Fermentation: Living With Wild Things

The airport security worker eyed my three-once bottles with suspicion. I feigned indifference and fought off the urge to speak. A jar of home-made nut butter had been confiscated from me after I had explained what it was. So I thought it best not to expound upon fermentation and the revitalization of local food traditions. Instead I simply prayed that the sourdough starter might pass for shampoo. What the blood-red beverage of fermented beets might be taken for I dared not imagine.


Why would I take my chances with airport security workers in order to transport fermented foods to faraway places? What are these weird things? Fermented foods are produced by people in partnership with microscopic bacteria and fungi who dine upon decaying plant and animal parts. "Yum, yum," you say. Before you become too excited, let me tell you that fermented foods are delicious. Microorganisms make miracles of ordinary substances. 


Here are a few of the foods that are produced through fermentation: chocolate, coffee, tea (black, pu-ehr and oolong), beer, wine, sourdough bread, cheese, yogurt, kimchee, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, miso, tempeh, and amazaké. The flavors of fermented foods range from sharp and sour to earthy and sweet. These foods offer sophistication and wildness that you will not find in other fare.


But microorganisms are guilty of contributing more than mere flavor to our foods. During fermentation, the vitamin C content of foods increases dramatically. For this reason, Captain James Cook took sixty barrels of sauerkraut on his second voyage around the world, "and not a single crew member developed scurvey, which previously had killed huge numbers of the crews of long sea voyages" (Katz, 2003, p. 6). The microorganisms involved in fermentation also create new nutrients. Most of the B-complex vitamins are produced during fermentation though B-12 is not. 


In addition to manufacturing vitamins, these industrious creatures make antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Miso, a fermented condiment from Japan, has received much attention because of its ability to protect "against exposure to radiation and heavy metals" (Katz, 2003, p. 59). After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a local doctor returned from a trip to treat survivors. Miso soup was an important part of the daily diet that sustained this doctor and his staff. They "never experienced any radiation sickness, despite their proximity to the fallout" (Katz, 2003, p. 59). This observation stimulated research which revealed, "that miso contains an alkaloid called dipicolinic acid that binds with heavy metals and carries them out of the body" (Katz, 2003, p. 59).  


What other products are produced by the minute creatures who consume fermented foods before we do? As these organisms eat they "produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all 'bio-preservatives' that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage" (Katz, 2003, p. 5). Foods which are rich in lactic acid promote "the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestines" (Fallon, 2001, p. 89). Fermented foods also introduce beneficial microorganisms into the intestinal tract. Sandor Katz notes that human beings, like ecosystems, depend upon the diversity and health of their inhabitants. An internal ecosystem that contains many microorganisms is more resilient than an one that does not. Fermented foods that have been baked or cooked do not provide living microorganisms. They are, however, more digestible than non-fermented foods because the microorganisms responsible for fermentation break down difficult-to-digest proteins and carbohydrates.


In addition to offering microorganisms, live-fermented foods provide enzymes which aid in the process of digestion. "Enzymes are complex proteins that act as catalysts in almost every biochemical process that takes place in the body" (Fallon, 2001, p. 46). Humans have 22 digestive enzymes, most of which are produced by the pancreas. Eating only foods devoid of enzymes causes the pancreas to work constantly to produce enzymes. "The result, according to the late Dr. Edward Howell, a noted pioneer in the field of enzyme research, is a shortened life span, illness and lowered resistance to stress of all types" (Fallon, 2001, p. 47). Some say that the converse is also true: those who eat liberal amounts of raw or fermented foods which are rich in enzymes and vitamins tend to have health, stamina, and resistance to disease. 


Of course, ascribing health, or lack thereof, to only one variable is a dangerous and misleading practice. There are many variables which influence health. A multifaceted approach which addresses personal, societal, and ecological health is required if we are to survive and thrive. Diet is but one piece of a larger puzzle. But, as we shall see, food can have a profound impact upon personal, societal, and ecological health. 


Fermentation, as a way to health, is unique in that it can teach us to forge partnerships that sustain life. I am no expert in these matters but Sandor Katz and some small organisms have provided me with a few ideas which I will share with you. Fermentation is a doorway to transformation. Through fermentation, the dead live again in new forms. Decay paves the way for life upon life. Forests are fed by fallen trees that have been eaten by insects, fungi, and bacteria. Humans are fed by dead plant and animal matter that has been digested with the aid of enzymes, acids, microorganisms, mechanical action, and bile. Enzymes, microorganisms, and acids exist both within foods and within the digestive system. 


For centuries humans have partnered with free-roaming bacteria and yeasts to create nourishing foods full of enzymes, acids, and microorganisms. Practicing these old arts has reminded me that I am comprised of countless other lives: the microorganisms who make existence possible, the vegetables and animals I consume, and the people who pass on genetic material and knowledge. 


Fermentation has also provided me with a glimpse into a way of life that is slower, less predictable, and more responsive to the surrounding environment. Modern existence seems to demand that we defy the onward march of time by producing more products in increasingly smaller increments of time. Fermentation demands that we wait, watch, and savor the substance of reality. Western society encourages us to manipulate and control our environment. Fermentation encourages us to relinquish control to minute, unseen parters. Sandor Katz's offers up these comments about the implications of this practice:

By fermenting foods and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology. (Katz, 2003, p. 12)  


It is all very well to work with the organisms that surround us, but how might such practices impact broader systems? In his book Wild Fermentation, a provocative treatise on the art and meaning of fermentation, Sandor Katz (2003) proffers these thoughts:  


Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification....We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as co-creators. Food has historically been one of our most direct links with the life forces of the Earth....One small but tangible way to resist the homogenization of culture is to involve yourself in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures. (p. 27)


By feeding ourselves and our families with fermented products which incorporate ingredients from farmer's markets, CSA's, or our own gardens we can support a life-style that is sustainable. David Holmgren (2002), author of Permaculture: Principals and Pathways Beyond Sustainability and co-originator of the permaculture concept, suggests that, "we need to change ourselves as our most substantial contribution to a better world" (p. 83). For Holmgren, this change is best initiated at the level of material subsistence for it is through our quest for nourishment that we most directly influence natural systems. 


Now that we have seen why some folks ferment food, let us turn to the more serious business of making good things to eat. The remainder of this article will be devoted to the exploration of three types of fermented foods: fermented vegetables, fermented dairy products, and fermented grains. This is a three-part series. Part-one (which you are presently reading) concludes with some recipes for fermented vegetables. Part-two covers fermented dairy products and part-three introduces fermented grains.   


Fermented Vegetables


I have followed the guidelines offered by Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions in the creation of these vegetable recipes. Initially I followed her recipes precisely and later I began inventing my own. However, I continued to utilize the proportions of salt and whey that she recommends and to follow the procedures that she outlines. 


Whey is rich in lactic acid and the bacteria that produce it. When incorporated into products for fermentation, it "acts as an inoculant, reducing the time needed for sufficient lactic acid to be produced to ensure preservation" (Fallon, 2001, p. 90). Fermented vegetables can be made without whey in which case more salt is usually added. If you are interested in such forms of fermentation, you can refer to Wild Fermentation. Regardless of the form of fermentation that you use, I recommend that you follow sensible sanitation procedures and incorporate as much salt as is suggested. 


Improperly preserved canned and fermented foods can harbor Clostridium botulinum bacteria. These bacteria produce a toxin which cases botulism, a potentially deadly condition. However, Clostridium botulinum bacteria cannot exist in extremely acidic environments. Both salt and lactic acid contribute to the creation of acidic environments in fermented foods. For more information, you can check out this publication.


To make whey, simply purchase or make yogurt with live-active cultures. Place the yogurt in a white, kitchen towel to drain. Tie the ends of the towel with string. Suspend the towel from a hook, a nail, or another handy object. Allow the yogurt to drain until it stops dripping. This will take a number of hours. Remove the yogurt, which has become like greek yogurt or "yogurt cheese", from the towel. For recipes which make use of yogurt cheese, refer to part-two of this series which deals with dairy ferments. The whey which has drained from the yogurt is what you are after for now. You can use it immediately or store it in the refrigerator for future use.


Note: Many sources recommend draining yogurt in the refrigerator. Fancy devices may be purchased for this purpose. Yogurt which has been drained in the refrigerator may keep for slightly longer periods of time. However, I have had no trouble draining yogurt at room temperature. 


Fermented Carrots

  • Carrots
  • Red Peppers
  • Radish Seed Pods or Peas
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Hot Peppers
  • Orange Peel
  • 1/4 C Whey
  • 1 Tbsp. Celtic Sea Salt
  • Water

Cut carrots and peppers into very small strips. Mince ginger, garlic, and hot peppers. Stuff clean vegetables and spices into a clean quart jar. Dissolve salt and whey in approximately two cups of water (the amount of water will vary depending upon how tightly the vegetables are packed into the jar). Pour liquid into jar. Leave one inch of head space. Make sure that the vegetables are under the brine (put a rolled cabbage leaf or a sliced pepper round on top to keep them below the brine if necessary). Leave at room temperature for approximately three days. Store in refrigerator.  


Pickled Beets

  • Beets
  • Apples
  • Orange Peel
  • Caraway
  • Ginger
  • 1/4 C Whey
  • 1 Tbsp. Celtic Sea Salt
  • Water

Cook beets until barely tender. Cool and cut into small chunks. Mince ginger and orange peel. Stuff beets and spices into a clean quart jar. Dissolve salt and whey in approximately two cups of water (the amount of water will vary depending upon how tightly the vegetables are packed into the jar). Pour liquid into jar. Leave one inch of head space. Make sure that the beets are under the brine (put a rolled cabbage leaf or a sliced pepper round on top to keep them below the brine if necessary). Leave at room temperature for approximately three days. Store in refrigerator.  


Cucumber Pickles

  • Whole Pickling Cucumbers
  • 1/4 C Whey
  • 1 Tbsp. Celtic Sea Salt
  • Water
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Garlic
  • Cayenne Pepper and/ or Anything Else You Care to Add
  • Leaves of Horseradish or Wild Grape

Stuff clean cucumbers, dill, basil, garlic, and other spices into a clean, quart jar. Dissolve salt and whey in approximately two cups of water (the amount of water will vary depending upon how tightly the cucumbers are packed into the jar). Pour liquid into jar. Leave one inch of head space. Make sure the cucumbers are under the brine (put a rolled cabbage leaf on top to keep them below the brine if necessary). Leave at room temperature for approximately three days. Store in refrigerator. Note: It is worth your while to seek out a source of wild grape or horseradish leaves. These additions keep pickles crisp. 


Ginger-Beet Kvass  

  • Ginger
  • Beets
  • Orange Peel
  • 1/4 C Whey
  • 1 Tbsp. Celtic Sea Salt
  • Water

Wash, peel, and chop beets. Clean and mince ginger. Make strips from orange rind. Ferment all ingredients in a two-quart jar for about two days. Transfer to the refrigerator. 


Click here to continue on to Part 2 of this series, featuring dairy ferments.





Buhner, S. H. (2002). The lost language of plants: The ecological importance of plant medicines to life on earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Fallon, Sally (1999). Nourishing traditions: The cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats. Warsaw, IN: New Trends Publishing.  

Fryer Wiboltt, Anne-Marie (2008). Cooking for the love of the world. Goldenstone Press. 

Katz, Sandor E. (2003). Wild fermentation: The flavor, nutrition, and craft of live-culture foods. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Mollison, Bill (1993). The permaculture book of ferment and human nutrition. Tyalgum, Australia: Tagari Publications. 

Prentice, Jessica. (2006). Full moon feast: Food and the hunger for connection. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Schmid, Ronald F. (1997). Traditional foods are your best medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

Steinkraus, Keith (Ed.) (1999). Handbook of indigenous fermented foods. New York: Marcel Dekker. 

The Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante. (2007). Preserving food without freezing or canning: Traditional techniques using salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, drying, cold storage, and lactic fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.


Web Sites:

The Weston Price Foundation: 

Fermentation as a Method of Food Processing: Production of Organic Acids, pH-development, and Microbial Growth in Fermenting Cereals:


Greener Pastures:

National Center for Home Food Preservation:

University of Nebraska Extension Service:

Wild Fermentation:


Sources for Starter Cultures:

GEM Cultures: 

GEM Cultures offers kefir grains; kombcha mothers; packets of powdered tempeh starter; starters for miso, amazake, and tamari; and many other items.

Moonwise Herbs:

This site offers sourdough starters, kefir grains, pima cultures, and a variety of additional items.

New England Cheese Making Supply Company:

This site offers cultures and supplies for cheese making. 


Bernadette Miller is a student of silences, wild places, and children. Those sages teach that savoring the substance of existence is a serious frivolity. So she aspires to spend more time mucking about in gardens and streams, sunsets and impossible dreams. She has a masters degree in Health Arts and Sciences. She loves gardening, cooking, playing music, playing with children, playing with words, and watching sunsets. She hopes, some day, to find the foreign land where opinions lose themselves in the original passions and stories that birthed them. Her last article for us was, Fall Foraging.