This Thursday, the Food Literacy Project hosted Alex Lewin (AB ’90) and author of Real Food Fermentation. Alex taught a class on fermentation fundamentals that ended with participants making a pint of sauerkraut to take home. Before the event, we asked Alex a few questions.
FLP: How did you get started with fermentation?
A.L.: The first time I had kimchi it was shocking–it was so unlike most foods that people eat in the west. I decided I would learn to make it. I found a kimchi recipe on the Internet and started making it. At the time, I didn’t understand much about fermentation, so I didn’t completely understand that it’s fermentation that’s responsible for the sourness of kimchi (and other things).
Some time later, I read Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation”, and that’s when I was able to start putting the puzzle pieces together. It all started to make sense.
FLP: Why is fermentation worth trying?
A.L.: Fermentation is a form of alchemy. We use invisible forces to transform culinary elements. It’s fun, and it also gives us a sense of magic and control that we may not get from other parts of our lives.
FLP: How has fermentation changed from when our grandmothers were pickling? Do you think people are fermenting for different reasons?
A.L.: Before the 1950s, or certainly before WWII, people in the US fermented so that they would have vegetables all winter long. The modern industrial food supply chain did not exist in its present form. So people fermented for nutritional reasons.
Today, there are still folks in the US who ferment so that they will have vegetables for the winter. But a lot of the newcomers to fermentation are doing it for other reasons–more culinary, political, philosophical, or spiritual. There’s also a newfound understanding of the nutritional benefits of live fermented foods.
FLP: How does the American culture of fermentation compare to fermentation in other countries?
A.L.: Our food culture in the US is quite young. All of our persistent fermenting traditions are imported–mostly from Europe. Think cheese and sauerkraut, beer and wine and hard apple cider, bread. Other countries have longer traditions. But I also think there’s a lot of innovation happening in the US around fermentation. Witness the recent wave of fermentation books, the kombucha craze, and places like http://www.cultureclub101.com/ that specialize in fermentation.
FLP: What are some of your favorite flavors to use in fermentation?
A.L.: Parsnips. Burdock. Hot pepper.
FLP: Fermentation ranges from the simple to complex, from basic refrigerator pickles to year-long experiments. What are some of those year-long labors of love?
A.L: Miso is one of the most interesting and tasty. It is traditionally made with soybeans, but is frequently made with other beans. Preserved lemons can benefit from sitting for a super-long time as well.
FLP: Can you include a foolproof recipe that’s a good way to start fermenting?
In fact, I’ll link to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago:
That post contains the details. And as you might imagine, my book contains even more details! But in short: (1) Get a cabbage, 2 tsp of salt per pound of cabbage, a cutting board, a mixing bowl, a knife, and 3 or 4 wide-mouth pint jars. (2) Slice or shred the cabbage. (3) Massage cabbage and salt together vigorously with your hands in a big mixing bowl until it’s juicy. (4) Stuff it into the jars without mercy, until the liquid rises, leaving an inch or so of space at the top. (5) Let it sit on the counter for 4 days – 4 months, burping it every day for the first few days. Done: sauerkraut!
Thanks so much, Alex, for the interview and the great class!