Long before he went to work at the world-famous Danish restaurant Noma, David Zilber discovered the wonders of fermentation during his childhood.
“I left my bowl of half-eaten Cheerios on the counter and headed off to school,” Zilber says. “When I got home, my mom was like, ‘What is this? Clean up after yourself.’ I stuck my finger in the milk and thought, ‘Wait a minute, this was my breakfast, now it’s yogurt.’ If an eight-year-old boy can accidentally ferment yogurt in an apartment building in Toronto in the summertime, what does that mean for the rest of human history?”
Whether we realize it or not, fermentation — a process wherein microbes break down sugars and produce alcohol and CO2 — is the ancient alchemy responsible for much of the food we eat. It was taking place on Earth long before humans existed and was co-opted by our ancestors to make staples such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, cheese, and tempeh, as well as socially pivotal beverages including beer, coffee, and wine.
“I like to say that fermentation has no inventor,” Zilber tells me as we chat on a sunny mid-winter morning over Zoom, “but it’s been discovered countless times.”
Zilber was an apathetic student who — “like most wayward children” — ended up in a kitchen, working with the skill and discipline to be hired at the two-Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen, the food-world equivalent of the CERN laboratory. “I didn’t have an explicit interest in fermentation, but I did have a broad, general interest in science, and they picked up on that.”
“Fermentation isn’t responsible for one specific taste at Noma,” says co-owner and chef René Redzepi in the intro to the best-selling fermentation cookbook that he and Zilber wrote together. “It’s responsible for improving everything.”
If slow cooking makes a stew or curry more intense, fermentation is an extremely slow alternative, one that makes everything fizz, seep, and bubble. Instead of the “fast” application of heat in a nutrient-annihilating bell curve, it’s a line that grows slowly upward to infinity — teaching valuable lessons about biological systems, the universe, decay, and entropy.
Fermentation is the means by which we make hipster delicacies like kombucha or sourdough bread, but it’s also something that takes place within us. Studies estimate that one in three cells in and on our bodies are non-human. Of the billions of organisms that make up our “microbiome,” the majority live in the mouth and lower intestine, breaking up food we might not otherwise be able to.
“We’ve been in a pact with these microbes for tens of thousands of years,” Zilber says. “We co-evolved and they’ve come to live inside us. We traded parts of our genomes to each other to ensure we still have the same functionality.”
Zilber’s latest venture — aside from a forthcoming book — is a gig working for the food tech giant Chr. Hansen, where he hopes to apply the things learned at Noma on an industrial scale. “When I quit Noma, I wrote this kind of open letter to the Earth saying that I wanted to put myself inside the cogs of the global food system and use fermentation to construct a different reality. This job corresponds to that mission statement.”
On a break from his new role, Zilber took time to assemble five simple recipes for Highsnobiety readers to try at home: sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, pickled peppers, “quick” kimchi, and jasmine-vanilla kombucha. All you need is scales, jars, and something to weigh them down. As Zilber is keen to stress, you can go down the rabbit hole with fermentation or you can just make good food — both are valuable components of the same thing.
“You can’t unsee the things you learn when you study fermentation. If you ever ferment a tray of rice and watch it overheat because it has too much of a good thing, you’ll never look at a traffic jam on an LA freeway the same way again. It’s a powerful gateway drug to understanding the complexity and beauty and elegance of the natural world.”
- 1 Head White Cabbage - 2–3 Nubs Fresh Turmeric (or 1 Tbsp Dried Turmeric Powder) - Salt
- Tare a large mixing bowl on a kitchen scale. Shred the cabbage on a mandoline or knife to around 2 mm and place it in the bowl.
- If you’re using fresh turmeric, peel the root and mince it finely like you would garlic. (Be careful as this will stain, so make sure you’re using a cutting board you can easily scrub clean; and use gloves if you’ve got an important meeting to go to afterwards!) Add the turmeric to the bowl with the cabbage.
- Weigh the contents of the bowl and calculate 3 percent of that weight in salt (multiply by 0.03 on your calculator if you failed math in junior high). Add the salt to the bowl and massage the cabbage with a fair bit of force until it begins to let out some of its juices. Use both hands, turning and squeezing the mass for 4 to 5 minutes until it’s lost about half its volume and becomes wet.
- Pack the shredded veggie mass tightly into a jar. Be sure to add in any juices that pool at the bottom of the bowl. (Those juices will contain a fair bit of dissolved salt, which is crucial to the success of your ferment.)
- Weigh the contents down with a suitable weight, be it a specially made fermentation weight, a plastic zip bag filled with water, or even a short water glass pushed down by the lid.
- Close the jar while leaving the seal off to allow any gases to escape and leave it out at room temperature for 7 days (plus or minus a few; taste it as it goes to determine how sour you’d like it to be) before transferring it to the fridge, with the seal in place.
A sprinkle of wisdom: “Fermentation is cooking, it just happens more slowly. Heat is movement and thermal degradation, and the process that takes place inside the cell of a yeast fungus — busting things apart to harvest energy — is a reproduction of what we do boiling rice. There’s always waste. It’s part of the parallel between fermentation and human existence on Earth.”
- 12 Lebanese Cucumbers - 2 Tbsp Mustard Seeds - 2 Tbsp Black Pepper - 5 Bay Leaves - 1 Bunch Dill - Salt
- Give the cucumbers a wash under cold water.
- Place the mustard seed and black pepper in a pan and toast the spices over medium-high heat until aromatic.
- Tare the weight of your empty fermentation vessel on a kitchen scale.
- Place the cucumbers into a cleaned canning jar and cover them with cold water until it reaches the neck of the jar. Note the weight of the water and cucumbers, and calculate 3 percent of that weight in salt.
- Pour the water out of the jar (being sure to hold the cucumbers back) into a tall container. Add the salt, and whisk or blend the mixture to dissolve the crystals completely and form your brine.
- Place the toasted aromatics and bay leaves in as well.
- Finally, add in a spacer (this could be a plastic deli cup lid, a fermentation weight, or a small cup) to push everything beneath the waterline to prevent mold growth.
- Cover the jar (without a seal) and allow the cucumbers to ferment at room temperature for 7 days. Be sure to watch the progress as they ferment — the bright green of the cucumbers should fade to a pale olive color, the brine will become slightly cloudy, and you should see bubbles of gas form and rise to the surface. Be especially careful to mind mold growth. If you see any form, remove it immediately by skimming it off with a spoon and ensure no plant matter is in contact with the air.
- On the seventh day, once the cucumbers are pleasantly pickled, add in the sprigs of dill to infuse their flavor into the brine and transfer the vessel into the fridge with the seal replaced.
- Enjoy the crunch.
A sprinkle of wisdom: “The act of fermenting outsources pre-digestion to the microbes in play. If you follow the microbiome research, you might see the gut as the body’s second brain, in which case the fermentation crock is the body’s second stomach. When you switch to a highly processed diet, you starve the microbes in your hindgut and they eventually die off, becoming far less diverse and far less active in your bodily health. When you consume fermented food, you’re not only getting pre-biotics, which are the things the microbes need, you’re not only getting probiotics, which are the living microbes inside the food that have transformed it, but you’re also getting post-biotics, all the things that are already degraded and easier for your body to consume.”
- 10 Jalapeño Peppers - 3 Cloves Garlic - Salt
- Slice the jalapeños into rings, roughly 5 mm thick (you can discard the stems).
- Peel and slice the garlic cloves in half.
- Using a scale, tare the weight of your cleaned, small (500 ml) canning jar.
- Place the sliced jalapeños and garlic into your jar and cover the contents with cold water up to the neck. Note the weight of the water and vegetables, and calculate 3 percent of that weight in salt.
- Pour the water out of the jar (while holding the jalapeños back) into a tall container, add the salt, and blend or whisk the mixture together to dissolve the salt crystals completely.
- Proceed to pour the brine back over the jalapeños and garlic.
- Add in a fermentation weight or a small plastic insert to keep the peppers submerged beneath the waterline of the brine while they ferment.
- Close the lid without the rubber seal in place and leave it out on your counter for 5 to 7 days. The vibrant, deep green of the jalapeños should morph into a duller army green, while the brine itself will become a bit cloudy. This is all par for the course. You may notice a light froth of bubbles form at the surface. This is all good, too!
- On the fifth day, pull out a jalapeño with a clean fork, slice a tiny segment, and give it a taste. It should be hot and sour, soft yet crunchy at the same time.
A sprinkle of wisdom: “People’s food-buying choices are driven by an emotional connection to familiarity. There’s a reason why McDonald’s sells Happy Meals to kids — it’s so they keep on buying cheeseburgers when they are adults. The fascinating thing is that no matter what people are eating, it will need to be fermented. Building up the analog on the production end has big implications for the bait and switch that will actually convince the big companies and the consumers that there is another way. Food that feels like cheese, feels like beer, will keep things familiar, even if the primary sources of ingredients become more sustainable.”
- 1 Head Napa Cabbage - 1 Large Carrot - 1 Small Daikon Radish - ½ Bunch Scallions - 1 Head Ginger - 6 Cloves Garlic - 100 ml Fish Sauce - 200 ml Korean Chili Flakes - Salt
- Slice the napa cabbage into quarters lengthwise, then proceed to chop those quarters into 3 cm wide strips.
- Place a large mixing bowl on a scale and tare it to zero grams.
- Transfer all the chopped cabbage to the mixing bowl.
- Peel and slice both the carrot and the daikon into rounds, about 2 to 3 mm thick. Slice the scallions, greens, and whites alike.
- Peel and mince both the garlic and ginger and add all the above ingredients, with the chili flakes, to the bowl.
- Note the weight and calculate 2 percent of that weight in salt. Add the salt and the fish sauce to the bowl, and proceed to mix everything together thoroughly until all the ingredients have been moistened and well mixed.
- Proceed to pack the mixture down tightly in a cleaned 2 liter mason jar, and include all the delicious juices left in the bowl. Weigh the contents down with a suitable weight, be it a glass or plastic fermentation weight, or a snuggly fit plastic deli cup lid.
- Close the jar while leaving the seal off to allow any gases to escape and leave it out at room temperature for 5 to 7 days before transferring it to the fridge (with the seal in place) to mature.
- Be sure to taste it as it goes so you can understand the course of fermentation. It may seem like not much at all is happening on the third day, but by the fifth or sixth, you’ll notice a melding of flavors, a deepening of the umami introduced via the fish sauce, and a pleasant acidity rising gently thanks to the lactic acid bacteria growing and souring the vegetables.
A sprinkle of wisdom: “People don’t understand that E. coli is in everyone all the time. All the food-borne pathogens that give you a severe illness are a normal member of your microbiome. It’s only when things get out of whack that they make you sick. It’s strange, when you see a tiny wheel of brie or reblochon cheese in a cheese shop and you see the mold growing on it, you have a synesthetic experience of fuzz on the tongue. It happens to everyone. Yet cheese molds get a pass whereas molds on other foods fill people with angst and vitriol. Really they’re two sides of the same coin.”
JASMINE AND VANILLA KOMBUCHA
- 25 g Jasmine Tea - ½ of a Vanilla Bean - 1,700 ml Water - 200 ml Kombucha from a previous batch - 1 Cutting of Kombucha SCOBY - 150 g Sugar
- Place the water and sugar in a pot on the stove and bring it to a boil to dissolve everything.
- Add in the tea and the vanilla bean scraped of its seeds (throw in the cleaned pod, too, for good measure) and allow everything to steep for 5 to 6 minutes.
- Strain the contents of the pot through a sieve into a clean 2 liter jar.
- Allow the hot, sweet tea to cool to room temperature before adding in the kombucha from a previous batch, and the cutting of a kombucha SCOBY.
- Cover the jar with a breathable cloth secured with a rubber band. A cheesecloth or tea towel will work great. The SCOBY needs access to oxygen to ferment the dissolved sugar into a pleasant acidity.
- Allow the jar to sit out at room temperature for 6 to 10 days. Note: The SCOBY should normally float, but on the first couple days in, it may hang out on the bottom or in the middle of the jar before making its way to the surface (nothing to worry about). As it ferments, the SCOBY will grow to fill out the liquid’s surface while it consumes sugars and produces acetic acid.
- On the fourth or fifth day, taste the kombucha to track its progress. It should be less sweet than the base liquid you started off with and prickle your tongue with a combination of acidity and effervescence.
- When it tastes balanced (not too sweet and not too sour), strain the mixture and bottle it up in a swing-top bottle before transferring it to your fridge.
- If you’re getting into the habit of brewing kombucha regularly, transfer the SCOBY directly to your next batch. Otherwise, you can keep it floating in 200 ml of the batch you just brewed and store it in the fridge until needed.
A sprinkle of wisdom: “I like to think of fermentation as an inevitability. The fact you see all of this cultural variation from calabrese or soppressata sausages in Italy, to aka or hatcho miso in Japan, to every different kind of cheese around the world. You see these events happen time and time again, incorporating whatever microbes live in your vicinity. Of course, our interactions with them through food are the most visible, but you see it when in the microbiome of an ant, or an anteater, or in the symbioses that form in termite mounds. It’s in the deep evolutionary history of life. There are these trade-offs where life comes together to be more than it could be apart, that seem universal and inevitable — watershed paradigm shifts in living history. It’s a heavy topic to get into, but a cool one nonetheless.”
Experience the full story and others in HIGHStyle, a print magazine by Highsnobiety available on newsstands and the Highsnobiety shop now.