Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some books about fermentation for beginners and expert

I've been fermenting a lot this year.  Be it making apple cider or sour cucumber pickles, I find the magical transformation of fermentation deliciously fascinating.

Fermentation covers a wide variety of foods, including apple cider, cucumber pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and more.  Some of which I've featured on this blog, some of which I still need to write about.

Here are a few books on the topic fermentation:

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz

Cucumbers, dill and garlic scapes
This is the book that gave me the confidence to try (and stick with till the end) home fermenting experiments. Sure I've tried my hand at fermenting before, but usually chickened out when mold formed on the surface, or when the experiment gave me stomach cramps and the runs.  The problem was, I didn't really understand what was going on when things ferment.  But Katz book helped solve that.

Wild Fermentation is a collection of recipes, stories, and information on what's going inside your vat, and how to get the best result.
layered with salt,
ready to start fermenting

I've tried many of these recipes, and plan to try more in the near future.  Not all of them turned out well, but the ones that did, are now things I make on a regular basis.  I do find that many of the pickle recipes turn out too salty, so I tend to cut the salt in half if I just want a quick'ish pickle I can keep long term in the fridge.  By reading Katz (both this and his other book The Art of Fermentation) I now feel confident that I can adjust the salt for what I want to achieve and the time of year.

This is a beginner friendly book, but is useful for fermentos (apparently that's what they call fermentation fanatics these days) of all skill levels.

Keeping Food Fresh by Eliot Coleman

A collection of recipes from rural France, it has the feel of someone going around a bunch of villages and talking with the old ladies, asking them what recipes they use to use before refrigeration.  This, in my opinion, is Fantastic.  I love how the author collected and preserved this knowledge which would otherwise have been lost.  I also think it is a great opportunity to learn how to extend the shelf life of foodstuff using little or no electricity.

Veg ready for kimchi
The recipes, however, are not for the faint of heart or inexperienced.  Think of them more as guidelines: you take some of this, do some of that till it has this subjective quality, then do some vague thing.  This is really good now that I have a bit of experience with fermentation, but I would not recommend this as a beginners book.

The chapter on fermentation is small, but has some good recipes in it.  The book also covers preserving in oil, vinegar, salt, sugar, alcohol and drying.

Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon

yummy kimchi
goes well with everything
Nourishing Traditions has a wonderful section at the front of the book that explains what food does for the human body, about the Modern Diseases how our health correlates with our diet.  Fallon talks about traditional diets (aka, pre industrial revolution technologies) where people make and eat just about everything from scratch.  Diets that include animal fats and live culture (aka, fermented) foodstuff.  Basically it's a primer on why so much we were taught as kids (don't eat butter, be scared of food you process at home, the only safe food is one that comes from a supermarket, specifically from a box - thank you grade eight home ec. teacher.)...why these things don't hold up under close scrutiny.  This book is about how people have been eating these traditional diets that have evolved for thousands of years, and yet they don't have the same things wrong with them that are so common in our Western World.  Yet, they eat butter, &c....

I recommend this book to people just for the chapter on cholesterol and fats... it's the best explanation I've come up with about what it is, what it does, how eating foods that contain cholesterol affect our health.  Why it may not be such a bad thing after all.

All that said, I do not recommend Nourishing Traditions for the recipes.  I've tried about a dozen or so by now, and the best case scenario was foul tasting mush that even the chickens turned their beak up at.  There are a few bouts of suspected food poisoning from trying some of the fermented recipes... but I don't know why.  Is it just that the microbe community in my gut cannot handle these traditional foods?  Possible but doubtful.  The methods in the recipes look like they should work, and I know enough about fermenting now to adapt for environment and so forth.  It may just be one of those things that just doesn't work for me - like certain sewing machines I've known, they work for everyone else, but when I sit down at them there are tangles of thread, broken fabric, and wisps of smoke.  Sometimes no matter how much I want it to be, there are some items in this world I am simply not comparable with.  I suspect the recipes in this book are one of them.

I would recommend this book for the more curious reader.  Someone who has their toe (or entire leg) in the door and wants to learn more about the whys and wherefore of human diet.  It's not for everyone as things get technical really quickly.  Michael Pollan touches on many of these issues in his book In Defence of Foods, so for the more casual reader I suggest you start there.

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz

This thick tome is more an in depth exploration of fermenting then a recipe book.  This is where you go when you've made a first batch of Sauerkraut or two and you want to know more.  What else is fermented in this world, how can I make my kraut better... &c.

After an embarrassingly large numbers of failures to make ginger beer, including following the recipes in Fallon's book and Katz other book, Wild Fermentation, I gave up.  That is until I read the section in The Art of Fermentation, which casually described the process of making ginger (and other root beers) in a vague, non specific way.  Yes, I know non-specific if redundant there, but think of it as rhetoric, because it was such an ambiguous explanation.  It was also exactly what I needed.  Forgetting recipes and following a small selection of words otherwise burred in a large book, I was able to make ginger beer, successfully, that tasted quite good.  The ginger beer improves each time I make it.

It got me thinking maybe fermenting doesn't need a recipe, maybe it works better if it is allowed to develop ...dare I say it?... organically.  Maybe that's what Katz message is all about, recipes are there to help you get the hang of how things ferment, but once you understand what's going on, you don't need to stay bound to a set series of instructions.  Working with the knowledge you gain from reading and experimenting, you can try different and creative things.  Afterall, isn't that what fermentation was like before the industrial revolution?  People had too many crops - trust me, when a crop is ready, it is Ready! - and they used fermenting as a means for preserving the foodstuff for the winter months.

This is a book for anyone not an absolute beginner.  It ranges from moderate-beginner to extra advanced, been doing this all your life, kind of information.

Cooked by Michael Pollan

Like Pollan's other books, this is a fantastic introduction on how we cook.  It's a collection of storytelling and explanation on everything cooked from roasting meat over an open flame, to making a stew, and yes, even a quarter of the book dedicated to fermentation.

Sourdough crackers and red wine
both fermented foods
both delicious
Cheese, bread, wine, beer, mead, pickled swiss chard roots, are just a few of the fermented foods he explores.

Although there are very few recipes, okay next to none, the book is one I recommend to people who are curious about food.  Cooked can stand on it's own, but it's even better paired with In Defence of Food, also by Pollan.  While Defence of Food tells us what is wrong with how we eat, Cooked, tells us how to eat and better still, the story of how we create it (I'm going to cite the introduction to Cooked for this last sentence, but I can't find my copy right now.  So I'm not sure if that is where I read it or if I dreamt I read it.)

There you have it.  These books make up the fermentation section of my library.  I will likely add some more books and update the links later.  But for now, I have some ginger beer to brew.

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