A Talk with Sandor Katz about Pickled Peppers

I love the taste of naturally fermented sour dill pickles. Since I don’t live anywhere near a Jewish deli and I have lots of fresh vegetables on hand from the farm, I really want to learn to make my own. But my initial attempts at pickling have not been a success.

Natural fermentation is the traditional way of making pickles taste like they are fresh from the barrel at a Jewish deli rather than fished out of a jar from the supermarket.  They are not packed with any vinegar and not refrigerated, giving them the amazing taste and some say great health benefits.   I put off trying my own naturally fermented pickles for years, using the excuse of being pregnant and nursing young children.  It seemed to me that if you can’t eat feta you should think twice about eating food left soaking on your counter for a week or more.

the pretty red peppers before pickling (the are about the size of a pullet egg - or very small chicken egg for reference)

When I finally got around to trying my own batch this past fall it was already November and too late for cucumber or okra pickles.  Instead, I collected some beautiful small red peppers, washed them and even boiled a rock to keep them submerged in the salt water.  I packed it all in a clean mason jar with carefully measured water and salt.  I was so optimistic!

For many days, nothing seemed to happen in the jar.  So I let them sit longer until the water turned cloudy and the peppers appeared to be fermenting. But letting food soak for days on counter goes against all of my food safety instincts and even without the pregnancy excuse, it was making me increasingly nervous as the days past.  At the next check the peppers felt a little slimy and I didn’t know if it was it the good kind of slimy or something else.  After some deliberation and a failed attempt to get my husband to taste them first, we totally chickened out and dumped the jar in the compost.

So what went wrong? I decided try to find out and sent an email to Sandor Katz, a top leader in the naturally fermented food movement and author of the widely acclaimed pickling how to “Wild Fermentation.”  Katz AKA Sanderkraut has a large following in natural food circles and travels around the world sharing his fermentation knowledge.   He was quick to reply and happy to help.

I recounted my pepper story and asked him, “What do you think I messed up.”  According to Sandor, “It sounds like nothing went wrong at all.  Fermenting vegetables is very safe and there never has been a single case of food poisoning from fermented vegetables.  The process is simple, just vegetables, salt and time.”

That was reassuring news.  So there is no need to worry about good and bad bacteria, you just need to get used to letting vegetables soak on the counter.  I asked, “So, naturally fermented pickles are part of our Jewish tradition, but so is worry.  Do you have any advice for a nervous Jewish mother learning the process?”

Sandor laughed and said, “I promise you that it is not a Jewish thing. People from all over have the same food safety concerns, especially if they are new to fermentation.  Americans are all taught to fear bacteria even though it everywhere and mostly harmless or beneficial.”

Finally I asked him if most of his audience is drawn to pickling to for the health benefits or the taste?

He said, “I started fermenting because I wanted to make a great quality sour dill pickle but natural fermentation it goes so far beyond pickles. There are fermenting traditions from all over the world, for vegetables, bread, wine, beer and more.  It is typical for third generation Americans from to develop an interest in making traditional fermented foods from their own cultural or family traditions.”

In fact that is the topic of his new book, “The Art of Fermentation: An in Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World” which comes out in June, in time for this summer’s pickling experiments!   In the meantime you can pick up his first book, “Wild Fermentation” which includes his recipe for the perfect Kosher dills and “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved” (awesome title)  about America’s underground food movement.

Note: This post originally appeared in a shorter form on kveller.com. Kveller.com offers a Jewish twist on parenting, everything a Jewish family could need for raising Jewish children–including crafts, recipes, activities, Hebrew and Jewish names for babies…and advice from Mayim Bialik.

4 Comments:

  1. I can relate to being nervous about the ferments! Kraut is part of my and my husband’s heritage, but all I ever ate as a kid came from a can, so I was quite skittish the first few times we made the real stuff. I’m hoping to experiment more this year, with pickles, beets, maybe onions… and of course more kraut! How cool talking with Katz too! really great post 🙂

  2. Thanks Julia, and thanks for liking this blog on FB. Let’s compare fermenting notes this summer (among other things). I think I will still need the moral support but I really want to get it down. And yes, the interview was so much fun, he is very inspiring.

  3. I just got done fermenting sauerkraut thanks to Sandor’s book and it is delicious. Just a friendly note, its not a good idea to dump salty items into your composter. The salt will kill off the beneficial bacteria that break down your compostables.

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