Row of cabbage launches a career
AMES – When a New York City native decided to grow cabbage, a fermented food activist was born.
Fast forward more than 20 years, and that city boy – Sandor Katz – is sometimes known as “Sandorkraut” because of his love for and advocacy of fermented foods.
Katz recently presented a three-hour workshop on fermentation at the Practical Farmers of Iowa 2014 annual conference at Iowa State University, where he explained not only his own transformation, but how fermentation transforms food.
“What got me to learn to make sauerkraut was having a garden for the first time,” Katz said. “I grew up in New York City, and I was such a naive city kid that the first year I had a garden, it hadn’t even occurred to me that all of the cabbage would be ready at the same time. But, then suddenly, there was this row of cabbage.
“There wasn’t acres of it, it was just a row, maybe a couple of dozen heads. But that’s a lot of cabbage for a small household to deal with all at once,” he said. “So, faced with this fleeting abundance, I learned how to make sauerkraut, and I’ve been pretty much in continuous production of sauerkraut.
“Then I got interested in lots of other realms of fermentation.”
Today, Katz travels the world both learning about fermented foods of other cultures and sharing his knowledge. In Ames, he spoke about cassava root, which in an unfermented state possesses potentially lethal levels of cyanide, and of a Swedish method of preserving fish, called surstromming, which is a bit notorious, Katz said.
“In contemporary production, it’s actually put into cans, and it ripens in the cans. When it’s ready, the can bulges.”
That, he said, is different than any other canned food since a bulging can usually means the food is spoiled.
“But the interesting thing about fermented foods,” Katz said, “is that they are neither fresh nor rotten. They exist in this kind of creative space between.
“People frequently want to know where is the line that divides fermented food and rotten food, and science has not provided us with a sharp, objective line. Each of us makes that determination for ourselves.”
In the strictest scientific sense, many foods that are popularly referred to as fermented – including vinegar, kombucha, tempeh and certain styles of cheeses – don’t meet the biologists’ definition of fermented because their processing requires the presence of oxygen.
However, Katz said he prefers to use the broader lay definition of fermentation, that it is the “transformative action of microorganisms.”
“But,” he said, “you have to understand that not every transformative action of microorganisms results in something delicious that we wish to put in our mouths.”
That conclusion is reaffirmed, he said, “every time we clean out the refrigerator … and we don’t call the food we discard fermented. We call it spoiled or rotten.”
Fermentation is possible, he said, because all of the plants, animals and animal products that people eat are populated by dense and biodiverse populations of microorganisims.
Unless food is totally dried or frozen at extremely low temperatures, Katz said, “eventually, microorganisms will transform food, not always in ways that smell good or look good or inspire our desire to eat them.”
People living in developed countries in the 21st century have a distorted idea of food preservation, he said, because of their reliance on refrigerators and freezers. Even canning as a means of preservation only dates back to the early 19th century, Katz said.
Fermentation has been used as a strategy for food preservation since alcoholic beverages were first created, and it remains a popular option for consumers, including foods that often aren’t thought of as fermented.
“Chocolate is fermented. Coffee is fermented. Most of the condiments we love to put on our food, either they are directly fermented as in soy sauce and fish sauce, or else they rely on vinegar, which is fermented, to stablize them, as in ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, salsas and chutneys,” he said.
The concept of fermentation is gaining popularity again, he said, because of its perceived benefits beyond preservation.
Fermentation breaks down indigestible proteins, such as those found in soybeans, into digestible amino acids, Katz said.
Lactose, he said, can be broken down by fermentation, as can gluten.
Also, as in the case of cassava root, fermentation can break down food toxins.
In addition, he said, fermentation can contribute nutrients.
“Almost all fermented foods have higher levels of B vitamins than the raw foods that we begin with,” Katz said. “Then there are also these … unique microorganisms that are found in certain fermented foods, and these are metabolic byproducts of specific organisms. This is a brand-new field, and there is only a limited amount of investigation.
“Only certain of these compounds have been indentified. But a few of them have been found to have really valuable qualities.”
That would include some fermented vegetables that produce isothiocynates, which are regarded as anti-carcinogenic, he said.
“But I think it’s also important to recognize that fermentation creates strong flavors. This is both what draws many people to them, and it’s also what makes certain of them somewhat controversial and challenging,” Katz said.
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