« Why the Office Needs a Typewriter Revolution | Main | Heat Storage Hypocausts: Air Heating in the Middle Ages »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.



Even in the West eating fermented foods is common. Common drinks and foodstuffs such as wine, bread, mustard and ketchup are fermented products.

kris de decker


Although we can buy some fermented products in the West, the food system we depend on is based on refrigeration, not fermentation. Our food system is global, anonymous and vulnerable, not local, resilient, decentralised, or embedded in social life.



Thank you for an interesting and informative article.



Sandor Katz is a useful and entertaining connection here: an American who's written several books on fermentation and maintains a website of useful links and recipes. http://www.wildfermentation.com/

Also, two small misspellings: "desert" should be "dessert" and "compliment" should be "complement."

Thanks for the article.



There is some negative data about kimchi and kombucha:


Dave from San Antonio


Excellent article! The 'West' has a lot to learn, but this process takes the "know-how" of years of involvement and social interaction to learn to do this the right way.

thomas reis


Prof callum explains in his "oceans of life" how in Ancient Rome they made their fish soup. Maybe most know the pots in the ground in Italy used to brew fish soup. Still today in Croatia they ferment fish with oil with no boiling just fermenting - tasty.



You mention that the fermentation of cabbage ends up producing methane. Is this actually correct? I have never come across any evidence that the gases produced by acid producing bacteria consists of methane. As far as I understand it is all CO2. If it produces methane, this could be bad for the environment in that methane about a hundred times the impact of CO2 in the first 15 years after its release.



A couple of years ago, I wrote a primer on fermentation that may be of interest to you in light of this topic:


One of the aspects of fermentation that I found interesting is the three way war between the main types of fermentation microbes: yeast, bacteria, and molds. I described it this way in my primer:


How fermentation preserves food:
One form of filth kills another form of filth

Fermentation is best described as human intervention into a three way microbial war for the purpose of preserving food and enhancing its flavor. These are the three major combatants in this microbial war:

  • Yeast, which produce alcohol that kills bacteria and molds
  • Bacteria, whichproduce acids that kill molds and yeast
  • Molds, which produce digestive enzymes and antibiotics that kill yeast and bacteria
These three battle for supremacy over who gets to take over our food, and in the course of doing so, produce substances which fend off the colonization and growth of the others, particularly the decomposers. This microbial chemical warfare is memorably summarized by the observation that one form of filth kills another form of filth. What we do when we ferment is to make alliances with the microbe of our choice by creating conditions favorable to that particular kind of microbe so that they can take over our food; in exchange for letting them utilize some of the calories in the food, we utilize their natural defenses to ward off unwanted microbes that would decompose the food or cause food poisoning. ––––––––––––––––––

I think you may enjoy the primer.



While reading this interesting text, I was eating my salad with home-made sauerkraut, which consists of two types of cabbage, carrots, onions, apples and so on. And tonight I am going to drink... it doesn't have an English name I think, it is a "juice" from fermented beets (roots). And yet I live in one of the richest countries in the worlds and enjoy modern job and modern apartment.



I don't agree with article. In colder climate zone food freezing is not that wasteful, as it would be in Vietnam. And fermentation, at least in northern part, is not that efficient as in south, except for select products, like cheese, beer, wine. If fermentation would be better, our ancestors used it much more. By the way, I remember as my grandmother described how dairy of the beginning of the XX century worked. They had big basements, where big ice cubes, cut from nearby lake in winter, were stored. Fresh milk could be stored in dairy basement for at least a week, if needed.

kris de decker


@ Sigunas

That's a very good point. Low-tech alternatives are always local alternatives, taking into account geography, climate and culture. Although fermentation also played an important role in moderate and cold climates in earlier times, people could store a lot of their food underground.

Even without ice cubes, cellars could store produce for a long time, see for instance the root cellar. In hot and arid environments people dry a lot of food, like the famous Jamón ibérico (Iberian ham). And in the tropics, it's mainly fermentation.

The problem is that all these lowtech alternatives have been replaced, or are being replaced, by a system based on *electric* refrigeration. Fossil fuel alternatives are always global, ignoring the local geography, climate and culture.

It's true that refrigeration requires more energy in tropical regions, but it's also wasting a lot of energy in cold zones because there people forgot to take advantage of the underground.



@ Sigunas
In colder climate zones milk is best stored as milk for a few days, as yoghurt 6+ weeks (or as long as you can keep adding milk to keep the culture alive), and as cheese for months, up to years depending on the type.

And now I'm hungry.



If fermentation releases CO2 or methane, is it really more ecofriendly than using electrical refrigeration? Has anyone done the math?
Thanks for interesting article.




There are many fermented products in the west. Even coffee beans have to be fermented before we can drink them. However, most of these products are either pasteurized or no longer are full fermentations—they rely on vinegar rather than fermentation itself. Mustard and ketchup for example, can't be considered to be actively fermenting. In a Western supermarket, you'll be hard-pressed to find an active fermentation except for some yoghurts. Even pickles are no longer fermented but rather pickled with vinegar, and therefore not probiotic. I've heard however that a Jewish gherkin is probiotic, but I can't be sure.


It's true that there is much research showing some negative effects of eating probiotic (active fermentation) products. Much of this research comes from South Korea, where there are lots of statistics correlating kimchi consumption with prevalence of stomach cancers, especially in young men. However while kimchi is probiotic it also has very low pH, and eating too much of that can be taxing for the stomach—likewise with kombucha. Most doctors and nutritionists will recommend minimal consumption of probiotics, up to two tablespoons per meal. This is enough to inoculate the stomach with a new batch of bacteria, while not being too basic.

@thomas reis
Certainly! I wrote an article about fish sauce here: http://www.notechmagazine.com/2015/10/garum-fermented-fish-sauce-for-the-ancient-roman-masses.html

I think you're probably correct. I looked into it and it seems that in general most lacto-fermentations don't produce methane in their first stages, however, if you allow the fermentation to go along they will start producing methane over time. However, as most anaerobic fermentation processes are actually a mix of different bacteria, it's likely that a negligible amount of methane is produced when you ferment cabbage.

Kris already responded to your comment but I have my own to add.
In fact Western cultures have many forms of fermentation. Fermentation is very common in Scandinavia (fermented herring) and Germany (sauerkraut). While my article might seem to insinuate that the hotter the climate, the more amenable to fermentation, I don't think this is actually the case. Many fermentations are in fact easier to preserve in colder climates, because they provide a stable environment (for example kim chi, which I mentioned in the article). Even if we could rely on colder outside air temperature to keep products cool, fermentation would still be very useful. To reiterate @Regret's point, you might be able to store fresh milk for a week in a cellar using ice blocks (which required a lot of energy to produce or transport from mountainous areas), but a fermented dairy product (cheese, yoghurt, sour cream) would last a lot longer (6+ weeks). As @Kris says, if we are serious about limiting energy use today, fermentation can help just a little bit.

Joshua Spodek


This post helped inspire a podcast episode I did on resilience, "Why Unplug?" https://shows.acast.com/leadership-and-the-environment/episodes/426-why-unpug based on my changing my behavior to see what was possible living without a refrigerator for a few months.

Joshua Spodek


Updating my last post, I thought a few months with my fridge unplugged would be a feat. After all, isn't a fridge necessary? I never considered otherwise before this article.

Next week I'll reach six months! I live in Manhattan. My food has never tasted better. I avoid packaged food, so I eat mostly fresh, local produce or dried legumes, nuts, and grains from bulk. Nothing has gone bad. On the contrary, the experience taught me to ferment. I expected difficulty, but it turns out to be easy. And fun when I got the hang of it. I see on my counter vinegar, chutney, and potatoes in various stages of fermentation. Also some lettuce and herbs in water keeping them growing.

I'm also motivated by another Low Tech Magazine article, Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/12/keeping-some-of-the-lights-on-redefining-energy-security.html. I'm practicing resilience as a power grid user, experimenting to see if someone living in an American city can handle going without power. It turns out it's easy with a little practice.

My last three electric bills have been $1.40, $1.70, and $1.70. At ten cents a kWh, that's 14 kWh, 17 kWh, and 17 kWh each month.

Besides saving money at the individual level, living like this would greatly enable renewables since their intermittency becomes less of a problem. We could decrease peaker plants and fission, maybe getting rid of them, and drop the costs of our grid a lot.

Thank you for the inspiration!

Darian Sylvester


Great piece. I am new to the Lo-Tech site, and have been instantly hooked. Interesting comments later in the article that draw attention to market-driven solutions, that inherently feed off profit, not solutions. Of course, you can have one then the other, but why attach profit to the equation at all? A damming coincidence that societies deemed underdeveloped adopt solutions more logical than we (I’m in US) developed western societies.

Josh Spodek


Updating my last comment, I'm into my second year with the fridge unplugged. I've expanded to disconnect my entire apartment from the electric grid in Manhattan, soon to start my sixth month.

This article prompted me most. I've shared more on my podcast. Here's an episode on the experiment off-grid in Manhattan, with links to other episodes: https://shows.acast.com/leadership-and-the-environment/episodes/615-living-off-the-grid-without-solar-either-traditionally.

The New Yorker magazine printed a letter I wrote them in response to a piece of theirs on people bringing more refrigeration to Africa: https://joshuaspodek.com/the-new-yorker-published-my-letter

Before trying, I believed what I'm doing would have been impossible. Instead, it gets easier and more fun with practice. Since more than half the world lives in cities, if they believe what I'm doing is impossible, they won't try. I hope you try. It's deeply rewarding and connects us with other cultures distant in space and time.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)