I’ve got a special treat for you today!…
An interview with a food wizard: Alex Lewin, who is the author of the incredible book Real Food Fermentation.
On top of this, because it’s the season to be jolly and, more importantly, because I really appreciate you visiting my blog and I want to help you as much as I can overcome your own constipation, I will be giving away a FREE copy of Real Food Fermentation!
So how can you win this free copy?
Sign up for my FREE newsletter. Easy! Just whisk yourself over to the right hand side of the page and enter your name and email address in the “Subscribe To My FREE Newsletter” box. After this I’ll send you a little confirmation email… make sure you open the email and click the confirmation link in it or else you won’t be in the draw to win Alex’s AWESOME book.
If you are already signed up to my newsletter, no problem!… you’re automatically in the draw for your chance to win!
Ok, let’s get on with Real Food Fermentation and the interview with Alex!…
I gotta say, Alex’s book is absolutely gorgeous.
It’s the best ‘fermenting food’ book I’ve ever come across; brilliant recipes, exquisite photographs, step by step instructions, and his passion for fermenting food radiates throughout every page.
It’s a book that I have bought many times to give to my friends as a gift and every one of them has loved it!
Adding probiotics into my diet through fermented food was one of the key decisions I made that enabled me to cure my constipation for good. In fact, fermented food featured consistently in traditional diets all around the world. Is it any surprise that constipation is referred to as one of the primary ‘diseases of modern civilization’ whilst at the same time fermented foods can hardly be found in our Western culture?
Hmm, I think there could be an powerful connection there!
So let’s get on with the interview! Here you go!…
Hi Alex, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the Real Food community?
I studied math in college. I got interested in nutrition in the 1990s, after a friend suggested I stop drinking coffee and gave me an Andrew Weil book to read. I think I assumed that health was a subject like the ones I had studied in college, where there was broad consensus among the experts–where I could read whatever books I wanted on the subject, and end up knowing more than when I started. Wrong! Each book I read about health told me something different, sometimes contradicting previous books. And unlike, say, physics, where there was broad general agreement about the fundamentals, even if the edge cases were still up for grabs, in nutrition, people didn’t even agree on fundamental things like meat vs. no meat, low fat vs. low carbs, etc. I would read one book on health and nutrition–parts of it would make a lot of sense and other parts would seem completely arbitrary. Then I would read a different book, and different parts would make sense, but the rest would be ridiculous.
At the same time, my father had been suffering from heart disease, and in retrospect, I think this was another part of what drove my exploration of nutrition–some combination of frustration on his behalf, and fear that I would follow in his footsteps if I didn’t take charge of my own health.
Fast forward to the late 2000s. I started a “sustainable food book club” with my partner at the time, Deborah (who wrote a fabulous book last year that I would like to recommend: Walk Out Walk On). Our group read books about food sustainability, pretty broadly. The list of books we read is here. Each of them influenced my food journey, to a greater or lesser degree.
The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved fundamentally changed the way I look at food and food systems, more than any other book that had come before. It should be required reading for high school students, so they can read it when they’re still malleable. It is a very important book about the relationship among industry, government, and people who eat.
And Nourishing Traditions, the work of Sally Fallon, Mary Enig, and Weston A. Price. When I read the first 70-some pages of Nourishing Traditions, the part about nutrition, it all made sense in a way that nothing had before. All the pieces started to fall into place. It was like the other books I had read were all dancing around a tree and scratching at it, while NT was climbing up that tree. (Weird metaphor perhaps.) NT resonated with me, and it also helped me put everything else I had read into context.
I started a blog, http://FeedMeLikeYouMeanIt.com/, because I felt like I had something to say about food, although I wasn’t quite sure yet what. Then I went to a Fourfold Path to Healing conference, and then a Wise Traditions conference, where I met other real food bloggers. By then I was well on my way!
When did your passion for fermented foods enter your life and what is it about fermented foods that drew you in?
The first thing that got me was kimchi. Kimchi was unlike anything I had eaten before. It was spicy, garlicky, sour, and kind of strange. I loved it. I started making it, with a recipe I found on the Internet.
Later on, I read another of Sandor Katz’s books, Wild Fermentation, and that helped me understand why the kimchi recipe worked the way it did, to start. More generally, it gave me a framework for understanding and explaining fermentation.
I love the idea of invisible forces at work, changing your food from one form to another. It’s like alchemy, or magic. I also love that we can do this ourselves, often without anything more than salt. We don’t need corporations or factories or governments or exotic chemicals to help us with our food. If for some reason supermarkets ceased to exist, we could still make sauerkraut, as long as we had access to cabbage and some way to shred it.
How does fermenting work?
Microbes (usually bacteria or yeasts, sometimes molds) act on food (usually carbohydrates) and change them–bacteria transforming carbs or alcohol into acid, and/or yeasts transforming carbs into alcohol). These transformations often have other, sometimes subtle side effects and by-products, often beneficial. If you create the right conditions, then the microbes will improve your food in one way or another–make it more shelf-stable, more nutritious, more digestible, tastier, or all of the above! Where bacteria are involved, one of the things that generally happens is that your food becomes acidic. This makes it less hospitable to bad microorganisms, thereby helping preserve it.
What benefits have you personally seen in your health and those around you eat fermented food regularly?
As far as fermented foods go, on any given day, I might have a bottle or two of kombucha, a cup or a bit more of plain, full-fat yogurt, and a few forkfuls of sauerkraut or kimchi or perhaps a pickle.
I’m often changing something in my diet, changing something in my routine, and frequently traveling. (For instance, I’ve been eating very low-carb for a month or so.) And my understanding of food and nutrition is constantly evolving. Because of this, it’s hard for me to ascribe particular benefits to particular foods that I eat or things that I do.
But I will say that I’m a far healthier person than I was ten years ago. And my digestion is very good and very consistent. This was not always the case before. At some point I realized that I had trouble digesting pasteurized milk. Cutting that out helped a lot.
Fermented milk and raw milk are much, MUCH easier to digest (although for folks with specific, acute digestive challenges, it is probably worth eliminating dairy entirely, at least for a time).
I’ve had friends who have told me that yogurt and kombucha (two of the most readily available live fermented foods) have made big differences in their energy levels, their moods, and their sleep.
What kind of trial and error examples do you have from your experience with fermenting?
There’s definitely trial and error with what kinds of containers to use, for instance. I tried a large crock for making sauerkraut, and while it’s nice to be able to make a huge batch all at once, I don’t honestly need to make a big batch very often, so the rest of the time it just sits there on the counter. Plus it’s hard to clean, it doesn’t fit in the fridge so you wind up transferring to mason jars anyway, the “moat” can grow weird stuff if you’re not careful, etc. So I am a huge fan of plain old mason jars. They work great for me, they’re cheap, you can put them in the dishwasher, you can use them for other things, just easy. Different people have different experiences though.
More trial and error: I tried making fermented beets on their own, with no starter. My success rate was not great. Sometimes it got alcoholish, usually it got soft, it was just generally not great. So now I always use some starter (whey or sauerkraut juice), or else I ferment beets in conjunction with turnips or something else that’s less sugary.
Also, when making kefir with unhomogenized milk (whether raw or pasteurized), the milk fat separates out, and it can be hard to tell it from the kefir grains if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. My approach is to shake it regularly, so that the fat doesn’t have a chance to separate, and also to strain the grains out on the sooner side, like after 12-24 hours. At that point you can leave the kefir at room temperature and it will continue to ferment even without the grains. Then drink it or put it in the refrigerator as you like!
Any advice you can give people who are just starting out fermenting? Is it hard or easy?
Start with sauerkraut! It’s easy. I used to say that it was “foolproof”, but I’ve stopped saying that, because I don’t want folks to feel bad if they have a batch or two fail. Who knows–maybe it’s the bacteria that live on different people’s hands? Or maybe they’ve used antibacterial soap or detergent that has sabotaged their batches. But in general, sauerkraut is a great starting point.
Cucumber pickles are difficult. The timing can be critical. A day or two can make the difference between great pickles and soft, hollow, disappointing things. Err on the side of putting it in the fridge too soon–worst case you’ll get some salty crunchy cucumbers that are a little sour, which is not a bad thing.
Yogurt can be tough, too. Keeping something around 110 degrees for hours and hours is harder than it sounds. Kefir is much easier, because all you need to do is keep it at room temperature, which should be straightforward if you have a room.
What are the fermentation ‘need to know’ essentials
- Wash your hands, wash the jars, etc., but don’t obsess. (See the next point.)
- Don’t accidentally kill the microbes, through anti-bacterial soap, chlorine, or extreme heat.
- Use a temperature that’s appropriate for your project. Different things need different temperatures; see the instructions for your specific ferment.
- Use the best ingredients that you can get. Use natural sea salt, or plain kosher salt, but don’t use refined salt that has additives.
- Have faith!
Are there any dangers when it comes to fermenting?
The dangers of fermenting are generally the dangers of time, temperature, acidity, and oxygen. If you fail to create the right conditions for the “good” microbes to do their thing, then your food may not become acidic enough quickly enough, and may remain vulnerable to “bad” microbes for too long. The same kinds of things as when you leave vegetables or a loaf of bread out on the counter for too long–they’ll get moldy or yeasty. It’s generally quite obvious when things gone wrong this way.
Another danger (generally with yeast/alcohol/beverage fermentation, not quite so much with vegetable fermentation) is exploding jars. Fermentation usually generates carbon dioxide. If you are fermenting things in tightly sealed glass containers, you may need to burp them periodically.
You wrote Real Food Fermentation… Tell me all about it.
Hahahah! That question is so open-ended.
In the book, I talk about a lot of the kinds of things we’ve talked about in this interview. So if you, the reader, thought this interview was interesting, you would probably think the book was interesting, too. Plus I include recipes for a lot of fermented foods.
It’s a 172 page, 8″ x 10″ book with full-color, semi-glossy pages. It’s a cookbook with coffee table book tendencies. It has a binding that lays flat, so it will stay open to whatever page you open it to. It has a lot of full-color, step-by-step pictures for almost all the recipes. The photography is fantastic, and the graphic design is awesome. I can say this in all modesty since I was neither the photographer nor the designer!
It’s quite appropriate for folks getting started with fermentation. I focused on basic recipes, and on underlying principles. I wanted to take the fear and confusion out of fermentation.
Buy it for your favorite chefs for the holidays, then invite yourself over to their houses! It’s available at a lot of local bookstores, buy it directly from here.
Hope you enjoyed the interview!
Remember to make sure you sign up to my free newsletter for your chance of having a copy of Real Food Fermentation show up at your front door!
Best in health,
UPDATE : Congratulations to Judith Henderson who won a free copy of Alex’s book! Thanks for everyone who took part in the giveaway, and thanks to Alex Lewin once again.