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Wild Fermentation!

Posted by kevinwolz on July 15, 2010

One of the only books that I’ve managed to read this summer is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. For me, this experience can only be described as a fermentation revolution.

“The process of fermenting foods—to preserve them and to make them more digestible and more nutritious—is as old as humanity.” Every society has its unique culture of fermented foods and drinks. Fermentation is ubiquitous and unstoppable. Over the last few weeks, I have explored this force of nature in depth.


My first fermentation endeavor was to make sauerkraut, a significant food of my own heritage.  Sauerkraut is made through the simple fermentation of cabbage. I didn’t even use any fancy spices: just salt and shredded cabbage. In a large pot, you alternate layers of shredded cabbage with a sprinkling of salt. Then, you take a plate or smaller pot lid that fits just inside the large pot and place it on the cabbage. Finally, you place something heavy on that lid and let it sit for several weeks. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage via osmosis and, eventually, the cabbage is immersed in a saltwater solution (brine). The lid and weight keep the cabbage submersed. Wild bacteria inevitably find the appealing brine solution and go to work on the cabbage. Within a few weeks, you have sauerkraut. The longer you wait, the more sauer.


Next, I ventured into the dairy realm. I love yogurt, but I’m not much of a fan of milk anymore. So, I decided to learn how to turn milk into yogurt! It’s really quite simple.  You first bring the milk to 180 degrees and then let it cool to 110. Once cooled, you stir in a tablespoon or so of live-cultured, plain yogurt (either from the store or from your last homemade batch). Finally, you keep the milk at 110 degrees for at least 8 hours. This is really the tricky part. People usually try to find the warmest place in their house (e.g. next to the furnace, and just-finished dish washer, a recently used oven, or by the hot water tank) and they insulate the container the best they can. I put the milk into mason jars and then into a lunch box which I insulated extra well with hot towels. I’m not sure if it really lasted as long as hoped, but it worked nonetheless. The next morning, I had tasty yogurt! Now, if I can just get some raw milk to do this with…

Farmers Cheese

With my left over milk, I made the very simplest of cheeses. While farmers cheese isn’t actually fermented, most familiar cheeses are aged or transformed with microbes in some way. First, the milk is heated to a simmer, and then some vinegar or rennet (a protein which I did not have available) is added to make the curds form. As you stir, the curds form, leaving behind the whey. The texture of this cheese was kind of like Ricotta, but it was very plain in taste. Maybe next time I’ll try aging or molding or something like that.


Borsht is essentially sour beet soup. I’m not one for raw beets, but I love borsht. My last taste was a traditional recipe from Poland…MmmMmm. Making the sour beets follows the same process as with the sauerkraut, only with beets. After several weeks of fermentation, the beets are combined with onions, carrots, potatoes, and spices, and they are all simmered together so flavors can mingle and get tasty.


I’ve wanted to try sourdough for a while, especially towards the goal of a nice bread bowl with clam chowder inside. Well, I haven’t gotten that far yet, but I do have my sourdough starter on the windowsill, and I’ve at least experimented with pancakes. A sourdough starter is kind of like a pet. You create this pet using equal parts flour and water mixed together in a bowl. Let it sit out on the counter, the yeast will flock to the food, and the starter will begin to bubble within a about a day…so cool! You now have a live culture of microorganisms in your kitchen. From here, a wide variety of more nutritious and easily digestible wheat products are possible. Being a breakfast guy, I experimented first with pancakes. One morning, I whipped up some sourdough batter and compared it against a traditional recipe. The verdict? Sourdough won! It was a very unique and interesting flavor. As good as it was, I’m not sure if I’ll have the capacity to keep a starter, which needs to be fed with flour every other day or so, alive back at school.


Fermenting oatmeal was probably the easiest of all these experiments. Rather than boiling the oats right before breakfast, I soaked the oats in water the night before and let them sit out all night. All the water was absorbed by the next morning, so I added a bit more water, heated it up, and enjoyed smoother, more digestible oatmeal. Yum.

See the great opportunities that lie in the realm of fermentation? Anything can be fermented! Pictures of all these experiments can found here. Next up: Pickles!


2 Responses to “Wild Fermentation!”

  1. Pat Oliver said

    Pat Oliver Here. Trying to keep up with your journey. Ann and I are really enjoying it. I just wanted to add a few thoughts here. You asked if you were a hippie in your “yogurt” blog. I think you are more of a Bioneer ( I don’t know how you have time for anything else, but you and your friends might check out this group of people that share a lot of your passions if you have not already. Lots of very interesting thoughts, info and podcasts, which you said you like to listen to. Just finished listening to a podcast on Locavore featuring Michael Pollan and others. Great info and ideas.
    Another piece of advice is to always feel comfortable reaching out to your elders for answers. Most of them have learned thru experience. I cannot tell you how much I personally have learned from your dad.
    Finally, for all those visiting this blog, you probably know what a great person Kev is, but in case you did not know, besides everything else he has done so far, he is also a very accomplished musician.
    You take care and thanks for all you do.

  2. kwolz said

    Hey Mr. Oliver! Thanks or the kind words. The sax isn’t getting much action lately with these wisdom teeth (or lack thereof), but some of my greatest memories are certainly from band.

    I love everything about Bioneers! I discovered that group a while back, but now I am really getting into them. Actually, I am currently working on the scholarship app to go to the Bioneers Conference in October. So many awesome people and ideas will be there! I haven’t found their podcasts yet…I’ll definitely look into that.

    I like your advice about elders as well. Almost everything I’m learning this summer is through experience with people older and more experienced than I am…and yeah I’ve learned a ton from my dad too!

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