Our Fermented Lives

A History of How Fermented Foods Have Shaped Cultures & Communities


By Julia Skinner

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From craft beers and sourdough bread to kimchi, coffee, tea, and cheese, fermentation is a popular topic in both food and health circles. In Our Fermented Lives, food historian and fermenting expert Julia Skinner explores the fascinating roots of a wide range of fermented foods in cultures around the world, with a focus on the many intersections fermented foods have with human history and culture, from the evolution of the microbiome to food preservation techniques, distinctive flavor profiles around the globe, and the building of community. Fans of fermentation, chefs, and anyone fascinated with the origins of various foods will enjoy this engaging popular history, which is accompanied by 42 recipes adapted from historic sources, including sauerkraut, corn beer, uji (fermented grain porridge), pickles and relishes, vinegars, ketchup, soy sauce, Tepache (fermented pineapple drink), vinegars, beet kvass, and more.


To Dave Skinner, who showed me that better worlds are always within our grasp, if we are only just willing to reach out our hands to touch them.

To Danielle (Doc) Holliday, whose friendship and conversation inspired many parts of this book, though they did not get to see it to completion. I love you to the moon and all the way past the stars.


Foreword by Sandor Ellix Katz


Authors Note: The Intertwinings of Humans and Microbes

Introduction: Culture and Relationships

Chapter One Ferments for Life

Chapter Two Preservation

Chapter Three Flavor

Chapter Four Health

Chapter Five Community

Chapter Six The Future

Appendix: Tricks and Tools



Metric Conversion Formulas

Listing of Recipes


Expand Your Kitchen Skills with More Books from Storey

Share Your Experience!


By Sandor Ellix Katz, New York Times best-selling author of The Art of Fermentation

There's no doubt about it, our lives are fermented. Whether or not you've ever given a thought to fermentation, the phenomenon has played an immense role in your life. From the very beginning, in our deepest evolutionary past, the earliest life-forms were fermentative, in the biologist's sense of the word, meaning that their metabolism was anaerobic. Only after some of the descendants of these earliest organisms began producing oxygen via photosynthesis did aerobic life-forms such as ourselves even become possible. We are descended from bacteria, we have never lived without them, and we are utterly dependent upon them. The trillions of bacteria each of us is host to are integral to our functionality. The soil, plants, and animals that give us our food are host to their own microbial communities, similarly essential to their well-being.

We are only beginning to grasp the complexity and importance of these organisms. Yet somehow, without specifically knowing about them, people everywhere, thousands of years ago and ever since, have developed methods for working with microbes in varied contexts, including agriculture, fiber arts, medicine, energy production, and most prominently, food and beverage fermentation. Fermented foods and beverages are present in cuisines everywhere, generally not in incidental ways but rather as foundational elements: bread, cheese, yogurt, vinegar, soy sauce, wine, beer. Almost certainly, you—like almost everyone else everywhere—eat or drink products of fermentation every day.

I first took note of flavors of fermentation as a New York City kid who loved pickles. As a young adult experimenting with a few different dietary ideas, I learned that some people ascribed digestive, immune, and other health benefits to live fermented foods, and started eating them regularly as a health practice. Later, when I took up gardening, it was the practical aspect of preserving the crop that got me to investigate how to make sauerkraut. Sauerkraut was my gateway, and three decades later, not only do I continue an avid fermentation practice in my kitchen, but fermentation has become a central focus in my life. Almost every day I think and talk about fermentation, and frequently I read about it, write about it, and teach about it.

I think that what has kept fermentation so endlessly fascinating to me is how incredibly multifaceted it is. The products of fermentation can be scrumptiously delicious, and there is a long list of practical benefits of fermentation—including food preservation, improved digestibility and nutrient bioavailability, and probiotics. But there is so much more to fermentation than even that. Fermentation is an inevitable manifestation of the biodiversity of life. Far from a unified set of techniques, fermentation is an extremely varied constellation of interventions. People have conceptualized and practiced fermentation in many different ways, in response to different conditions and different available food resources, yet it is integral to cultural traditions everywhere. Fermentation is thoroughly enmeshed in the human story. It has inspired ritual, ceremony, poetry, and song. People have worshipped fermentation deities, and ferments have been flashpoints in wars and political disputes. The practical delicacies that are the products of fermentation are further enhanced by the profound meanings that human cultures have ascribed to them and to the process itself.

The stories and the significance associated with fermentation and its products are Julia Skinner's central focus in this book. This is not exactly a traditional history book. It contains many fascinating historical tales, drawing from very eclectic sources and traditions, spanning the globe and all of recorded history (and beyond). There are recipes as well, which look wonderful. Some are Julia's takes on classics, or her interpretation of historic ferments; others are quite inventive. The stories and recipes are interwoven into broad narrative themes. As Julia tells us at the outset, she's "itching for some big conversations."

Fermentation is a prism that Julia Skinner deftly uses to illuminate diverse aspects of culture and history. For fermentation enthusiasts and afficionados, this book will expand the context for understanding some of your most beloved foods and beverages and introduce you to new ones. But most important, this book shows us how countless generations before us have made meaning with their food, and how we can continue that tradition and make new meanings, stories, and traditions of our own.


This book began to ferment in my own mind when I was accepted into a weeklong residency with Sandor Katz. Sandor is one of my food heroes and also one of my greatest models for how to teach with empathy, compassion, and a focus on process over results. The experience was absolutely transformative, not only for my food but for my whole life path. I learned about all sorts of ferments I had never played with before, in a space where everyone was learning from each other. I got to hear about fermentation successes and failures from a ton of perspectives. That residency also came at a critical juncture for me, at a time when I was seeking to rekindle my self-acceptance. In this space, with this group of people, I found that I could simply be me and didn't have to hide certain identities (queerness and paganism in particular) that I've often been asked to tamp down elsewhere in my world. Working with ferments in this liberating environment gave me a special affinity for them (though I'd been fermenting for a decade or more already), and as I've grown more fully into myself, I've grown more and more fascinated by ferments, too.

After my residency with Sandor Katz, I returned to the restaurant world as a fermenter at a local restaurant in Atlanta. I had worked in restaurants before, but not as a fermenter specifically. To my knowledge, I was the first dedicated fermenter at any restaurant in the city. It was exciting to share my work, and it was an invigorating reminder of the passion and enthusiasm I love so much about my industry colleagues. But I realized I wanted to do something bigger: I wanted to share the ferments I make more broadly, and I was also itching for some big conversations. And so I decided to write this book and found my company, Root, which is centered on food history and fermentation. I do everything from consulting with restaurants about food waste to doing set design for independent films to teaching and writing.

I started writing this book at a time when my own world seemed to be falling apart, and I found that fermentation (and food history) was the glue that held it together. As I coped with multiple losses and huge waves of change (both good and bad), ferments offered me a grounding space to go back to. Each morning when I woke up, the first thing I did was check on my ferments. Watching them develop, growing from whatever humble ingredients I tossed into a crock into something delicious, felt amazing. I realized that if I could facilitate such a wonderful transformation with these microbes, I could facilitate a great change inside myself and the world around me as well.

Learning to ferment food, and later learning the history of the foods I ferment, has been one of the most impactful and important experiences of my life. While I can't assume that will be the case for everyone, I hope the deep love I feel for these foods comes through in my research and my recipes, and that it inspires you to find your own home with ferments, too.

Author's Note The Intertwinings of Humans and Microbes

This book is an exploration of fermentation's path through human history. Within it, we see that fermentation's history and our own are absolutely inextricable, from our very biome to the flavors we seek out to the ways we've made our food safe to eat over the centuries and even the ways we come together with our communities to celebrate milestones or to ensure everyone is fed.

In my work as a food historian, I have found that many people are eager to know about the history of fermentation. Countless colleagues, students, and friends have asked me about the history of particular ferments as much as they ask about the process of creating them. Folks from the most novice cooks to professional chefs all feel pulled to learn more about ferments, and I hope this book is a helpful accompaniment to the many incredible volumes out there that teach fermentation methods.

This book is not an encyclopedia. There would be no way to cover the history of every fermented food in depth (at least not within one author's lifetime). It does, however, have a global reach: I have tried to account for fermented foods found across as many cultures as I could.

Whenever possible, I have talked to or read the works of people who actually make these ferments, and I have shared with you what they say. I think it is critically important, particularly as someone with relative privilege, not to overshadow others' stories with my own words and perspectives. Instead, I share the words of those creators who are steeped within the cultures from which these ferments come, and in so doing I hope to foster a deeper understanding of the foods we're talking about and offer a platform for each fermenter I speak with to share the significance of their work with you.

Introduction Culture and Relationships

Every fermentation enthusiast remembers their first ferment. Maybe they don't remember the first time they ate fermented food, but each person I've spoken to has a story of what they made and why, and ultimately how that one simple step into the world of fermentation launched a lifetime of experiments—both beautiful and maddening (or both)—and opened up a world of new flavors and textures to explore.

Fermentation trains us in seeing the ground as inherently shaky. It makes visible the invisible potential of those things that seem still.

—Mercedes Villalba, Manifiesto Ferviente

For years, I thought that sauerkraut was the first fermented food I had ever made. In my early 20s, running into the age-old problem of what to do with a garden of produce that ripens all at once, I turned to sauerkraut as the answer, upon the advice of a farmer friend. Soon whatever container had been empty in my kitchen was filled with living foods, all bubbling away on the counter. Those I didn't refrigerate fresh and eat soon were canned and given away as gifts or consumed later, stretching my meager food budget.

As it turns out, that sauerkraut was my introduction to lacto-fer mentation (when the naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria on a plant convert the sugars in the plant into lactic acid; we'll talk more about this here), not to fermentation as a whole, because I had, unknowingly, been making ferments my entire life. My actual first ferment was Amish friendship bread, a sweet quick bread that is similar in texture to banana bread. Friendship bread starters—zippered baggies of pungent, runny batter—and a set of directions are passed from friend to friend. Each recipient cultivates more starter, divides it, and shares it, using the remainder to bake their own bread.

Friendship bread is a great example of the ways in which our cooking intersects with fermentation much more often than we might think. I never thought my family made anything fermented: We never had crocks of vegetables bubbling away, or homemade beer or wine. But we did have friendship bread, and I always giggled with delight when a new starter appeared in our home. And that starter? It's fermented.

Friendship bread, it turns out, was the perfect introduction to the craft of fermenting because it speaks to how fermentation cultures shape and are shaped by our communities. The bread brings friends and family together in the sharing of it, and the bread's starter quite literally picks up a bit of each place it's been, making the microbial community within that culture representative of the human community it is passed through. (See my own friendship bread recipe.)

Knowing where food is from and how we use it in our communities to feed and celebrate each other is a central theme in my writing. I also believe in using the simple fermentation methods our ancestors would have used, and you'll find that this homespun approach permeates my recipes. I tend to focus on wild fermentation (which uses naturally occurring microbes in the environment, rather than a purchased culture) both because I appreciate the spontaneity it offers and because it is what our ancestors often did. When I can't use a wild starter, I prefer to use a whole- food starter (such as the sauerkraut juice from the last batch) rather than a commercially available starter. In some cases, I do use purchased starters (like koji), but when we get to talking about those fermentations, I will tell you what the starter is, where to get it, and why I'm using it.

I learned about fermentation the way my ancestors would have: through trial and error, through advice from more experienced community members, and through lots and lots of practice. I like to think of women (and some men) in earlier generations using the same foods as me to feed their families and communities: wild-fermented foods with simple, local ingredients, and foods that use up every scrap of the raw ingredients we can find.

Fermentation equals community, both in a microbiological sense and through the human connections built by this style of preparation. Fermentation relies entirely on relationship: the relationship between the maker and the microbe, and between the microbes themselves. Fermentation can be a long process, taking up to a year or more. And while not every ferment needs constant attention, you can't set it and forget it. In order for a ferment to be successful, you must create a selective environment that makes the microbes you work with happy and healthy. Ferments need to be smelled, stirred, wrapped, unwrapped, lightly heated, slightly cooled, and gently nurtured into life. Just like our human relationships, ferments require our love and attention to grow.

You put your trust in microbes to do the work of creating the result you want, and, just like with human relationships, this succeeds the vast majority of the time. And when you don't get the expected result—when there's a need you didn't realize you had to meet— the project is resigned to the compost heap or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it exceeds your wildest dreams.

Perhaps it is because fermentation necessitates this relationship between microbe and human that people are drawn to it—and drawn to others who are fermenting. More than any other preparation method I've engaged in, fermentation builds a community of enthusiasts who are curious and hungry for new knowledge—and hungry not only to learn but to learn from each other.

Working on a ferment is an act of cocreation with the microbes you're coaxing to grow, as well as with whomever you are fermenting. Some of my most precious fermentation memories are of foods I made with someone else, or shared with someone else once the ferment was finished. I hope that as you read this book, you get a sense of not only the centrality of ferments in our human history more broadly but the centrality of ferments in human relationships as well. From communities coming together to make kimchi to the alcohol served at a feast, ferments have long had a place at the tables we set for those we love. I hope that when you learn about this history, you're inspired to create your own ferments to feed and learn with others.

After my early forays into fermenting, I found that I couldn't help but make more and more fermented foods, filling up much of my free time and every available square inch of counter space in my home with veggies packed in brine, vinegar made from my autumn apple scraps, and bottles of kombucha. But while I made ferments frequently, it wasn't until relatively recently that I started making a wide variety of them. Truth be told, I still found a lot of ferments to be intimidating, and while I dreamed of a root cellar brimming with living foods and homemade beverages, I was worried I would somehow mess up and ultimately fail at my most ambitious projects.

As so often happens in life, the worry was worse than the failure. I realized, "So what if I do fail?" I've definitely made plenty of mistakes in fermenting, as has every other fermenter (don't let anyone tell you otherwise!). All fermentation asks of you is that you show up with an open heart, creative mind, and hands ready to work. If you do, it will reward you either with a lesson or with something delicious—possibly something delicious beyond what you ever imagined.

Fermentation has taught me a lot about letting go, trusting the process, and giving my heart to projects no matter how they turn out. In return, those projects have fed me in all the ways I need, from physically nourishing me to helping me grow as a cook and a teacher. Today I finally have my little root cellar, just as I dreamed of years ago.

A Few Favorite Recipes

Here, as at the end of each chapter, you will find a collection of fermentation recipes. The recipes that follow are some of my favorite simple ferments to make.

The sauerkraut and cultured butter are among the first ferments I learned, and they offer an easy and approachable way to dip your toes into the world of fermentation.

The horseradish paste is one of the most versatile ferments in my repertoire. I also make ginger and garlic paste. I started down this particular fermenting path a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with the deep flavors that develop in each paste as well as all the ways these simple ingredients can be used in everyday cooking.

The corn beer is a historical recipe that was shared with me by a friend who sells rare books, and it is the first of many historical preparations this book explores.

I round out this recipe collection with two of my favorite ways to use honey: in a delicious and healing turmeric ferment, and in a basic mead recipe. Both are gently sweet and wonderfully customizable, offering a great first foray into a style of cooking that is inherently slow, exploratory, and playful.


Makes 2 pints

This is the way I learned to make sauerkraut more than a decade ago. The person who taught me made it in jars, rather than a crock, to keep their small apartment from smelling like cabbage, and I find this method to be so easy (and to work so well in small spaces) that it's become a go-to for me when I teach fermentation classes.

You'll need two pint jars with lids and bands for this method.


  • 1 head cabbage
  • Sea salt
  • Spices (such as caraway, fennel, juniper berries; optional)


  1. 1.Remove the outer two layers of leaves from your cabbage and set them aside. Quarter and core the cabbage, then thinly shred it.
  2. 2.Add the shredded cabbage to a bowl and sprinkle liberally with salt (I use about 1 teaspoon). Toss together and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
  3. 3.Massage the salt into the cabbage until the cabbage releases enough liquid to form a brine (you'll know it's ready when it releases a thin stream of liquid when squeezed). If it doesn't seem like the cabbage is releasing liquid, add a bit more salt and keep massaging.
  4. 4.Give the brine a quick taste: You want it to taste salty like the sea. If it seems like the brine needs a bit more salt, you can always add more and massage it in, though I've rarely found that the salt needs adjustment at this point. If you're using spices, add them now.
  5. 5.Pack the cabbage tightly into glass pint jars. Using your hand—either flat or balled into a fist—or the back of a ladle, or a wooden sauerkraut pounder, press your cabbage down firmly to release any air bubbles and to ensure that the brine will cover it. If your cabbage is not completely covered, add more brine. If you find there are still air bubbles, gently slide a chopstick or knife down the edge of your jar to release them.
  6. 6.Fold over one of the outer cabbage leaves you set aside earlier and place it on top of the shredded cabbage in the jar. This top leaf keeps the shredded cabbage in the brine. Make sure the leaf itself is also submerged in the brine.
  7. 7.Place the lid on each jar and set the jars on a baking sheet or plate. Allow to ferment out of direct sunlight for 2 to 3 weeks (or longer, if desired, which will soften the cabbage and make it more sour). Loosen each lid and check your ferment at least every couple of days, making sure all the cabbage stays submerged in the brine. If you need to add more brine, use a solution of 1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 2 cups water.
  8. 8.Once your kraut is as sour as you'd like, store it in the fridge in an airtight container (such as the jars you fermented it in), where it can keep for several months if it stays submerged in brine. One note: When storing ferments with metal rings in the fridge, it can be helpful to put a piece of parchment or waxed paper between the top of the jar and the lid to prevent corrosion. Just make sure the paper doesn't come in contact with the ferment itself.

Cultured Butter

Makes about 1 pound

Cultured butter is easy to make and delicious, and it's a great way to sneak some extra live cultures plus a boost of savory and tangy flavor into your meals. Because it creates a selective microbial environment wherein beneficial microbes outnumber (and thus outcompete) harmful ones, culturing has been used historically to prolong butter's shelf life. It also leaves you with two endlessly useful products: a fresh, delicious butter and some buttermilk full of active cultures that can work as a leavener and flavoring in baked goods.


  • 1 quart heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
  • 1


  • "Skinner pours forth so much historical and practical information about fermentation that her book is indispensable for all levels of readers intrigued by this ancient process." - Booklist

    "Julia Skinner has given us a necessary and user friendly field guide to the bacteria that give zest and tang to the ecology of our plates and pantries. This is an exciting addition to the body of home knowledge about our friend fermentation and how to wield its magic.” - Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene 

    "This profound and important text on the intersection of culture and fermentation offers not only history, but also guidelines on fermentation and recipes as well. How better to understand a culture or a time period than to understand and prepare its food?" - Manhattan Book Review

    “Julia has a seamless way of weaving history, recipes, tales together making one feel as if they are being transported to another place in time through smells, facts flavors. Her deep knowledge, and reverence for the craft of preserving food makes my life as a forever student all the more joyful.” - Cortney Burns, Chef Author of Nourish Me Home

    “Skinner illuminates the deep past through recipes and stories that tether the foods of today to those of our ancestors. In doing so, she paints an expansive picture of just how intractably linked fermentation is to the human endeavor." - David Zilber, The Noma Guide to Fermentation 

    "Interesting, eloquent – a sensual journey of discovery and exploration that transcends the very fabric of space and time. From ancient Jiahu in China to the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, these stories will captivate you. " - Jeremy Umansky, Koji Alchemy 

    “A necessary book. Skinner has brilliantly combined practical, hands-on knowledge with historical context and anthropological themes for this treasure trove!” - Jenny Dorsey, chef, writer, and founder of Studio ATAO 

    “The recipes are fabulous, and by setting microbes in their historical and social contexts, Skinner makes this book a unique addition to the literature on fermentation.” - Ken Albala, professor of history, University of the Pacific 

    “Skinner weaves together ancient history with modern conversations about food security, inequality, and appropriation. In doing so, she has created a rich tapestry that illuminates fermentation’s place in the human experience — one that encompasses food preservation, flavor, health, and the intersection of human and microbial cultures.” — Kirsten K. Shockey, author of Fermented Vegetables and cofounder of The Fermentation School 

On Sale
Sep 27, 2022
Page Count
384 pages

julia skinner

Julia Skinner

About the Author

Julia Skinner is founder and director of Root, a fermentation and food history company that bridges the gap between modern people and historic food. She is the first food writer to be awarded two 40 Under 40 awards in the same year. Her work has been featured in VoxEaterBusiness Insider, and Buzzfeed, and she is the author of Afternoon Tea: A History (Rowman & Littlefield). She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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