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The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World

The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World PDF

Author: Sandor Ellix Katz

Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing


Publish Date: May 14, 2012

ISBN-10: 160358286X

Pages: 498

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Little could I have imagined, as a New York City kid who loved
pickles, that those delicious, crunchy, garlicky sour pickles would
lead me on such an extraordinary journey of discovery and
exploration. In fact, products of fermentation—not only pickles,
but also bread, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, salami, vinegar, soy
sauce, chocolate, and coffee, as well as beer and wine—were
prominent in my family’s diet (as they are in many, if not most,
people’s), though we never talked about them as such. Yet, as my
path through life led me to various nutritional ideas and dietary
experiments, I did learn about the digestive benefits of bacteria
present in living fermented foods and began to experience their
restorative powers. And when I found myself with a garden,
faced with a surplus of cabbages and radishes, sauerkraut
beckoned me. Our love affair endures.

The first time I taught a sauerkraut-making workshop, at the Sequatchie
Valley Institute in 1999, I learned that there is a tremendous fear in our
culture of aging food outside of refrigeration. In our time, most people are
raised to view bacteria as dangerous enemies and refrigeration as a
household necessity. The idea of leaving food outside of refrigeration in
order to encourage bacterial growth triggers fears of danger, disease, and
even death. “How will I know whether the right bacteria are growing?” is a
common question. People largely assume that for microbial
transformations to be safe, they require extensive knowledge and control
and are therefore a specialized domain best left to experts.
Most food and beverage fermentation processes are ancient rituals that
humans have been performing since before the dawn of history, yet we have
largely relegated them to factory production. Fermentation has mostly
disappeared from our households and communities. Techniques evolved by
disparate human cultures over millennia, through observation of natura phenomena and manipulating conditions with trial and error, have become obscure and are in danger of being lost.

I have spent nearly two decades exploring the realm of fermentation. I do
not have a background in microbiology or food science; I am just a foodloving back-to-the-land generalist who became obsessed with fermentation, spurred by a voracious appetite, a practical desire for food not to go to
waste, and a willful desire to maintain good health. I have experimented
widely, talked to many, many people about the subject, and done a lot of
reading on it. The more I experiment and the more I learn, the more I
realize how little of an expert I remain. People grow up in households in
which some of these traditional ferments are the daily context, and their
knowledge is far more intimate. Others become commercial manufacturers
and develop technical mastery in order to produce and market consistent
and profitable products; countless such people know much more than I
about brewing beer, making cheese, baking bread, curing salamis, or
brewing saké. Microbiologists or other scientists who study very specific
facets of the genetics, metabolism, kinetics, community dynamics, or other
mechanisms of fermentations understand it all in terms I can only barely

Nor do I possess anything approaching encyclopedic knowledge of
fermentation. The infinite variation that exists in how people on every
continent ferment all the various foods they eat is too vast for any
individual to have comprehensive knowledge. However, I have had the
privilege to hear a lot of wonderful stories, and taste many homemade and
artisan-fermented concoctions. Many readers of my books, visitors to my
website, and participants in my workshops have recounted tales of their
grandparents’ fermentation practices; immigrants have excitedly told me
about ferments from the old country, often lost to them through migration;
travelers have reported on ferments they have encountered; people have
divulged their quirky family variations; and other experimentalists such as
myself have shared their adventures. I have also fielded thousands of
troubleshooting questions, causing me to research and think about many
more aspects of the inevitable variations that occur in home fermentations.

This book is a compendium of the fermentation wisdom I have collected.
I have included many other people’s voices throughout. Though I have made an attempt to be thorough, this book is far from encyclopedic. My intention with it is to identify patterns and convey concepts to empower
you with tools so you can explore and reclaim fermentation into your life. I
am on a mission of sharing skills, resources, and information related to this
important art, in the hope that these long-standing coevolutionary
relationships, embedded in cultural practices, are not lost but rather spread,
cross-pollinated, and adapted.

One word that repeatedly comes to the fore in my exploration and
thinking about fermentation is culture. Fermentation relates to culture in
many different ways, corresponding with the many layers of meaning
embedded in this important word, from its literal and specific meanings in
the context of microbiology to its broadest connotations. We call the
starters that we add to milk to make yogurt, or to initiate any fermentation,
cultures. Simultaneously, culture constitutes the totality of all that humans
seek to pass from generation to generation, including language, music, art,
literature, scientific knowledge, and belief systems, as well as agriculture
and culinary techniques (in both of which fermentation occupies a central

In fact, the word culture comes from Latin cultura, a form of colere, “to
cultivate.” Our cultivation of the land and its creatures—plants, animals,
fungi, and bacteria—is essential to culture. Reclaiming our food and our
participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to
break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of
consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming
producers and creators.

This is not just about fermentation (even if, as a biological force upon
our food, that is inevitable), but about food more broadly. Every living
creature on this Earth interacts intimately with its environment via its food.
Humans in our developed technological society, however, have largely
severed this connection, and with disastrous results. Though affluent people
have more food choices than people of the past could ever have dreamed of,
and though one person’s labor can produce more food today than ever
before, the large-scale, commercial methods and systems that enable these
phenomena are destroying our Earth, destroying our health, and depriving
us of dignity. With respect to food, the vast majority of people ar completely dependent for survival upon a fragile global infrastructure of
monocultures, synthetic chemicals, biotechnology, and transportation.

Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience
requires our active participation. This means finding ways to become more
aware of and connected to the other forms of life that are around us and that
constitute our food—plants and animals, as well as bacteria and fungi—and
to the resources, such as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation,
upon which we depend. It means taking responsibility for our shit, both
literally and figuratively. We can become creators of a better world, of
better and more sustainable food choices, of greater awareness of
resources, and of community based upon sharing. For culture to be strong
and resilient, it must be a creative realm in which skills, information, and
values are engaged and transmitted; culture cannot thrive as a consumer
paradise or a spectator sport. Daily life offers constant opportunities for
participatory action. Seize them.

Just as the microbial cultures exist only as communities, so too do our
broader human cultures. Food is the greatest community builder there is. It
invites people to sit and stay awhile, and families to gather together. It
welcomes new neighbors and weary travelers and beloved old friends. And
it takes a village to produce food. Many hands make light work, and food
production often gives rise to specialization and exchange. And even more
than food in general, fermented foods—especially beverages—play a
significant role in community building. Not only are many feasts, rituals,
and celebrations organized around products of fermentation (such as bread
and wine), ferments are also among the oldest and most important of the
foods that add both value and stability to the raw products of agriculture,
essential to the economic underpinnings of all communities. The brewer
and the baker are central participants in any grain-based economy; and
wine transforms perishable grapes into a stable and coveted commodity, as
does cheese for milk.

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