The Funkiest Man In The Room: Topos Ferments’ Jim Bovino on how to stay ahead of the mountain of produce overwhelming your kitchen

Jim Bovino // Photo by Daniel Murphy

You didn’t mean for this to happen. Like that time you got sunburned during a long beach read, this incident snuck up on you—in this case, a couple of pounds of beautiful green bunches at a time. Now your kitchen counter is covered with more produce than you’ll ever be able to eat in the week ahead. There’s no aloe vera gel to help you this time. What’s an overloaded autumnal cook to do? 

Jim Bovino has a plan for that. Heed his advice and you’ll not only avoid food waste, but you’ll be adding one-of-a-kind, delicious dishes to your menu, too. He teaches folks all over the metro about fermenting food, an incredibly flexible and low-tech way to turn an overload of produce into a source of preserved goods that will keep you going all winter long. Bovino is the founder of Topos Ferments, whose products you may have seen at Lowry Hills Meats or the Mill City, Kingfield, or Fulton farmers markets. If you’re a real funkhead, you might even belong to his Pickle CSA, which provides a monthly assortment of fermented foods and sodas. And for the DIY types, he hosts hugely popular Art of Fermentation classes that transform produce-overloaded seekers into confident new fermenters in just a couple of hours.

The chef’s darling

A trim, bearded man with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, Bovino has become the Twin Cities’ go-to guide for anyone wanting to know more about the friendly bacterial universe of fermentation. His products are carried at such places as Modern Times Cafe, Parallel Cafe, and Honey + Rye Bakehouse; chef Jonathan Gans at Bachelor Farmer not only uses Bovino’s products but has teamed up with him to create a completely Minnesotan-grown version of the fermented mold known as koji, crafted from Minnesota-grown wild rice. The koji is mixed with butter and rubbed into the skin of the restaurant’s chicken entree (roasted half chicken, mushrooms, sunchoke cream, angelica, hickory nuts, toothwort, koji butter). He’s also planning to create a miso using barley grown at Footjoy Farm in Sparta, Wisconsin.

During a recent tour of his Armatage-neighborhood workshop, Bovino showed off the works-in-progress that line his shelves and fill his refrigerator. There’s a tub of miso, made with adzuki beans. On the floor is a clear glass jug of rhubarb wine, as pinkly pretty as a Cosmopolitan, and twice as delicious. Large ceramic crocks hold wonders like kasuzuke, a ferment created from the lees of sake-making. An unplugged refrigerator, fitted with a humidifier, heater, and moisture gauge, stands open and ready for the next round of koji-making experiments. 

Black Currants fermenting // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The fermentation tradition

“This craft is such an easy way to prevent waste and create delicious food,” Bovino says. “It’s kind of magical, really. And it’s a foodway that many people have forgotten about, even though before we had refrigeration and canning, we absolutely needed fermentation as a way to preserve food.” 

Is fermentation the answer—for our health, our budgets, our food system? The answer to all three is “yes,” Bovino says. “We need to foster a regionally and locally resilient food system, no question about it. Imagine if we suddenly had no access to produce from California, Mexico, or Chile. In the middle of the winter in Minnesota, what would you eat? If you start fermenting and making food for yourself, you’ll always have that technique in mind, and you can buy more locally grown fruit and vegetables, which makes an important social and community connection.”

For Bovino, fermented foods don’t just taste good—they’re an ancient response to the need for healthy, nutrition-packed eating year-round, especially in a cold-climate location like Minnesota. And the best part about starting to do your own fermentation is that it’s one of those rare social positives that won’t cost you a boatload of dough upfront. Waving an arm around the crock-filled shelves of his workshop, Bovino says, “It’s all pretty analog, and the cost of entry is low. You just need clean containers and someplace to refrigerate the ferments when they’re done.” 

Moving through the workshop, he offers up tastes of rhubarb wine, rhubarb-ginger soda, radishes pickled with garlic greens, and garlic scapes fermented in a toasted rice bran called nukazuke. Each bite carries its own unique texture and zip, often sneaking up on the palate with accelerating levels of heat, spice, or umami. Everything in the workshop has a story to tell, and Bovino sees himself as the guy who brings the ingredients together and then steps out of the way and lets them get to work. 

Acknowledging the long tradition of fermentation from which he’s working, Bovino says, “I’m using these techniques with humility and with respect for previous generations of craftspeople, like miso makers or soy sauce makers, who gained mastery after a lifetime of work. I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t at all claim that I’ve ‘figured it out.’ I’m just approaching all this with a sense of experimentation and enthusiasm.”

Bovino is a familiar face to many metro diners. He has been a server and a manager at Bachelor Farmer. He was director of fermentation at now-shuttered GYST, where he was responsible for in-house and retail fermentation, overall kitchen operations, fermentation education, and off-site sales at farmers markets. 

He was a founding partner of Keepsake Cidery, a small craft cidery based out of Dundas, Minnesota; a co-owner at California Street Farm, an urban farm in Northeast Minneapolis; and he even worked on a diversified blueberry farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. There’s everything from policy to theater to music in his not-too-distant past. The policy part was his participation in the effort to legalize commercial urban agriculture in Minneapolis, working for passage of the Urban Ag Text Amendment. In that role, he served as co-chair of the Land Access subcommittee for Homegrown Minneapolis. And then there’s his theatrical and musical past—he’s worked as managing director of the Ritz Theater, co-artistic director of Flaneur Productions, and as co-producer of the Heliotrope Festival of underground and underrepresented local music.

Jim Bovino at work in his kitchen // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Ridiculously easy

While he would love for you to buy his products, Bovino insists that a basic ferment is ridiculously easy for even a beginning cook to master on their own. “All you need are a wide-mouth Ball jar, a cutting board, a knife, some non-iodized salt, and something to weigh down your produce,” he says. “My weights are flat rocks I collected along the shores of Lake Superior.” The only new piece of equipment you might need, he says, is a kitchen scale, which helps ensure a more accurate salt-to-veg ratio. 

For people who ask, “What do I eat it with?” he says that finished ferments work well as side dishes, toppings, or featured players. “Fermented foods are the ultimate condiment—they go with anything,” Bovino says. “I think most foods we eat today don’t have enough acid, but ferments add back acid and perfectly balance rich or fatty tastes.” 

Placed in a refrigerator and kept under their brine, ferments will last at least a year, even longer, with no spoilage or off-taste developing. And yes, they are perfectly safe to eat. If many recent medical studies are to be believed, they’re more than safe—they’re a health-promoting agent for our often-beleaguered modern guts.

Patience, patience

Effort is required for the initial produce prep, but the most important factor in the process is the willingness to be patient while waiting for fermentation to happen. And in that waiting, there’s an unexpected gift. “Becoming a fermenter definitely has allowed me to slow my life down,” Bovino says. “I’ve learned that it’s all about stewardship. Sometimes I feel like I’m a farmer, needing to do daily maintenance and check-ins with my ‘herd’ of ferments, and I’ve learned to move at their pace.” 

Jim Bovino’s recipe for basic sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • Fresh, organic cabbage (as much as you want to make, but if you’re just starting out, start with a small amount)
  • Non-iodized salt (be sure to use non-iodized salt, as iodine is an anti-microbial agent and will impede fermentation)
  • One outside cabbage leaf, reserved as “lid”

Equipment

  • Wide-mouth jar (big enough to hold the cabbage with about two inches of space at the top) 
  • Weights (such as: a smaller jar filled with water, clean rocks, a sealable plastic bag filled with water)
  • Mixing bowl 

Directions

First, chop the cabbage. You can chop rough or fine—however you want your final product to look. Keep in mind that the more surface area of the vegetable you expose, the faster the fermentation rate.  

Weigh the final, chopped amount of cabbage. Put in a mixing bowl, add 2.5% of the cabbage’s total weight in salt, and mix thoroughly. Let mixture sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. You should notice quite a bit of liquid leaching out of the cabbage. This is a good thing—it’s your brine! Mix the cabbage again, then pack it into the jar, making sure to pack it down tightly so that all of the air is out of the jar and you’ve allowed the brine to rise to the top. 

Once you’ve punched down the cabbage so that the brine is above the cabbage, place the reserved cabbage leaf on top. Place your clean weight on top of that, then drape a clean kitchen towel over everything. Put a plate underneath the jar and leave it at room temperature.

The first 24 hours are the most vigorous phase of the process. You may notice a foam on top of the jar and it may have overflowed slightly. This is normal and means your fermentation has started. Just clean up any mess that’s been made by this process. You can remove the weight and clean up around the inside of the top of the jar, then punch down the cabbage to keep it below the brine. If you do notice mold, just scrape it out with a clean spoon and punch down the rest of the cabbage. This is normal and not at all a risk.

After a week, you’ll want to begin tasting daily to see how the kraut is developing. Depending on room temperature and desired taste, the process can take three weeks to a month. Once it reaches the desired taste/acidity, put a lid on the jar and refrigerate it. This is a safe and stable  product and it should last indefinitely. The only factor is texture, because eventually it may become softer than you like, but you’ll probably have eaten it long before that happens.

Get your funk on

Bovino will be teaching classes at the Wormfarm Institute’s Fermentation Festival in Reedsburg, Wisconsin October 5, 6, 12, and 13. Register at wormfarminstitute.org

Bovino’s “Art of Fermentation” classes are held regularly at Lowry Hills Meats. Register at toposferments.com/classes