As devoted fans of wine, it can be easy to overlook the rest of the food & beverage products that are also created through the simple process of fermentation. Sandor Katz’ hefty new book, The Art of Fermentation, serves as both a reminder and a reference. Anyone familiar with the slow food movement, the writings of Michael Pollan or the religiosity of raw veganism will already be familiar with Sandor. His first book, Wild Fermentation, filled with previously considered ‘wild’ ideas such as home-brewed kombucha, the effervescent fermentation of sweetened tea, brought an entire generation back in touch with their crockery.
Wild Fermentation is now recognized as an authoritative book on fermented foods, however, it is not far removed from its roots as a zine. Audiences more accustomed to Better Homes and Gardens styles of cookbooks might be slightly alarmed by vague timeframes (“Days, then ongoing” from Japanese Nuka Bran Pickles) or optional ingredients (“half can be another leftover liquid: soup stock, beer, sour milk, kefir, whey, or pasta or potato cooking water” from Recycled Grain Bread). And, as a simple black & white pressing from a small publishing house in 2003, there are no shiny, manicured photos. Additionally, concepts such as recycling food, resisting the commodification of culture or prison hooch might be somewhat frightening to the uninitiated, if not at least, unfamiliar.
Cut to The Art of Fermentation. Approachable in a sedate burnt orange cover & roughly the width of The Joy of Cooking, it does command a presence on your cookbook shelf. However, it is a handbook of techniques, not, for lack of a better term, a cookbook. If you’re already comfortable with the topics covered in any of the chapters, then his coverage of different cultures’ equivalent products will inspire you. For example, if you look up Sauerkraut in the contents, you’ll find traditions, folklore, personal anecdotes from friends and even another prison hooch story, but you will not find a recipe. For this, you have to return to Wild Fermentation where both measurements & instruction are provided for raw sauerkraut, low sodium variations as well as wine, savory seed & seaweed recipes. As another example from The Art of Fermentation, regarding honey mead, Sandor does not provide a bullet point recipe, but after eight pages examining various methods, he devotes an entire page plate on the herbs used by mead enthusiasts during a gathering. This is the stuff of recipe innovation & inspiration.
Both of Sandor Katz’ books on fermentation display an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge, including lengthy lists of citations and further resources. For the beginning fermenter, Wild Fermentation is a great start with straightforward recipes and enough anecdotes to encourage casual reading of its brief 166 pages. The The Art of Fermentation expands on these topics in prose form including methods of troubleshooting, commercial expansion & sanitation. Reading one chapter contains enough foundational knowledge to leave the reader with a comfortable basis to strike out on their own recipe. In this way, The Art of Fermentation simply requires a little radical self reliance.