The Art of Fermentation: A Q&A with Sandor Katz main content.

The Art of Fermentation: A Q&A with Sandor Katz

by AMNH on


During the last decade or so, creating homemade fermented foods—from sauerkraut, sour pickles, and kimchi to yogurt and kefir—has become ever more popular, even hip. One reason for this renaissance is certainly the contagious enthusiasm of Sandor Katz, author of the books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, a comprehensive how-to guide nominated for a 2013 James Beard Foundation award.

Sandor Katz
Sandor Katz

On Wednesday, April 24, Katz will join a group of experts at the Museum for what promises to be a lively talk and tasting devoted to making your own fermented foods, which include bread, cheese, beer, chocolate, coffee, and many other everyday favorites.  

We recently talked with Katz about his New York City childhood, how he got interested in fermentation, and more.

You grew up in New York City;  did you grow up interested in food, cooking, health?

Well, I always loved food—in retrospect, I can see glimpses of my interest in fermentation. I grew up on 82nd Street and West End Avenue, and we used to go buy pickles at Zabar’s; I was always drawn to that [fermented] flavor…

How did you get interested in making fermented foods at home?

About 20 years ago, I ended up moving from New York to rural Tennessee, where I got involved with keeping a garden. There, I was faced with what many people have been faced with−historically, fleeting abundance of vegetables from the garden. What to do with it? I had this cabbage, and decided I wanted to make sauerkraut. Soon, I was also making yogurt; country wines, berry- and fruit-based wines, a little bit with cheesemaking, miso, and tempeh. But sauerkraut was my gateway into fermented foods!

Fermented fruit wines
Crocks of fermenting fruit wines

What were your guides to fermentation in those early days?

 One guide was a book by Bill Mollison—he’s the originator of the word and concept of permaculture. He wrote a book called The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition;  I still have a copy—it’s all ragged, from the 1990s…

 What is fermentation?

Fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms.

Kefir microorganisms
© Milos Kalab

We typically reserve this word to describe desirable or intentional microbial transformations. All our food is covered with a multitude of microorganisms, most of which transform our food into what we would consider rotten, spoiled, and unappealing. But some can make our food more stable, digestible, and delicious. The practice of fermentation involves manipulating the environment in order to encourage some microorganisms and discourage others. People learned to ferment alcoholic beverages thousands of years ago, and human settlement would have been entirely impossible in many parts of the world without techniques for using fermentation to preserve food from seasons of plenty to get them through seasons of scarcity. 

How many foods are fermented? 

Frankly, I’m not sure that I’m aware of all the foods that are fermented now…there is such an infinite array around the world.

Armenian pickle shop
An Armenian pickle shop, offering an array of of fermented specialties

I just got hold of some fermented tea leaves from Burma—they’re eaten there almost as a salad green. They’re so good! 

For more information and to buy tickets to Adventures in the Global Kitchen: The Art of Fermentation event on Wednesday, April 24, click here.