I recently read three somewhat related books: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Each of the three is sort of a cookbook, and sort of not. That is, they all contain recipes, but there's an awful lot of reading that goes with those recipes in order to understand the what and why. The three books tend to quote one another, and the authors clearly draw on one another's work.
I LOVED Katz's previous book, Wild Fermentation. I've gone crazy over fermentation in my own kitchen. Wild Fermentation is now practically a bible. I can't even loan it out to friends because I use it so much. And I think that I loved it so much that no matter what Katz came up with next, it would be a let down.
The Art of Fermentation is a different beast than Wild Fermentation. It's still Sandor Katz and it's still lots of fermentation. But it has a cleaner, more professional look to it, and it's a thick, hardcover book. Where it excels is in its thoroughness in describing all kinds of fermentation from all over the world. Who ever knew that you could make pickles in rice bran like the Japanese do?? Wow!
In my own kitchen, the section that helped me the most was the one on making miso. Buying good miso is horribly expensive. I'd like to make it. There's a way you can do it that takes a year... or you can do it in a way that takes a month. To make miso, you need something called koji. Buying koji, it turns out, is also stupid expensive. But making koji is affordable. Thanks to Katz's impressive work in The Art of Fermentation, I've got a $3.00 packet of koji cultures that came in the mail yesterday and a large amount of barley to use it with.
That said, I think Wild Fermentation is a better book for fermentation novices. In Wild Fermentation, Katz gives exact recipes. In The Art of Fermentation, he mostly doesn't. He describes how to make each ferment... but for me, as an unsure beginner, that's not enough. I was frustrated that I could read about all of these interesting new fermentation ideas and yet lacked enough information to make them myself. And maybe I don't lack enough information, I just lack confidence. Because it's a horrible feeling to start out fermenting something, knowing that there's a very real chance you're accidentally going to take a bunch of expensive, good food and make it rot.
The one very nice addition he does provide is section in each chapter on solving problems with fermenting, provided in a nice Q&A format. I haven't had a need to use it yet, but no doubt I will.
Another frustration I had with this book is that it's almost simultaneously too much and too little information all at once. He takes on every single type of fermentation known to mankind, it seems, but there's no way that one single book can provide every single detail on huge, complex topics ranging from cheesemaking to winemaking to beer brewing all at once. I can skip on the wine and beer, but I would have appreciated more information on dairy ferments. And no doubt other reads are the exact opposite. It's impossible to be all things to everybody, and the book seems to try and fail.
I think I like the book best if I think of it as a very successful ethnography of fermentation around the world instead of as an instruction manual to use for all things fermentation-related in the kitchen.