Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a book that came recommended to me for years. And I should have read it years ago. It's surprisingly moving, refreshing, profound, and amazing. Who would expect all that from a cookbook?
Of course, it's more than just a simple cookbook, but even still. Katz is not your average, mainstream guy, and I have a hunch that that's a good thing. After all, an average guy would not undertake crazy fermentation projects like making chicha, the traditional Andean beverage made by chewing corn and spitting it back out prior to fermenting it. (The enzymes in saliva malt the corn, changing the starches into sugars so that the sugars can become a delicious alcoholic drink. And, by the way, there's a spit-free way to make chicha.)
First of all, there's the fermentation aspect of the book - which is complete, covering numerous types of fermentation done around the world, with easy to follow recipes for each one. After reading the book, I'm hardly a master winemaker, although I feel pretty confident that I could make wine if I wanted to (I don't). But I have now made sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, fermented oatmeal, uji (a fermented African millet porridge), and yogurt. I am on take two for sour pickles (the first experiment with them did not go very well) and I just ordered cultures and vegetarian rennet from a cheesemaking supply company listed in the book's appendix. And, while I haven't devoted an entire year to making my own miso (yet), Katz's recipe for miso soup (using store-bought miso) has become a staple for me. (The stuff's so dang expensive that I'm thinking it's time to think about making my own just to start saving money!)
Aside from that, this book is so refreshing simply because the publisher - bless them - let Katz's personality come through raw and unfiltered (though perhaps fermented a bit). A few pages in, as Katz brings up a friend who is transgender and ponders the binary construct of gender in our society before returning to the topic of fermentation, I thought to myself, "Who is the publisher???" Being in the book publishing world myself, I can tell you that most agents and publishers are less interested in whether you can communicate your unique and quirky self to your readers and more interested in making sure your book will sell. Of course, if you can do both, all the better. But Katz's descriptions of friends with names like Nettles and Tom Foolery (a professional clown and juggler) and the way he ties his thoughts on death - his own and his loved ones - to fermentation just amazed me.
Many a publisher would ask him to cut that stuff out for fear of alienating or weirding out the readers. Just pretend to be a "respectable," "normal" person and stick to the subject of fermentation, thank you. But that's not what Katz does and it's a breath of fresh air. This is a real, living, breathing, imperfect, quirky, fantastic, creative, wonderful human being. He even gives out his email address in the book and invites readers to send him their questions about fermentation.
My hunch is that it's because Katz doesn't conform to any number of American social norms that he's delved so deeply into the subject of fermentation, allowing him to write such a spectacular book.
The idea of "wild" fermentation is not just intended as a catchy title. If you perform fermentation like many Americans - at least the few who do any fermentation at all - that often means you attempt to begin with a completely sterile environment as a blank canvas and you add a specific culture or cultures to do the job for you. No doubt any food manufacturer that produces a fermented product also regularly takes samples and analyzes them under a microscope to make sure the right microbes are in there doing the job.
But humankind has done fermentation for millennia and it's only the recent past that we've known anything about microbes at all. Wild fermentation means recruiting wild microbes to do the work for you instead of a little packet of some microbial monoculture. Of course, sometimes that little packet of microbial monoculture is necessary. The yogurt I made this weekend was produced by four specific microbes that I can name.
But often, you can let nature just take it's course. Sauerkraut's an easy way to start, but sourdough bread, vinegar, many fermented porridges can also be made using wild microbes. No corporate-produced, purchased, packaged, marketed items needed. In fact, many recipes are a form of recycling, like the Eastern European drink kvass (made from stale bread) or vinegar made from fruit scraps like pineapple peels and apple cores. Fermentation was a crucial part of life in the days before refrigerators and grocery stores, when families had to preserve their food and local microbes were only too happy to help do it for them.
Katz quotes his friend whose brewing mantra is "Cleanliness, not sterility." This is another important take-away from this book. As an American, it's hard to just sit back and let your food rot - which is what fermentation really is. And yes, I do want a certain type of microbe to colonize and eat my cabbage to make it into sauerkraut, but I can think of an awful lot of other microbes I don't want in there (E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria...).
We live in a country that loves their hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial (endocrine-disrupting) soap. Guess what? Anti-bacterial soap is a good way to make a fermentation experiment go horribly wrong. Cleanliness is a good thing in the kitchen, but the type of sterile environment we've come to think is necessary just won't work when it comes to fermentation. Not when the whole point is setting up a happy environment for a certain type of friendly microbe and then letting it go to town. (I was truly so scared of this the first time I made yogurt that I had my cats taste it first before I dared to try it myself.) Katz makes this point very well, and hopefully his enthusiasm for fermented foods and the microbes that make them will be infectious enough to get readers to change their relationships with bacteria.
If you're unsure about this fantastic book, check it out of the library, or check out Katz's website, which has tons of recipes like this one for sauerkraut. But I'm convinced that you'll decide, like me, that this is one book you need to have on your shelf.