Cultured tastes

Sandor Ellix Katz has 30 gallons of miso fermenting in his basement, raises goats for milk and cheese, and has been making sauerkraut pretty much nonstop for the past 12 years.

He’s a ferment-aholic.

Katz is the author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, a fermentation cookbook (we use the term “cook” loosely) and a guide to the fermentation process. Katz, 43, who lives in the wooded hills of Tennessee, is also a long-term AIDS survivor and considers fermented foods an important part of his healing.

What many people don’t realize, Katz says, is that many “everyday” foods are fermented. There are the obvious ferments, such as red wine and pickles, and not-so-obvious ones such as chocolate and coffee.

But before you get all up in arms about creepy crawlies in your Hershey bar, understand that fermentation is any type of transition that takes place with naturally occurring organisms in food — it happens all the time.

“Many foods alter their chemistry before they ever get to the factory,” Katz says. In other words, we’re often far removed from the fermentation process.

The “ick” factor plays a role in Americans’ reluctance to experiment with ferments. Katz admits that what could be called rotten food in one country might be considered a staple part of some other culture’s diet. “There is no decisive boundary between fermentation and rotting,” he says.

Katz’s love for fermented foods grew out of his overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. He began making sauerkraut, but eventually expanded into a full-blown love of fermented foods, including miso, tempeh, yogurt and vinegar.

“The nutritional value of fermented foods is part of the allure,” Katz says.

“In fermented foods, nutrients are broken down, which makes it easier to digest,” Katz says. In live-culture foods like yogurt, bacteria are still intact when consumed. These bacteria replenish and diversify the population of bacteria in the digestive system, which helps keep pathogens out and helps keep the immune system strong.

“It’s not a miracle cure, and it wouldn’t suffice as a treatment,” Katz says. “But even if you’re healthy, have a chronic disease or an acute illness, your digestive system can benefit from fermented foods.


Katz appears for a tasting, talk and demonstration 7-8:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 26, at the Leslie Science Nature House, 1831 Traver Rd., Ann Arbor; 734-997-1553. He’ll be at a similar event 6-8 p.m., Wednesday, July 27, at Capuchin Soup Kitchen, 1264 Meldrum, Detroit; 313-579-2100, ext. 218. See Katz’s Web site at

Melanie Seasons is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]