I’m going to put these two books on the same page, because they seem like they need a side-by-side comparison. Both of these books are by Sandor Katz, also known as Sandorkraut, one of my new heroes. These books are beyond frequently quoted, and they are fiercely loved by the fermentation community. I’ve seen people ask which one they should get. The widespread and solid advice is to get Wild Fermentation first, because it contains the basic introduction and recipes. The Art of Fermentation is for when you’ve fallen in love with the subject so much that you wish to sit down and read stories about it, though you can use it to come up with your own recipes, or get recipes online.
Wild Fermentation is said to be the bible of fermented foods. I have seen this book referred to more than any other book on the subject, hands down. Part of this is because Katz is very well situated to write such a book. For one thing, he is descended from Jewish immigrants and has fond memories of the cultured pickles that are a part of his heritage. For another thing, he lives in a community of homesteaders, and is living the life that many of his readers only dream of (someday I too will get that land and live off of it… someday). This means he has years of experience with do-it-yourself projects, it’s not a hobby but a lifestyle for him. And finally, he has serious reason to be focused on maintaining his nutrition and immune system; Katz has been living with AIDS since the 1980s. (He stresses that cultured foods are not a cure for AIDS, but he feels that fermented foods have increased his vigor and ability to tolerate his medications that can be hard on his system.)
So, if this man with his vast experience on the subject says that these foods make him feel healthy and he has stuck by that conclusion for so many years, I’ll buy that as solid testimony.
Katz explains that these health benefits come from the fact that fermentation preserves nutrients that diminish when cooking, breaks nutrients down nutrients into more easily digestible forms, creates new nutrients (generated by microbial cultures), plus ferments can have an anti-oxidant action upon the body. Fermentation can also remove or decrease some toxins in foods, and the live cultures can highly benefit intestinal health. Improved intestinal health and more digestible food means that even without the added nutrients, fermentation is making us more efficient at gaining as much nutritional benefit from our food as possible. While nutrition itself will add vigor and make our bodies more resistant to disease, the microbial cultures also help strengthen our immune system by teaching it how to behave properly.
Katz explains all of this, and more, backed up by well-cited sources to provide a comprehensive argument of how fermented foods strengthen us and should be a part of every person’s diet (a small part of it anyway) on a regular basis. Thankfully, he then provides enough recipes and procedures for making your own cultured foods that you should be able to easily find a variety of ferments that are suited to your personal tastes (and that of your family, even if your stubborn son is seriously over picky).
The basic methods for culturing your own pickles opens up a wide variety right there from the start. Think of a produce isle, and think of the fact that everything you see there can be cultured as a pickle, by itself or in any combination, with added spices or not. Just sitting and thinking about it for a minute, I can come up with four or five varieties of sauerkraut that I’d like to try. Katz lists the basic method (achievable with inexpensive equipment, like empty pickle jars that fit inside of each other and a cloth to keep flies out) and various possibilities so you can come up with something that excites you, and then gives basic guidelines for making sure everything is going okay while you wait for it to culture. His style is simple, resourceful, and no-fuss.
Beyond kraut, pickled veggies and spicy kimchi in the produce section, you’ll find ferments for quite a few other isles in your grocery store. Dairy ferments (such as yogurt, buttermilk, and cheese, with vegan alternatives), bean ferments (such as miso, tofu, and dosa), grains (including sourdough, sprouted grain, and fermented porridge), vinegar, and drinks are included. Drinks aren’t just wine and beer (though they are in the book), but also non-alcoholic health tonic type drinks. This includes the popular ginger bug, kefir, kombucha, and kvass.
Most recipes do not require getting your hands on a culture. This isn’t always possible, as some cultures will require a starter (like keifir and kombucha), but more often than not the recipes rely on awakening microbial strains from within the vegetable or other food itself. This is the essence of wild fermentation, and is praised for producing cultures with a diverse microbial profile, with greater health benefits (especially to your immune system) than a single laboratory produced culture. Cultures tend to be heartier this way as well, as laboratory cultures often begin to produce inferior results after a few generations (requiring you to purchase more after a few uses), while wild cultures can be used again and again.
The Art of Fermentation is more for us geeky types who love to hear someone babble on and on about the science, folklore, or general concepts behind a subject that we love. For my copy, “hearing someone” is quite literal. I have the audiobook, and that’s perfect for me.
This book talks about fermentation in a general way, where you can just kind of wing it when you’re making up a recipe. It’s also much heavier on the concepts behind fermentation, and is very heavy on the history and culture of different fermented foods around the world. There’s also stories from individuals who have spoken or written to Katz about their personal experiences with different ferments, showing their own ingenuity and often family history.
As I said, I don’t have this in book form, but if I did this seems like the perfect type of book to read in bed or carry around with you during the day to read during lunch or when waiting for an appointment. Unlike most cookbooks, which tend to have me wanting to be near a kitchen or my recipe notebook with a pen, this book is meant to simply be enjoyed while you learn about something that interests you.
As an audiobook, this is working out great. I got it as a gift and was worried at first because I love audiobooks (reading a book and doing chores or errands at the same time is a cool trick) but I thought that I might have to stop a lot and take notes if this was like a cookbook with recipes. The book isn’t like that though, and I’ve had great fun listening to this while playing in my kitchen. It’s like a soothing voice is telling me stories about the food I’m working on, and I intend to listen to it again and again.
The voice actor, Sean Crisden, is enthusiastic and pulls me right into the book just as much as if he was sitting next to me telling me a really cool story about something that happened to his friend who made pickles. I kept forgetting that I wasn’t listening to Katz himself. In fact, at one point I really stopped and wondered. This is a hobby with a relatively small interest group (though it seems to be catching on). Chances were pretty likely that Crisden himself was relatively unfamiliar with fermented foods. I began to wonder what he thought of the book.
So I emailed him. I asked him if he was familiar with fermentation before reading the book, and what he thought of the book. I also asked him if it made him interested in making his own fermented foods. And he replied :).
While I am fairly familiar with fermentation and fermented foods, The Art of Fermentation really opened my eyes and sparked a renewed interest in both the foods and practice. Sandor did a wonderful job of capturing not only the history of the art of fermentation but coupled it with an entertaining mix of contemporary uses and explorations. It made me want to dive into my own fermentation recipes which alas (even under my current deluge of new year resolutions) I have yet to begin in earnest. I did however turn a ton of others on in my social circles to his book in particular to either begin or reinforce their own fermentation practices. I found it to be a fantastic starting point for the uninitiated.
He’s become a fermentation missionary, converting the masses. Cool.