Fermentation is having a moment. Kombucha and other probiotics have made the move from specialty health stores to neighborhood delis and supermarkets; Americans outside of the Korean community are finally appreciating kimchi; and some of the world’s hottest restaurants and culinary establishments, including Raest on the Faroe Islands and David Chang’s Momofuku Lab in New York, are putting ferments both ancient and contemporary front and center. But if you ask chef René Redzepi, fermentation has always been central to our gastronomic lives—we just weren’t paying attention.
“You have to remember that fermentation is a lot of things,” Redzepi says. “Fermentation is also a beer. It’s a glass of wine, a slice of bread, a good cheese, chocolate, your espresso in the morning. So it is something that we have in our daily life all the time; we just don’t know it. The reality is that there’s so much space to innovate. We can have even more of these sorts of things that give us so much delight on a daily basis—particularly so that we can cook better.”
Redzepi would know. His Copenhagen restaurant, Noma (ranked best in the world four times in under a decade by Restaurant magazine, despite boasting only two Michelin stars), didn’t start the recent fermenting trend, but it certainly helped popularize it. And he, along with David Zilber, the director of Noma’s fermentation lab, aims to bring that trend from fine dining to home cooking with The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which the duo cowrote, and which Workman Publishing’s Artisan division will publish in October.
The publisher is as confident as Redzepi and Zilber that fermentation can take off in the home kitchen. It has planned a first printing of 150,000 copies in English, and international rights have been sold in the Dutch and French markets, where the book will be released simultaneously, as well as in the German, Japanese, and Spanish markets, where it is due to be released next year. (Artisan, which retained world English-language rights, will also release the book in Australia, Canada, and England on October 16.)
The project is nothing if not ambitious. More handbook or bible than cookbook proper, The Noma Guide to Fermentation is divided into nine chapters, with each but the first—a primer chapter detailing, among other things, the microbial and biochemical processes behind various forms of fermenting, the necessity of disinfectants and cleanliness, the reasoning behind the book’s use of the metric system, and how to build a fermentation chamber out of a Styrofoam cooler—focusing on one particular ferment. Some, such as kombucha, miso, soy sauce, vinegar, and lacto-fermented (i.e., preserved in salt) fruits and vegetables, might be familiar to the average home cook. Others, such as koji (rice or barley inoculated with the Aspergillus oryzae mold), garum (fermented fish sauce), black fruits and vegetables, and a misolike creation made from peas that the chefs call, appropriately, peaso, very well may not. (The miso and peaso chapter also includes instructions on how to make such grain-related miso mutants as “ryeso” and “breadso.”)
The goal is to arm home chefs with the ability to experiment with and master a set of fermenting skills that will allow them to reach new heights in their everyday cooking—hence the book’s focus on explaining global fermenting traditions and techniques, and its relatively small number of standard recipes.
In that the book reflects both chefs’ own histories and interests. The Danish-born Redzepi, whose foraging and locavore approach to his national cuisine at Noma has been widely lauded, nonetheless remains enamored with culinary cultures worldwide. For instance, he and former Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez (who now runs Copenhagen taqueria Hija de Sanchez) debuted a heavily hyped pop-up, Noma Mexico, in Tulum last year.
Zilber was born in Toronto and, he says, in addition to cooking “all over Canada,” has lived and worked in England and the U.S. That was all before he was hired by Noma.
A year after joining the fermentation lab, Zilber took the reins, designed the new fermentation lab at the new Noma, which is in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood, and put together a team. That was right around the time Redzepi began to consider the idea of a cookbook.
Zilber recalls that Redzepi walked into the lab one day and said, “We have to write a cookbook, and it has to be on fermentation. The time is right. And it shouldn’t just be my name on the cover. This has to be someone’s voice—it has to be the voice of someone who’s an expert in the field. Sure, this is happening in my restaurant, but it’s not like I’m the one who’s actually got his hands in figuring out what water content makes the peaso rice.”
So Zilber began to write. “You know, if René tells you to go get six carrots from the fridge and bring it back to the service team because we have to change up the menu, you just do that,” he says. “I started my morning thinking I was going to do research on a new strain of mold, and then I was writing a cookbook.”
The process, Zilber and Redzepi both note, involved a good deal of collaboration. Part of that was due to the lack of a definitive reference with instructions for home fermenting that the duo could consult. Redzepi says that the goal was to make a “good entryway for readers,” so that they might understand “what to do, how it works, why are we using it, and how they can use it.”
Phaidon’s Noma: Time & Place in Nordic Cuisine, in 2010, was Redzepi’s first foray into print. That work, which PW’s review described as a “massive study of the restaurant and its chef,” was less practical, with the reviewer noting its “spectacularly innovative dishes” for which “few home cooks will have the equipment, ingredients, or patience.” And though The Noma Guide to Fermentation is certainly not a standard celebrity chef’s bound bandolier of recipes, its practicality is, in fact, the point, even if such recipes as bee pollen garum—and Noma’s own, more complicated dishes, such as pumpkin seed tofu with grasshopper mole and roses—may seem more whimsical than most kitchen staples.
“Once you start doing it, cooking will be easier,” Redzepi insists. “You won’t need a list of 20,000 ingredients to make dinner that night. If you have two or three fermented things in your kitchen cabinet, then you can make the bok choy taste as good as steak.”
That may mean, he adds, making something as simple and healthy as fermented raspberries—adding a little bit of salt to two or so fistfuls of the fruit and allowing it to go through a “gentle” two-day fermentation. “Sprinkle them over your yogurt in the morning,” Redzepi says. “Oof, oof, oof! And you’ll feel like a champion for the rest of the day. When I do these things, it sets the record straight in my stomach. It’s like a gut bacterial kick.”
In that way, the book reflects its contents: think of it as a 450-page bacterial kick to bookshelf and kitchen alike.