The Art of Fermentation: Fermented Foods with Sandor Katz


You know that bread dough rises of anaerobic metabolism: Yeasts are eating sugars and spitting out carbon dioxide that gets trapped in a sticky matrix of gluten. Yeasts also add flavor to the bread. Dan Hunter at the Grand Café pours Surly Furious into his sourdough culture to help impart flavor and invigorate the yeasts [see page 48]. Sourdough gets its sour taste from the lactic acid produced by ambient yeasts found in flour. Microbes also add flavor to dosa, a popular Indian crêpe made from a batter of rice, black lentils and water that’s left to ferment overnight.


So many wonderful things happen when milk is left to go bad. The same kinds of microbes that give sour flavors to a Berliner Weisse or Lambic are among those doing the heavy lifting in the dairy aisle. Generally, fermented dairy products feature the conversion of lactose into lactic acid. When milk is inoculated and left to curdle, the result is yogurt. Start with light cream and it becomes sour cream. A heavier cream will produce crème fraîche. Cheese is similarly made, though it’s the addition of rennet (an enzyme found in cow stomachs) that helps coagulate the milk proteins, separating the curds and whey.

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Dairy is also where you’ll see a lot of products advertised as having “active cultures,” especially Greek yogurt. “I don’t know that there’s a scientific consensus,” says Katz. “But certainly there’s been research done, some of which I cite in my book, which demonstrates specifically how a diet of bacteria-rich food stimulates and improves digestion, nutrient assimilation and immune functions. The whole probiotics industry is based on this observation.”

Meat & Fish

Cured meats are often fermented as well as dried. Take salami, for example, where sugars are added to promote the growth of bacteria that produce lactic acid. Chorizo receives a similar fermentation before it’s cured and smoked, as do many of the world’s sausages including pepperoni and merguez.

When fish are left to ferment, the results bring some serious umami to the party. You’ve probably had fish sauce in one form or another at your local Vietnamese pho house. It’s best with water and sugar and other spices in nuoc cham, the dressing poured over a cold bowl of rice noodle salad. It’s made from fermented anchovies, just like Worcestershire sauce, which was originally created by a happy accident. Misters Lea and Perrins had attempted an Indian-inspired fish sauce and stashed jars of an unsuccessful recipe in their cellar. Tasting it a few years later, it had transformed into something wonderfully rich and savory.

The Japanese dry, ferment and smoke skipjack tuna, which is shaved into flakes to become katsuobushi. Along with dried seaweed, it’s one of the two components that flavor the broth (dashi) that’s the basis of miso soup. Which brings us to…


Miso is fermented soybean paste, though it sometimes includes other grains. Soy sauce is brewed when soy and other grains are partially cooked, mixed with a bacterial culture, left to ferment and then pressed to release the liquid. A fermentation starter is also added to par-cooked soybeans that have been spread in a thin layer to produce tempeh, the popular vegetarian protein.

“Anaerobic metabolism transforms foods in important ways,” says Katz. “It predigests dense compound nutrients that can be hard for us to assimilate. It actually contributes some additional nutrients, and in certain cases it detoxifies foods, breaking down compounds that can be toxic.” Heck, if it only produced beer, cheese, and salami, it’d still be worthy of some pretty high praise.

John Garland also writes about food and drink for The Heavy Table (

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About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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