituals that our ancestors figured out through trial and error." The simplicity of the craft is what fueled Katz's desire to educate those around him, realizing that, as fer- mentation has become unfamiliar, the fear of the unknown and ideas of what could go wrong were holding people back. Katz considers fermentation an "essential culinary technique," that should be an integral part of our own food preparation.

Students are encouraged to look around and consider how many of the foods that we consume are fermented. Dozens of foods in our pantries would qualify, including bread, chocolate, coffee and tea, condi- ments, cured meat, and cheeses. The intense flavors of these items are a result of the fermentation process. However, he also notes that many fermented foods that are commercially available do not have the same nutritional value and other health benefits as fermented foods produced at home. For example, sauerkraut purchased from the grocery store might be pasteurized, reducing the nutrient content and digestibility, as well as the flavor. Katz notes, "What's best for commerce is not always best for our health." (Katz's second book, The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved, delves more deeply into these issues.) Katz participates in workshops and festivals around the United States, and leads classes in his basement kitchen, located at Little Short Mountain Farm in Woodbury, Tennessee. He holds workshops for everyone, from beginners to experts. Starting this fall he is teaching multiple one-day classes that will focus mainly on an introduction to fermentation and the basic aspects of what fermentation is all about, including a miso-making day in November.

Katz is hopeful that these classes will encourage his students to make fermentation part of their regular culinary routine. He is optimistic that the current momentum surrounding the support of local foods and resources will continue, along with a growing passion for fermentation. "I have noticed more vendors in the farmers' market, more CSAs, and fermentation is a part of that." He sees the popularity surrounding local resources as a continuation of what many Middle Tennesseans have practiced for so long. "A lot of people never stopped doing it...a lot of old timers. We are fortunate to have rich resources in Tennessee."

Proud to be spearheading a part of the movement of people learning take advantage of all of these resources and participate in "living traditions," Katz explains with a passion that he is witnessing the rising interest in farming and backyard gardens, and a rise in new local food sources. "People are getting more interested in the source of their food." He believes that this is one reason why more people are interested in learning about fermentation. "People are showing a strong interest in fermentation as a way to preserve their garden. Fermentation is the most ancient form of food preservation we have." He notes that the connection between our ancestors who participated in the fermentation of foods and beverages and the current generation is not that distant. Many people who attend his classes had grandparents who made country wine and sauerkraut on their front porch. Katz is ready and excited for the momentum to continue, with more people joining him every day. Especially because fermentation is a part of a homegrown medium that is "more important then it ever has been before."

To learn more about Sandor Katz and his books, upcoming events, and resources, visit

Making Sauerkraut is Easy!
This is Sandor Katz's easy sauerkraut recipe, one of more than 90 ferments included in his book, Wild Fermentation.

Timeframe: 1-4 weeks (or more)

Special Equipment:
Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)
Ingredients (for 1 gallon):
5 pounds cabbage
3 tablespoons sea salt


1.Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it. I love to mix green and red cabbage to end up with bright pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.

2.Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.

3.Add other vegetables. Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut. Other vegetables I've added include onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots. You can also add fruits (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment.

4.Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.

5. Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.

6.Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it's completely dissolved.

7.Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won't forget about it, but where it won't be in anybody's way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.

8.Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mold as "scum," but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don't worry about this. It's just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.

9.Enjoy. I generally scoop out a bowl- or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge. I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully. Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it. This can be done; but so much of the power of sauerkraut is its aliveness that I wonder: Why kill it?

10.Develop a rhythm. I try to start a new batch before the previous batch runs out. I remove the remaining kraut from the crock, repack it with fresh salted cabbage, then pour the old kraut and its juices over the new kraut. This gives the new batch a boost with an active culture starter.