A right old pickle

Top tips from international pickling megastar Sandor Katz


If you were to make a Venn diagram of ‘beer’ and ‘food’, pickling would be the delicious cleft at its centre. As well as being an ancient method for preserving excess food for the lean months, pickling has more recently found favour for its purported health benefits. From kombucha to kimchee, naturally fermented food is all the rage, so I caught up with fermentation expert and advocate Sandor Katz – author of several essential books on the subject and overseer of the comprehensive wildfermentation.com – to find out more. 

Before I’ve even finished my first question, about the relationship between beer and food, Sandor jumps in with an insightful correction.

“Beer IS food,” he says. “Even more than the contemporary beer styles, the indigenous styles that were more starchy and less filtered had so much body and carbs that they really are food. There are all these interesting historical stories around colonisers outlawing indigenous beers and the nutritional deficiencies resulting from that. In Africa, in central and south America, fermented grain-based beverages have not only been for pleasure and inebriation, but for nutritional value.”

Sandor got a head start in the wonderful world of pickling. As the grandson of eastern European immigrants, he was surrounded by fermented veg and grew up loving the lactic acid sourness of pickles and sauerkraut. When he was in his mid 20s, he spent some time following a macrobiotic diet, which convinced him of the digestive benefits of these pickles and live ferments. But this relationship was cemented in 1993, when Sandor moved from New York to rural Tennessee. 

“Among the changes to my lifestyle, I started keeping a garden,” he recalls. “In the first season, I had a revelation – which is kind of obvious to anyone who grew up around gardens and agriculture – which is that crops are ready at a certain moment, and you don’t get a steady flow of cabbages and cucumbers through the year. That first year, I had tonnes of cabbages, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, so I decided to just make them into sauerkraut. I couldn’t believe how easy and delicious it was! That began what became an obsession with all things fermented. I learned how to make yoghurt, how to start a sourdough, bake with that, then country wine and one thing led to another until it became a major obsession in my life.”

Its proponents argue there are a number of nutritional benefits to fermentation. The first is pre-digestion: the idea that pickling breaks nutrients down into simpler, more elemental forms before we eat them. For example, if you were to boil rice or lentils and test their mineral levels, and then ferment them and run the same tests, you would find higher measurable levels of minerals such as calcium, iron and others in the fermented versions. 

“Think about the example of soy beans, which became a major food not only in Asian cuisine where they’re traditional but in the vegetarian subcultures of the west, because they’re so high in protein,” says Sandor. “But the problem is our bodies aren’t capable of breaking down the protein of the soy bean in its raw state. So the Asian cultures that pioneered soy agriculture recognised very quickly that soy beans are not digestible, and developed all these different ways of fermenting them, so you have soy sauce, miso, tempeh and many other variations with different flavours, textures and fermentation organisms. But what they have in common is that the fermentation digests the protein of the soy bean, breaking it down into amino acids – the building blocks of protein – and the freed amino acids make for these amazingly flavourful foods, but they’re also easy for our bodies to assimilate.”

The flip side of pre-digestion is that fermentation can also break down toxins, such as the naturally-occurring cyanide in cassava. Recent research has also suggested that the residue of certain pesticides and agrochemicals can break down under fermentation.

“Fermentation also generates additional nutrients. Almost every fermented food or beverage has elevated levels of b-vitamins compared to the raw food. There’s also these unique micro-nutrients that develop as a result of fermentation, for example many fermented vegetables contain a compound called isocyanates, which are considered anti-carcinogenic. Natto, a Japanese soy ferment, has a compound called Nattokinase which is a blood thinner and people are using it to treat a variety of different conditions,” Sandor continues.

But arguably the most profound benefit of fermentation is really only found in a subset of fermented foods: the live bacterial cultures themselves. Any bacterially fermented food that’s not cooked or heat-processed – so, kimchee, sauerkraut, pickle, sour beers, kombucha – has live bacteria in it. Those of us raised during what Sandor calls the “war on bacteria” might find this idea slightly alarming, but modern science is developing a much more nuanced position on our personal microbial biome, and backing the idea that a rich and diverse range of bacteria on our skin and in our gut are essential to good health.

“The trillions of bacteria that exist in and on our bodies aren’t freeloaders,” he says. “They’re providing essential services, enabling us to effectively digest food, playing a key role in our immune systems, affecting our brain chemistry, our liver chemistry and virtually every aspect of our physiology. But because we’ve been waging war on the microorganisms, we all have diminished biodiversity; eating these probiotic live culture fermented foods is a great way of restoring that biodiversity.”

Unlike beer, which is most often boiled sterile before deliberate inoculation with specific strains of yeast and bacteria, food fermentation relies on the microorganisms – most notably strains of lactobacillus – already present on the food.

“When you’re making, say, fermented vegetables, it’s a lot more like making wine than beer, where the raw grapes just have the yeast on the skin. The same is true of a carrot or a cabbage, or a chilli pepper. When fermenting vegetables, it would be very rare for someone to introduce a specific starter culture, because the bacteria you need are already on all the vegetables. They’re not necessarily there in high concentrations, so good fermentation is all about creating the conditions under which those bacteria will thrive and rapidly proliferate.”

The basic process for fermenting vegetables is “ridiculously simple”. Chop up your veg to maximise the surface area and salt them to taste. The salt isn’t essential for safety, but it basically helps maintain texture and a more balanced flavour. Season them however you like, with herbs and spices if appropriate. Sandor then advises squeezing them a little with your hands, or pounding with a heavy, blunt tool, to break down cell walls and help release juices. Then simply pack them into a vessel – a jar or ceramic crock is ideal, but a plastic bucket works just as well – and press them down so they’re submerged.

“Fermentation time will depend on the temperature and your own flavour preferences,” says Sandor. “The acids accumulate over time, so it’ll get more sour the longer you leave it. It might take 2-3 days. 2-3 weeks, 2-3 months… If you haven’t done it before, wait a few days and then just start tasting it. If you ever think ‘wow this is getting strong I don’t want it to get any stronger’ you probably own a fermentation-slowing device in your home, also known as a refrigerator.”

While he strongly advocates buying sustainable, organically produced vegetables, Sandor admits this has nothing to do with the quality of fermentation, and that veg from your local Asda will ferment just as well as something you’ve grown yourself. He does however caution that, while it’s possible to ferment pretty much anything you might eat fresh, some foods work better than others.

“Cabbages are classic, radishes are wonderful. Carrots work great. Once you start getting into courgettes and things like that, they get a little mushy. The waterier veg is more challenging to ferment. Veg that’s ripe in cool weather in autumn is generally the best to ferment. But the best piece of advice I could give you is just to experiment with any vegetable you like – It’s fun, delicious and really supportive of good health.”

More information and resources can be found on Sandor’s website, www.wildfermentation.com and his excellent books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation

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