This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.
Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce.
I've never met anyone so enamored of lactic acid bacteria.
I'm standing with Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermentation expert whose obsession with funky foods has earned him the nickname "Sandorkraut." He's slicing cabbages and bouncing up and down on his heels as he talks to me about what literally gets his juices flowing.
"I could literally feel the salivary glands under my tongue squirting out saliva," he recalls of his brief flirtation with a macrobiotic diet in the 80s, which placed a heavy emphasis on cultured foods. It was that sharp, pickled flavor—one that he grew up with in Manhattan, eating kosher dills with his family—that clicked in his synapses.
"I've always been drawn to pickles, sauerkraut, and other lactic acid-flavored foods," he says, but adds that it wasn't until his mid-20s that he began making fermented foods himself, after moving to an off-the-grid community in rural Tennessee. "I was such a naive city kid that I never thought about that fact that in a garden all the cabbages are ready at the same time. It was in the context of keeping a garden that suddenly I realized, 'Oh, there's a practical aspect to this. I'm gonna learn to make sauerkraut so that I have something to do with all these cabbages.'"
And so Katz taught himself to make sauerkraut—with the The Joy of Cooking no less. "That just led me into a personal obsession with all things fermented," he says. From there, he began experimenting with sourdough, cheese-making, and country wine.
But sourdough was hardly the first thing on Katz's mind when he decided to leave the metropolis for the woods. "I tested HIV-positive in 1991, and I was thinking a lot about health," Katz recalls. At the time, he was working in municipal government as a policy analyst, a highly stressful job that he felt could only negatively affect his well-being. So, he looked to Tennessee. "The prospect of living in a rural area, drinking fresh spring water, eating organic produce, being outside a lot, and doing physical work was all very appealing to me—both as a more relaxing way to live, but also as a more therapeutic way to live."
His sauerkraut was a product of that new lifestyle, but one that was still made on a personal scale. ("I did inflict it on my friends," he laughs.) It wasn't until 1998 that Katz began spreading the kraut gospel as a fermentation educator, teaching the sauerkraut-making method at a workshop at the Sequatchie Valley Institute in Tennessee.
"A lot of people were terrified," he says of that first workshop. "We've been indoctrinated to be so fearful about bacteria. A lot of people—when they're faced with something as straightforward and intrinsically safe as sauerkraut—project all of their anxieties about bacteria on it. 'How am I gonna know if I get the good bacteria rather than some kind of dangerous bacteria that might kill my children?'"
His infatuation with fermentation grew from there. In 2001, Katz self-published 50 copies of a zine he called Wild Fermentation, which included his research about and methods for making cultured foods. But that only ramped up his fascination with the history and science of fermentation, leading him to expand the zine into a book of the same name in 2003. "What started as a promotional book tour became a life of itinerant teaching about fermentation," he laughs. "My 2003 book tour has never quite ended." Since then, he has authored two more books: The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and The Art of Fermentation.
While moving to Tennessee and embracing fermented food did yield many benefits for him, Katz is careful to point out that pickles are not some kind of panacea.
"I try to be mindful to not say that fermented foods and beverages are a cure of AIDS or cancer, or that they prevent aging. I think that's ridiculous," he says. "But I also think that with everything that we're learning about bacteria and the microbiome, we know that bacteria play a huge role in our health. Foods that can help to restore biodiversity in the gut can also improve digestion, improve nutrient assimilation, improve overall immune function—and there's a lot of new evidence that they can improve mental health."
With that being said, Katz is still wary of bacterial monocultures grown in laboratory environments—the kind that command high price tags at health food stores and promise an army of immune-boosting microbes in a convenient little pill.
"In the realm of restoring bacteria biodiversity, diversity of diet is what it's all about," he says. "One probiotic capsule has a billion copies of one cell, or maybe the most elaborate ones have ten different cells in them. With a food like sauerkraut, no one's even been able to quantify the biodiversity. There are so many different strains of bacteria at work in here. And the process is a successional process: At different stages of its development, you'll have different bacterial populations dominating, but you'll always have this extraordinary biodiversity."
Katz adds that biodiversity is just as critical for flavor as it is for health. "The sauerkraut industry did research in the 1940s, when Lactobacillus plantarum was first isolated, into using a using a purer starter culture for sauerkraut—and they resoundingly rejected it." He notes that while a pure culture might speed up the fermentation process, it can't ever contribute the same kind of flavor complexity that a natural ferment can. "If you jump to the end stage and give it a huge dose of Lactobacillus plantarum, then you miss out on all those earlier stages that have all these unique metabolic byproducts that contribute flavor to it."
Katz continues to regale me with studies about the benefits of biodiverse fermented foods as he demonstrates his own sauerkraut recipe, if one can even call it that. All he does is sprinkle some finely shredded cabbage—along with some grated carrots and black radishes from the MUNCHIES Garden—with a bit of salt and caraway seed.
He jams the shredded cabbage and radishes into mason jars with such force that I briefly worry that the glass will crack. Katz notes that this is crucial for sauerkraut-making; as the vegetables release their juices, they will stay submerged in liquid rather than become exposed to air and become a habitable growing medium for mold. "Under the brine, the lactic acid bacteria will thrive and the molds can't grow, because they need the flow of oxygen," he notes.
With the jars stuffed to the brim, the lids are sealed. Now, it's just a waiting game—a slightly farty one, but that goes with the territory. The naturally present lactic acid bacteria in the cabbage will begin to ferment and break down the vegetables at room temperature for anywhere from three days to a week, depending on the temperature. Katz reminds me to burp the jars in the first few days to avoid any stink-bombs.
As he wipes down the jars, he remarks on the magic of microbes to make our food more delicious and healthier for us, with very little help from us.
"The bacteria in plants and animals are all coming out of the soil, and all plants on Earth are believed to be hosts to lactic acid bacteria," he says. "We live in this layer of the Earth that's really defined by the soil. "