Fermenting Kit that Ashley recommends: https://amzn.to/3oz2XHJ
Energybits - LearnTrueHealth.com/energybits - Use coupon code LTH
Medicinal Aloe - LearnTrueHealth.com/aloe - Use coupon code LTH2020
At Home Test - Viome.com - Use coupon code LTH
Sandor's website https://www.wildfermentation.com
Have you ever made your own fermented food or drink? In this episode, Sandor Ellix Katz, founder of wildfermentation.com, talks about what foods can be fermented and the basics of fermenting food. He explains the benefits of eating fermented foods. He also gives some tips on how to encourage kids to eat fermented food.
Hello, true health seeker, and welcome to another exciting episode of the Learn True Health podcast. This episode today is about gut health and fun things that you can do in your kitchen right now to help you build a healthier, happier gut. Before we get to today’s episode, I got to tell you about three resources that have been life-changing, not only for me but for many of my listeners. We actually have specials on right now that this company is offering us.
The first one I want to talk about is Stockton Aloe. I had the founder on my show. He is a doctor who has a very unique company. It’s medicinal aloe, and it is the only company that delivers fresh aloe harvested the same day and totally unadulterated. It’s considered raw aloe, it is not processed at all other than they fillet it, and they remove the gel from the inside, excluding the outer layers of the aloe, the outer skins, which can cause irritability in the gut. Often, most aloe drinks on the market don’t exclude those, so most aloe drinks out there produce diarrhea, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help heal the good.
There are many studies that show that by consuming, drinking medicinal aloe that we speed up healing time, not only in our gut but also in other parts of the body. People notice that their skin is more radiant. They’re noticing their face is looking more beautiful and their skin is more toned. Obviously, their hair, their nails, and their digestion are better. Everything starts to get better.
I’ve personally given some aloe to a few friends who’ve had some serious medical conditions. I had a friend who was going through cyclical vomiting from a migraine that triggers vomiting, and she was just in absolutely dire straits. I gave her a jug of this and she said it was totally life-changing to drink it every day. I’ve had several friends that have had these similar issues like IBS or heartburn, and with all of them, I’ve noticed that by them drinking this aloe, they immediately see results.
What’s really fun is that when our family had a bout of what might have been food poisoning, or it might have been some little gastrointestinal bug. I’m not sure what it was, but our whole family was sort of down and out for the count. Our little son, I got him to start drinking the aloe right away as we had the unfortunate experience of basically having all the symptoms of food poisoning. We all started drinking it, but what I noticed is that it immediately stopped the vomiting. It stopped indigestion, it stopped nausea.
Our son, who I believe was four at the time, started really enjoying it. It doesn’t taste like candy so to have a kid actually like something that’s healthy for you is exciting. And then when one of his friends had a gut issue, my son said, “Hey, drink aloe. It’s really good for you.” To hear a little kid start giving health advice to his other kid friend, it was a very proud mom moment there. But what I’ve noticed is by drinking this, it makes a huge difference in gut health.
And since today’s episode is all about gut health, I have to let you know you’ve got to also listen to that interview that I have. You can go to learntruehealth.com/aloe. That’s learntruehealth.com/aloe and use the coupon code LTH2020. That’s all of December we’re going to get a discount from them. He also gifts us his aloe cream as well which is really nice as a hand cream, especially if you’ve been washing your hands extra or using hand sanitizers extra, you might notice your skin is a bit irritable. I really do enjoy his hand cream. It doesn’t leave your hands feeling greasy, and it’s full of aloe so it’s very rich in moisture but not in grease. He includes that as well.
And then what you do is it comes frozen, you keep it in the freezer. When you’re ready to drink it, it is absolutely fresh. Now, we do talk about it in the interview. I highly recommend going to learntruehealth.com and just searching aloe, checking out that interview, and listening to it because he does share a lot of science behind why drinking aloe is so good, not only for healing the gut but for other conditions as well. To buy it, go to learntruehealth.com/aloe. Use coupon code LTH2020.
The other company I really, really like is ENERGYbits. I’ve had Catharine Arnston, the founder of ENERGYbits on the show I believe at least seven times. She has amazing information that she shares about utilizing the healing power of algae specifically chlorella, and her chlorella is only one of a few handful of companies out there that guarantees no heavy metals and no lead. Most chlorellas, if you go to the health food store, go to whatever store and you buy some chlorella, there’ll be a little warning that says that it can cause cancer. Well, that’s because most companies, how they process their chlorella, add lead to it which is clearly not healthy. But her ENERGYbits does not have any heavy metals or lead, and she tests them both in the United States and where she grows the crop as well. She talks all about the quality of her ENERGYbits.
What I love about chlorella is it provides a plethora of vitamins and it does have minerals in it, but it also contains readily available amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. So for someone who’s looking to heal the gut and get readily available nutrition from a food source, this is considered a superfood, then you would love ENERGYbits. Go to learntruehealth.com/energybits. That’s learntruehealth.com/energybits and use coupon code LTH to get the best discount.
I’ve really enjoyed them. I also interviewed several doctors actually who all talk about using chlorella to naturally and safely remove heavy metals from the body because it does something inside of us where it will chelate or bind to heavy metals. You can use chlorella as part of your very gentle detox, and in fact, it’s even safe for children. I’ve had Dr. Klinghardt talk about how he uses chlorella routinely with children, especially those children who have autism-like symptoms from heavy metal deposits in their neurology. That’s very exciting. You can absolutely type in chlorella into Learn True Health in the search engine at learntruehealth.com to listen to those interviews and learn more about chlorella. And to purchase it, go to learntruehealth.com/energybits. Again, use coupon code LTH.
The last company I want to tell you about is viome.com. I recently had both the founder and one of the chief science officers on the show—both amazing interviews. I’ve really enjoyed my results with Viome. It’s an at-home test where you give them a very small stool sample and blood sample and mail it to them. They test over 100,000 genetic pathways that are of your microbiome, of your gut bacteria, and of your mitochondria. And then from that, based on the chemicals that your microbiome produces from the food you eat, then they tell you what kind of diet you can eat to further enhance your health and what foods you should avoid based on the chemicals that your gut produces.
Basically, we have a six-pound pharmacy living in our gut known as our microbiome. What is healthy food to me might be actually toxic food to you based on the chemicals that your microbiome produces. They also give you superfood and supplement recommendations to optimize gut health, and it really, really works. I’ve been very impressed. So to learn more about that, you can type Viome into the search box at learntruehealth.com and listen to those interviews to get the test kit, which right now they have a great special on this month for Learn True Health listeners. Go to viome.com and use coupon code LTH. Check it out, I know you’re going to love it.
Thank you so much for being a listener. Thank you so much for sharing this information with those you care about. I want to see absolutely everyone listening to this show producing amazing gut health and going into the new year with really healthy, strong guts. Let’s all focus on feeling great and getting to a whole new level of health and vitality for 2021.
[00:09:22] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 452. I’m very excited for today’s guest. We have with us Sandor Ellix Katz, the founder of wildfermentation.com. I’m such a huge fan of live culture fermented foods, and the best way you can eat them is when you do it yourself. It’s actually really easy. I was so nervous about fermenting foods because I thought maybe I’d give myself food poisoning. It’s really hard to mess up once you learn the basics, and I’m so excited that we’re going to learn from Sandor today the health benefits of eating our own homemade fermented foods. Welcome to the show.
[00:10:10] Sandor Ellix Katz: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be with you.
[00:10:13] Ashley James: Absolutely. Go back to your life. Tell us your life story about fermentation. What happened in your life that made you become incredibly passionate about spreading this information?
[00:10:24] Sandor Ellix Katz: Well, I would say that there were a few steps in the development of my interest in fermentation. The first was as a kid, I loved pickles. My grandparents were immigrants to the US from what’s now Belarus. In our kitchen or in our refrigerator, we always had eastern European style fermented cucumber pickles. I just loved that flavor. I didn’t know how they were made, I wasn’t thinking about fermentation, but I was very drawn to the lactic acid flavor of fermentation.
I spent a couple of years when I was in my mid-20s following a macrobiotic diet and macrobiotics places some emphasis on the digestive benefit of pickles and other kinds of live culture foods. I started noticing that these pickles that I had always loved to eat that whenever I would eat them I would feel the salivary glands under my tongue squirting out saliva. I began to associate these foods in a very concrete way with getting my digestive juices flowing. I started really eating them regularly as a health practice, but still, I wasn’t making them myself.
The catalyst to learn how to make them myself was that in 1993, I moved from my hometown of New York City to rural Tennessee, and I started gardening. I was such a naive city kid that it had never occurred to me that in a garden, all of the cabbage would be ready at about the same time, and all the radishes would be ready at about the same time. The first year I was gardening—when I was faced with this reality that in retrospect seems really obvious—I decided I’d better learn how to make sauerkraut. I knew I loved sauerkraut. I knew that sauerkraut had something to do with preserving cabbage.
I looked in the most basic American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and I found out I’ve had a recipe for sauerkraut. I saw how incredibly simple the process was. I shredded a couple of cabbages, salted them, added some caraway seeds, smashed them a little bit, and packed them into a crock. I just fell in love with the simplicity and ease of the process, and then I started playing around with different vegetables, sourdough, country wines, and yogurt making. Before I knew it, I just was down the rabbit hole of fermentation.
At first, it was just a personal obsession, and then I got a little bit of a reputation. I was teased by my friends for always showing up with sauerkraut, but I did get invited—after a few years—to teach a sauerkraut making workshop at a local event that was described as a food skill share event. I just loved teaching about it. I loved demystifying the process for people. I mean, you mentioned that you were a little bit scared the first time that you fermented vegetables. That’s a very common reaction, and for whatever reason, I never had that.
But as soon as I started teaching about fermentation, I came into contact with people projecting their anxiety about bacteria onto the process. It turned out, it was really fun and interesting to figure out how to demystify it for people and make people more comfortable with it. The initial teaching experiences led me to self-publishing a small pamphlet of my recipes, and then I decided to expand that into a larger book. What began as a book tour in 2003 just became a way of life as an itinerant fermentation educator.
At this point, I’d say I’ve probably taught a thousand workshops. I have a few different books. Wild Fermentation is the original book that I wrote. The Art of Fermentation is a bigger book that came out in 2012, and actually, I’ve just published another book that’s not so much about how to ferment things but it’s called Fermentation as Metaphor. It’s sort of addressing how we use the word fermentation in the English language also to describe really any kind of phenomenon that would be bubbly and get things agitated and mixed up. Anyway, I have lots of different interests in fermentation, and I love to share them with people.
[00:15:05] Ashley James: Now, it doesn’t sound like you had any major health issues. Did you notice anything shifting in your body as you continued to incorporate more and more fermented foods? Did anything change about your health?
[00:15:18] Sandor Ellix Katz: Well, I mean I definitely have had health issues. I’ve been living since 1991 with HIV, so I’m approaching my 30th anniversary of living with HIV. The thing is that these foods have always been part of my life. Even before I was thinking about them as a health practice, I was eating pickles all the time, I was eating yogurt all the time. I would say what I notice more is sometimes in my international travels, I find myself in places where I don’t have regular access to live fermented foods. I notice the absence of them. I notice how sluggish my digestive processes become when I’m not eating these foods, and so that really affirms for me how helpful they are in our ability to effectively digest food.
[00:16:16] Ashley James: You said 30 years you’ve been living with HIV?
[00:16:20] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah.
[00:16:21] Ashley James: In your 30-year quest to maintain complete optimal health, and I think that you are such a prime example of what we really want to focus on is no matter what we’re faced with, let’s give our body absolute optimal health instead of buying into the fear-mongering that having a diagnosis tends to give us, especially in the mainstream. You are living in incredible health, and you’re looking every day at what you can do to give yourself that vitality. Have you seen studies or looked further into how fermented foods affect the immune system?
[00:17:02] Sandor Ellix Katz: Well, sure. Let me also just clarify for you and your listeners. I mean, I’ve been taking HIV meds since 1999. For the last 21 years, I’ve been on antiretroviral medications. I wish I could say that my story was that eating fermented foods prevented HIV from ever progressing, but I experienced the period of getting very sick and the meds completely shifted the situation.
But the one thing I would say is that almost everyone else who I’ve met who’s taken the HIV med cocktails has experienced digestive problems as a side effect of the medications, and I have never experienced that. That really affirms once again that it’s not always just a choice of one approach or another. You can be in a situation where you choose to do the medical recommendations, take the recommended medications, and still, your digestive processes are important. What you eat has a bearing on your well-being day-to-day.
Now, to answer your original question that you asked about immune function, sure, I mean there’s a lot of evidence that first of all, the bacteria of the gut are a huge part of what we call the immune system. That increasing biodiversity in the gut is a great way of improving overall immune function. In addition to the power of the probiotics and the bacteria themselves, fermented foods are nutritionally enhanced in a number of ways. Nutrients get broken down into simpler forms that are often more accessible to our bodies, so nutrients become more bioavailable. The bacteria that are fermenting the food produces various metabolic by-products, some of which have been found to have specific beneficial activity.
So for instance, fermented vegetables—which I think is the most basic, the easiest kind of ferment to make yourself at home—have these compounds called isothiocyanates, which were already of interest to cancer researchers because they’re regarded as anti-carcinogenic. Beyond ingesting the lactic acid bacteria themselves, which have this probiotic benefit, the metabolism of the organisms before you eat the kraut produces this byproduct, which is regarded to be anti-carcinogenic. The world of fermented foods and beverages is full of these unique metabolic byproducts, some of which have been found to have really powerful therapeutic potential.
[00:20:09] Ashley James: That’s so exciting. You mentioned that as part of the fermentation process, it’s almost like the plant becomes a little pre-digested for us making the nutrients inside the plant more accessible, for example, sauerkraut. Do you have any specific examples of what nutrients become more readily available to us through fermentation?
[00:20:31] Sandor Ellix Katz: Sure. The most dramatic examples of this are beyond the realm of fermenting vegetables because nutrients in vegetables tend to be fairly accessible to us but think about soybeans. The reason why nobody ever cooks and eats a bowl of soybeans for dinner is that all of that protein in the soybean—soybeans are regarded as the plant source food with the most concentrated protein, but our human bodies are not capable of extracting the protein from a soybean that has been simply cooked. That’s why people never sit down and eat a bowl of soybeans the way they might with lentils, chickpeas, or other kinds of beans. It’s just so dense that our bodies can’t access the protein.
The indigestibility of soybeans was recognized by the Asian cultures that pioneered soy agriculture thousands of years ago. They developed various ways of making it more digestible, and fermentation is the most straightforward way of making the protein of the soybean more accessible.
There are all these different methods that people use to ferment soybeans. There’s soy sauce, there’s miso, there’s tempeh, there’s natto, there are many, many other variations of fermented soybeans. They have different flavors, different methods, different organisms, different amounts of time, different environmental conditions they require, but what they all have in common is that that protein gets broken down into amino acids—the building blocks of proteins, and so they become more bioavailable to us and the soybean becomes more nutritious.
In grains and certain beans, the minerals get tied up in these chemical bonds that are called phytate bonds that our bodies can’t break down. But a long enough bacterial fermentation will break it down and so the minerals become more bioavailable. There have been all these interesting studies where—okay, I’m going to use the example of this south Indian fermented crepes called dosas that are made of a batter of lentils and rice. But if you just cook lentils and rice and send it to a lab for analysis and then you ferment it into this batter, make dosas, and send the dosas to the same lab made from the same lentils and the same rice, what you find is that the fermented food—based on the same ingredient—has much higher measurable levels of calcium, iron, and other dietary minerals. This is another example of the pre-digestion of fermentation making the nutrients in food more bioavailable.
[00:23:28] Ashley James: That is so fascinating. Do you ferment your own beans and lentils?
[00:23:33] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah, sure. I dabble in all the ferments. I mean, it’s not like I ferment everything all the time. But I actually did a workshop just the other afternoon demonstrating via Zoom how to make dosas. I have a jar of dosa batter sitting in the fridge. Every other day or so, I’ve been making some dosas and enjoying them. But I definitely ferment beans. I make miso, I make tempeh, I make natto. I do lots of fermenting.
[00:24:09] Ashley James: That sounds really cool. That sounds kind of advanced.
[00:24:13] Sandor Ellix Katz: One thing I’d just like to say generally is there is nothing that we can eat that cannot be fermented. If we can eat it, it can be fermented. It doesn’t mean everything has equally prominent traditions of fermentation. I mean, some foods have much more elaborate traditions of fermentation than others, but anything we could possibly eat can be fermented.
[00:24:40] Ashley James: That’s interesting because my friend has a really beautiful garden and he was disappointed to find out that kale shouldn’t be fermented. Because he had a lot of kale, there isn’t a good way to ferment it that makes it taste good. Do you disagree? Is there a way to ferment kale or preserve it that makes it taste good?
[00:24:58] Sandor Ellix Katz: Well, kale and any dark green vegetable with a lot of chlorophyll have a strong taste when it is fermented. Personally, I find the flavor of pure kale fermented to be kind of strong. I love kale as a minor ingredient if it was like 90% cabbages and radishes and 10% kale, I think it’s a lovely accent flavor. But I have met more than one person who’s told me that their favorite vegetable to ferment is kale.
So I have really learned not to assume anything about people’s taste or that everybody’s taste is going to be the same. You can ferment kale but you might or might not like the way it tastes. I encourage people to experiment and not be fearful to experiment but to experiment in small batches so if they try something and they don’t like it, they’re not discarding a lot of food. I mean, another question people always ask about is zucchini because so many people with gardens have a moment in the summer when there’s more zucchini than they know what to do with.
Yes, you can definitely ferment zucchini, but in hot weather, watery vegetables tend to get very soft and mushy during fermentation. The fermentation won’t really preserve the texture of the vegetables for very long unless you have a very cool root cellar to store it in so it might end up being soft and mushy. Yes, you can ferment zucchini, but if you’re planning to ferment lots of it for months, you’re going to end up with something that at least I would find very unappealing by virtue of texture rather than flavor.
[00:26:41] Ashley James: Now, I’d love you to dispel some myths. People often will go by pickles. They’re stored on the shelf, they’re made with vinegar. That’s not a fermented food, is it? That’s not a good probiotic. We want to look for the thing that says live culture, that has been made with lactic acid. Can you clear up some things about this?
[00:27:01] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah, sure. Okay, let me say two things. First of all, you can find sauerkraut in the store in a can. That was made by fermentation just the way if you want to make sauerkraut at home you would make it, but then it’s heat processed so it can be in a can on a shelf without refrigeration indefinitely. Heat processing kills the bacteria.
Now the word pickle covers a lot of ground. A pickle is anything preserved in an acidic medium. The old world mate way of making pickles in most places is you put the cucumbers or whatever the vegetables you’re using might be or the fruit in a brine solution, a saltwater solution. Then you add some seasonings if you like, but the acid that develops is lactic acid from bacteria on the vegetables breaking down carbohydrates in the vegetable and acidifying the environment of the brine.
What supermarket shelves are full of are the 20th-century pickles. When the process was developed around the middle of the 20th century, what we now know as distilled white vinegar—the vinegar that’s cheaper than water at the supermarket—ushered in a period of vinegar pickles. Vinegar pickles have been traditional, especially in wine-making regions of the world. But in most places in the world, the traditional pickles have been brined pickles and the acid is lactic acid, which is a different flavor than acetic acid which is what vinegar is. But if you make a vinegar solution and pour it over vegetables those are also a pickle. But generally, it’s a hot vinegar solution and it’s a strong enough vinegar solution that the heat and the high acidity will kill the bacteria of the vegetables.
Yes, if you want to have live culture pickles, you’re basically going to either be buying them fresh out of an open vessel—the old world way, or if you find it in a health food store or something like that, it is likely to be in a refrigerator. Because if it’s still alive, then you need the low temperatures to prevent a buildup of carbon dioxide in the jar which could make it leak or potentially explode.
[00:29:29] Ashley James: Now, when you have this bountiful harvest of cabbages in your garden and you go to make all this sauerkraut. You fermented it, it ferments for an average of six days. I hear some people do it up to two weeks, but then when you’re done, when you like the flavor, you finish fermenting, I’ve always been told that we put a mason jar lid on it and put it in the fridge. That kind of slows down the fermenting. How do you then make it shelf-stable, or do you need to store it in a fridge or in a cold cellar at that point?
[00:30:05] Sandor Ellix Katz: A cold cellar or you’re in a place that’s just where it just gets cold enough. I mean, I’ve seen people store sauerkraut outside if it gets extremely cold—that becomes problematic, but a cellar would be the traditional way to do it. In Korea, the tradition was you store the winter’s kimchi, you bury your ceramic crock in the yard so that you have the temperature modulation of the earth to prevent it from getting too cold and to prevent it from getting too warm. If you let it sit in your heated home, what happens is that it’s not that it would become toxic. I mean, you can ferment things for a very, very long time.
I’m down to the last pint of what was originally 200 liters—about 55 gallons—of radish kraut from last November. I’ve just made this year’s batch, but I’m eating up the very end of last year’s batch. Now it was just in my cellar from November until June, and then it’s been in the refrigerator since June. But if I let it get hot in the summer temperatures, what happens is that these enzymes that are part of all vegetables will break down the pectins and make it get really soft and mushy like I talked about a few minutes ago with the zucchini ferments.
That’s the main reason why you have to keep things cool. I mean, one week two to a few weeks, that’s a very contemporary interpretation of how you do these foods. In temperate regions, people would ferment it for months, and they wouldn’t wait months before they start eating it, but they would let it just keep fermenting through the entire winter because there was no refrigerator to put it into.
But then people would always try to finish it up before it gets hot because that’s when the texture will be destroyed. And then also, just in terms of the real practical necessity of it, by the time summer comes there are lots of fresh vegetables to eat. This historically has been primarily something that was about preservation, about getting vegetables and vegetable nutrients through a long winter where there was no or very little fresh vegetable food.
[00:32:37] Ashley James: I interviewed a Ph.D. in Anthropology who figured out—his whole thing is he goes back to humans a hundred thousand years ago. They find all the tools that they could possibly find fossilized. They try to figure out how we ate that long ago, how our ancestors ate. What he sees is that there’s so much evidence for fermenting. That we figured out how to ferment even back then to secure the nutrients out of foods. He says look at a duck, ducks have two stomachs—one grinds the grain, and the other ferments it and that’s how you access it.
For example, corn, we don’t access nutrients from corn very easily unless we put it through a process where we can grind it, ferment it, and fermentation allows those nutrients to become available to us. We figured that out a long time ago, which is really neat cause I feel like, in the last 100 years, we all have amnesia from our ancestral roots. We need to come back to how we have been eating for thousands of years, and fermenting is such a large part of that.
[00:33:51] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah, sure. I mean, fermentation is ancient. The current archaeological record suggests that people were fermenting at least 10,000 years ago, but personally, that tells us mostly about the history of pottery because the earlier vessels—before people figured out pottery to have vessels to ferment liquids in—were all biodegradable things. They were either animal membranes, hollowed-out trunks of trees, or gourds. But at some point, people realized that they could stabilize clay and get the clay to hold liquids. Those are the shards that we find.
Berries spontaneously ferment into alcohol without human assistance, and there’s a lot of interesting documentation of different insects, birds, mammals, and other animals being drawn to the smell of fermenting fruit. You can watch YouTube videos of elephants gorging themselves on fermenting durian fruits in Malaysia, then getting disoriented, falling over, and basically getting drunk. I think it’s safe to assume that our evolutionary forebears like primates—contemporary primates are definitely drawn to the smell of fermenting fruit. I think it’s safe to assume that our ancestors were drawn to this, and we did evolve with enzymes to enable us to digest alcohol. I mean, fermentation has been part of the landscape.
Really, if we want to talk about the deep evolutionary past, the earliest organisms were all bacteria, archaea, and all these anaerobic organisms that were fermenting. One of their byproducts was oxygen, and that the buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere has something to do with these fermenting organisms that are ancient. All the multicellular organisms that descended from the original single-cell life forms all live with associated bacteria. All the forms of life that the original bacteria and archaea evolved into—all the plants, all the fungi, all the animals—have microbiomes. They have associated populations of bacteria that enable them to effectively function. We’re not alone in this regard.
Fermentation is very, very, very ancient, and certainly, in the context of human cultures, it’s just been an integral part of how people in every part of the world figured out how to make effective use of whatever food resources were available to them.
[00:37:11] Ashley James: Absolutely. I want you to teach us. Pretend that everyone who is listening hasn’t fermented something. What’s your favorite beginner recipe so we can all go out and just start fermenting something today?
[00:37:26] Sandor Ellix Katz: What I almost always recommend for people as a first fermentation project is fermenting vegetables, for a few reasons. I mean, first of all, it’s really, really simple and straightforward. It’s just incredibly powerful and supportive of good health. And then to the degree that people might be projecting some anxiety onto the process. While all fermentation processes are safe and foods that are fermented are safer than the same food before they are fermented. But in the case of fermenting vegetables, there are no documented cases anywhere in the world of food poisoning or illness. This food is as safe as it gets.
We hear every year about people getting sick from raw vegetables. A couple of months ago, it was red onions. It was lettuce one year, it was spinach one year, it was cabbage one year. Clearly, there’s the possibility that vegetables can be exposed to pathogenic bacteria and make people sick, but if you took those vegetables—even if they’d been exposed to some potential pathogen and then you shred it, salt it, get it juicy, and pack it into a vessel to ferment, the indigenous bacteria will always dominate over incidental pathogens. The lactic acid bacteria that are always on the vegetables—in fact, always present on all plants growing out of the soil on planet earth—will dominate. And then as they acidify the environment, if there were some cells of salmonella, E. coli, or other things that we associate with food poisoning, what they all have in common is that they cannot tolerate an acidic environment. As that environment acidifies, they get destroyed.
Fermenting vegetables is the place to start. Generally, what I would say is pick your vessel. I would suggest the easiest thing would be a wide mouth jar. I like to use wide-mouth quart-size canning jars, but you could also just use a jar leftover from mayonnaise or something. Then you need to get some vegetables. You really could work with any kind of vegetables. I mean, any kind of cabbage, any kind of radish is foolproof. But you can also experiment with other kinds of vegetables. I like to mix a few vegetables together. Carrots are beautiful, turnips.
But for a quart jar, it takes about two pounds of vegetables and then adjust accordingly. If it’s a gallon jar, you probably need about eight pounds of vegetables. If you’re working with a pint jar, you might just need one pound of vegetables. Then shred it. It doesn’t matter how finely. You can do it super fine, you can do it in coarse pieces, they don’t all have to be even. It doesn’t matter, but you’re just trying to create some surface area. And then you salt it. It doesn’t matter how much salt. I mean, it matters in terms of how it tastes and I would say because people have such varied tastes for salt, salt it lightly, mix it all up, taste it, just evaluate it, and add more salt if you want. This is not rocket science. It does not rely upon some precise proportion of salt.
There are some places where the tradition is to ferment vegetables without any salt at all. There was even a commercial business in the US that was doing that for decades. The kraut wasn’t very good. I mean, I didn’t like it. I mean, the salt really balances out the flavor. The salt helps maintain a nice crispy, crunchy texture to it, but you don’t have to make it extremely salty.
If you’re from a Russian or German family where your grandparents were making sauerkraut, their grandparents were making sauerkraut, chances are the family recipe is extremely salty because going back just a few generations, this was an important survival food. But if your context is not so much making it to survive through a long harsh winter but rather making something that’s delicious, that’s going to support your good health, there’s no reason to make it super salty. You can just make small batches every few weeks. They don’t have to be preserved for long periods of time. They don’t need that much salt. I just salt to taste.
I use sea salts. A lot of the literature says to stay away from iodized table salt. I’ve done so many demos where the organizers handed me iodized table salt. I can tell you with confidence, it works even with iodized table salt. Don’t get too precious about thinking you need a certain kind of salt. Vegetables, salt, and season it as you like. You could put a little bit of garlic, ginger, or both, some chili peppers, some caraway, or nothing. Just have it be simple salted vegetables. But you can season it in any way you like. Sometimes people add a little bit of fruit. In the Korean tradition, often, there’s a fishy element—either little dried shrimp or a little fish sauce to add complexity to the flavor. You can do any of that, you cannot do any of that.
The most basic is shred vegetables, salt them, mix them around. What I like to do is spend a couple of minutes squeezing the vegetables with my hands when I’m doing it on a small scale. What this does is it basically breaks down cell walls and helps release juice from the vegetables more quickly. On a larger scale, people might use some big heavy tamping tool, or the story I hear over and over again—usually from people older than me who grew up in Eastern Europe—is people remember having their feet scrubbed as children and being put inside of a barrel to jump up and down on the vegetables that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are shredding.
However, you do it, breaking down the cell walls a little bit just helps the vegetables give up their juice so you can get the vegetable submerged, which is the most important environmental factor—getting the vegetables submerged. Usually, I use some sort of little weight at the top. I’ve got these little glass discs that I sometimes use if I’m using a jar. If you don’t have anything like that, you can improvise. What I sometimes do is I save an outer leaf from the cabbage with a heavy spine and use that spine like a little spring to hold the vegetables down. Or sometimes, I’ll take the end of an onion or a fat carrot or something and let that be a top piece to hold things down. Sometimes people fill a little sandwich-sized bag with a little bit of water and let that hold everything down.
On a larger scale, if I’m working with a crock, I’ll put a plate that fits inside the crock that can sit on the surface of the vegetables and then a little jar filled with water holding that down. There are different ways to do it, but you want as best you can keep the vegetables submerged because the bacteria don’t need oxygen. Lactic acid bacteria are anaerobic. The place where it meets the air with the oxygen, that’s where all the funky stuff happens, and it’s not unusual. Don’t be freaked out if you get a film developing on the top of your vegetables.
There’s a yeast called kahm yeast that sometimes grows. Sometimes these hairy molds that are totally harmless grow. I just skim them off as best I can and discard them, but know that that’s a possible scenario. The warmer your environment is, the faster that’ll happen. The less salt you use, the faster that’ll happen. But that’s it.
Then leave it for at least three or four days and then start tasting it. Everybody’s taste is different. Some people love it the sourer it gets. The acidity accumulates over time. So to get very sour sauerkraut takes some time. The temperature will have bearing on that. The metabolism of these organisms is faster when it’s warmer, slower when it’s cooler. If you’re doing it in a place where it’s very warm, you’ll get a certain level of acidity faster than you will in a cooler environment.
In general, if you have a choice, a longer slower fermentation will generally yield superior flavors to a faster shorter fermentation. Taste it periodically, evaluate the flavor, and harvest it when it tastes right to you. But I’ve had people tell me that two-day-old sauerkraut was the best kraut they ever had in their life. I had someone tell me that two-month-old sauerkraut was very good for coleslaw.
People are all over the place with the flavor they like, and so rather than thinking that you need to conform to some idea of how sour sauerkraut is, just taste it periodically and monitor the evolving flavor. When you feel like you don’t want it to get any stronger—I should say, if you ever feel that you don’t want to get any stronger, move it to the fridge. I often have batches that never make it to the fridge.
[00:47:03] Ashley James: Because you just start eating them, they’re so delicious, and you start sharing them with your friends?
[00:47:07] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it never gets to the point where I have a reason to slow it down. Sometimes I just finish it before I move it to the fermentation slowing device.
[00:47:18] Ashley James: I got to share my two favorite recipes—super simple. Get fresh ginger—not frozen. Just rinse it lightly, put it in the food processor in the thinnest possible setting. Some food processors let you adjust the thinness of the cut. Then I just take just a spoonful of salt and I massage the ginger, like you mentioned, until there’s some juice, until it gives up its juice. And then I cram it into a mason jar, pack it in tight. Of course, the salt is now melted. The juice of the ginger has become a brine, and then I push it down with a fermenting stone like a glass disc you mentioned. Put a lid on it loosely and then put it in a warm dark place for a few days.
For me, the temperature of my house, six days seems appropriate. Oh my gosh, it is the most delicious thing. You just take a pinch of it and add it to every meal. It is so freaking delicious. It’s still raw ginger, right? It’s very spicy. It’s very hot, but the heat is so warming to the digestion. It’s amazing.
And then my second favorite one, there’s a little bit more work. I saw my friend make a fermented pico de gallo salsa on Facebook and I thought, oh my gosh, I never even thought that you could ferment a pico. I chopped up tomato, onion, and then pineapple—some fresh pineapple, not canned—and then a little bit of jalapeño. Mixed in some salt, don’t add any water. Put it in the jar, packed it down again. The tomato really gives up a lot of liquid, and then I fermented it for three days in a warm dark place. Then I add lime and cilantro, mix it together, and put it in the fridge. It was the most—I made two giant jars of it. I took them to all my friends’ homes that few weeks sharing it. I can’t tell you. It’s so much fun when you get into this because the fermenting changes the flavor and you’re making this new thing, and then you can add it to dishes. It’s very exciting.
[00:49:41] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah. Your two examples really illustrate perfectly the versatility of this process because both of those really follow the process that I just described generically that you could do with any kind of a vegetable. When you use tomatoes, they’re sugary, so the fermentation goes much faster. It would be hard to do tomatoes for six weeks. I mean, it wouldn’t be hard. You’d lose all of the sweetness, and it would get extremely sour. Like you, I love a short fermentation of anything tomatoey.
[00:50:19] Ashley James: Now, for parents that want to encourage their children to try this, it’s great to get children in the kitchen doing it with them. I hear that fermenting green beans is a good place to start to get kids excited about this. Do you have any suggestions for parents on what they could start fermenting with their kids to get them excited? My son hates sauerkraut but loves pickles, for example.
[00:50:40] Sandor Ellix Katz: I’ve seen so many kids who just go gaga for fermented vegetables. I think one key is introducing it young. I mean, if you wait until your kid is eight years old and then you put this food in front of them, they’re probably going to reject it. But if they’ve been around it since they were two, then it’s just normal and they’re always going to love it.
The other thing I would say is to always get kids tactile. Get their hands in it, whatever it is you’re fermenting. You’re fermenting ginger, you’re fermenting salsa, you’re fermenting cabbage, you’re fermenting radishes, you’re fermenting string beans—whatever it is, let the kids get their hands in it. Once their hands are in it, then they’re going to be impatient. They’re going to be when is that ready, when can we try it? I think getting tactile is really great, but I love to ferment green beans. I always make a little bit of dill and garlic in brine and make basically dilly beans, so delicious.
In my experience, a lot of kids love pickles, love sauerkraut but I think a real key is trying to introduce the food early. If you want to introduce your kid and they’re already a big kid, then I would say that getting their hands in it might be one strategy to get them more interested in it. Using it as a condiment on something they really like already might be another way to get them to think about it.
I’ve heard great stories from parents who have kids who have rejected the idea of fermented vegetables and their strategies for getting their kids to eat them. I remember talking to this one woman who would take the kraut juice, mix it with fruit juice, and freeze it into little popsicles that she would give to her kid.
[00:52:40] Ashley James: Freezing process, do the bacteria survive the freezing process? Can you freeze sauerkraut?
[00:52:46] Sandor Ellix Katz: Okay, it turns out that the issue with freezing bacteria has to do with the water content. When you freeze water into ice, it expands. If your ferment is watery, then you’re going to have some cells bursting, but they don’t all burst at once. Every freeze and thaw cycle, you’ll end up with diminished potency. Bakers often back up their sourdough starters in the freezer, and the typical process would be to thicken it up into a solid-state. You add more flour so it’s a thicker thing and there’s a lower water content so less expansion, so less diminished cell viability.
[00:53:44] Ashley James: Very cool. It has been such a pleasure having you on the show. Your website is wildfermentation.com, and you’ve shared that you have Zoom calls. People can learn from you and watch you. People can buy your books. Is there anything else that you want people to know about your website?
[00:54:04] Sandor Ellix Katz: Yeah, sure. I teach lots of workshops, and I list them all on my website. I also have a page of media links where you can listen to previous presentations, interviews, articles, and such. I also have a section of links just of fermentation related resources, and it turns out, there’s just a vast array of resources for people interested in fermentation out on the world wide web. Definitely check out my website wildfermentation.com. My books are just full of practical how-to ferment different things at home. Fermenting vegetables is a great beginning but it doesn’t have to be the ending. There’s just such incredible diversity in fermentation traditions around the world, and I’m so glad to have this time to share a little bit about it with you and your listeners.
[00:54:57] Ashley James: Absolutely. It’s been such a pleasure, Sandor, having you on the show. Please feel free to come back anytime you want to teach us more about the benefits of fermenting and share more recipes with us.
[00:55:07] Sandor Ellix Katz: Great. Have a great day.
[00:55:09] Ashley James: I hope you enjoyed today’s interview all about how you can utilize your kitchen to make some powerful and delicious fermented foods. Start experimenting. Now is the time to go out and just experiment and make something that sounds delicious. Try something new. It’s so much fun once you start getting into fermenting. I’ll make sure that I put a link in the show notes of my favorite fermenting lid that you can get for wide mouth mason jars. It’s so easy.
I tried all these different kits, and honestly, so many of them are just flimsy, they break, they leak, they’re plastic, and then they’re kind of complicated. And then there’s this one that’s so simple. It has a spring and it has a lid that has a little valve and that’s it. It’s very affordable, and I will make sure I put the link to it in the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehealth.com. Just go to the notes, wherever you’re listening. If you’re listening to this on iTunes, you can just go into the notes in the details of this episode and you’ll see those links. Or you can go to learntruehealth.com once we publish it there with the full transcript and you’ll see the links there. I’ll make sure I include the links to my favorite canning stuff.
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Thank you so much for being a listener. Thank you so much for sharing these episodes with those you care about. Almost every day, I hear from you guys either on Facebook or in email, and I hear that you have learned about this from friends, from family. It’s so great that this is a grassroots movement to helping those we care about to gain access to holistic health information that’s not readily available, it’s not being talked about in the mainstream of course so we have to go to the source. We have to listen to awesome interviews from these holistic health experts that want to get this information out there.
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Thank you so much. Have yourself a fantastic rest of your day. Enjoy the holiday season. All the interviews I’ve ever done about mental health include gratitude. No matter how bad it is right now or how good it is, make sure that you take time even 30 seconds to focus on what you’re grateful for. Focus on what you do have in your life that you absolutely are so thankful for. Just that 30 seconds of gratitude shifts your body out of stress response and into a healing mode.
The more you do it, the more often you do it, especially if you can incorporate breathing, especially if you can incorporate, moving your body in a way—that brings you joy, getting outside into sunlight—this helps the body shift out of stress mode and into healing mode. Let’s focus on right now, what are you grateful for today? Have yourself a fantastic rest of your day filled with gratitude.