Fermentation expert Alex Lewin has a message in a bottle


Fermentation refers to the action of microbes, or invisible tiny bacteria, yeast, and fungi —microorganisms, and the action of those on food. It sounds scary, until you realize that three-quarters of our favorite foods are fermented, like wine, beer, and yogurt. And just a whole lot of other things, like sauerkraut and kimchi.

Humans have been fermenting food, sometimes unintentionally, but then also intentionally, for thousands of years, as a way of preserving food. Any kind of cheese or yogurt or sour cream or anything like that is fermented.

What led you down the fermentation route?

I have a math degree, and then I worked in the tech industry. Then I got really curious about health and nutrition, I got really curious about food, and I went to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. All of that came together. I call myself fermentation writer and educator.

Why fermentation? I mean, you hear about veganism, you hear about vegetarianism, you hear about macrobiotic diets. There are so many different eating styles. What was it about fermentation that really appealed to you?

Part of it, honestly, is political. In high school, I was frustrated by the world I saw around me. I felt powerless to change it. I felt like all the politicians were liars — usual teenage stuff. And, you know, many years later, I realized that revolutions start with changing your own life. And I view fermentation as a way to take control over your own food reality and reduce your reliance on the industrial food juggernaut.

I don’t know how political you want to make your article, but you can frame it as a way of increasing your own independence and resilience in the face of who knows what’s going to happen to our infrastructure. We almost lost our infrastructure during COVID.

Aside from that, fermenting is a way to make delicious things and to commune with the world of the invisible in a way that I think is satisfying a spiritual level. For me, part of this is culinary, clearly, because I have a food and a cooking school background, but part of it is political. And part of it is sort of spiritual, if that doesn’t sound too weird.

What are the benefits of fermentation? Why is this a good thing?

A lot of what happens during fermentation is that carbohydrates like sugars are transformed into healthier things like acids, vitamins, and enzymes. So, with cabbage, for instance: Raw cabbage is notorious for giving people gas. Fermentation sort of pre-digests outside of our body. The gas happens before we eat. And then, it also creates more vitamins and creates enzymes that help us digest things in general. Proteins get broken down into things that are easier to digest. Sometimes fats do, too. So things are easier to digest and more nutritious. That’s a very short version.

From a political or social point of view, we decrease our reliance on the global food infrastructure. That sounds very abstract: But if you look around the world at what’s been happening, not just in the last 10 years but in the last, you know, thousands of years, when there are exceptional events like hurricanes and wars and pandemics, supply chains just don’t work the way they used to.

Refrigerators are kind of a new thing. It’s 20th century. And, before we had refrigerators, we needed a way to store local food. If you don’t have a refrigerator, what are you going to do with your cabbages? Historically, the answer has been to ferment them. By doing this ourselves, rather than buying it at the store, not only do we save money, not only do we have control over what we’re eating, but we also increase our resilience in case something weird happens.

What is the best way to support the fermentation movement as a civilian consumer?

I love that question. Make your own sauerkraut. I’ll just go right there. And, you know, if you have a cabbage and a knife, a jar, and some salt, you can do it. Anyone who has ever cooked anything, I think, has a pretty good shot at making sauerkraut. There’s an organization in Boston called Boston Ferments. There have been a few Boston Fermentation Festivals. There are other organizations. like the Fermentation Association.

You have a fermentation retreat coming up on June 10 at the Farm at Woods Hill.

It’s going to be an all-day fermentation class. There’s going to be yoga, hiking, and a farm tour. And, importantly, most of the things that we’re making in the fermentation class, we’re going to try to work into the menu for the weekend. We’ll make kimchi, and then we will have some dishes using kimchi. … Fermentation, most of all, is fun. It’s going to be a hands-on workshop. It’s a little tricky talking about making fermented foods, because a lot of it has to sit around for a few days or a few weeks. But there’ll be a bit of, you know, we make it. And then voila! Alex pulls out a jar of something he made three weeks ago.

For the uninitiated: What is the act of fermentation? Let’s use sauerkraut as an example, because that’s common.

So, if you as a human are going to ferment something, you need to create conditions that are favorable for the particular microbes that you’re trying to seduce to do your bidding. In the case of sauerkraut, what that means is creating an environment with the right amount of salt and the right amount of air, which is none, basically — no air and 2 percent salt by weight, something like that.

If you have a pound of cabbage, then that works out to about two teaspoons of salt. You chop the cabbage, you add the salt, you massage it in order to work the salt into the cabbage. Then you put it into a fermentation container. I typically use glass mason jars just because they’re easy to get. You can transport them; they’re terribly useful for all sorts of things. They’re nearly indestructible. I mean, I’ve destroyed them before. Anyway, then you just let it sit. Because you’ve created that environment with the salt, and with not much air, the microbes take care of the rest. In particular, there are a couple of families of bacteria that turn cabbage and salt into sauerkraut. And you don’t need to add vinegar. You don’t need to do anything else.

What’s your diet like?

I have a few fermented things every day. I’ve kind of a weird diet by normal US standards. I’ll drink a lot of water first thing in the morning, and I will often have a small glass of kombucha in the morning. I then try to have a fermented vegetable of some sort every day — but I’m talking about small, like a few mouthfuls. You don’t need to go big with this stuff.

The other health aspect of fermentation that I hadn’t mentioned yet is that the microbes that help digest the food outside of your body also help you digest the food inside of your body. Just getting a little bit of sauerkraut into your body will help you digest all sorts of things. You don’t need a lot. So maybe some kombucha, maybe some sauerkraut, or kimchi. I do have a favorite [kombucha], which is called Dr. Hops. I’m affiliated with that company, so that’s my disclaimer there. But it’s a nice thing. Beer’s filling; wine is sort of grown up. Hard cider is, to me, a little joyless, but I don’t want to judge people. If I’m only going to have one drink, I want more flavor. I do eat animal products, a fair amount of dairy, and almost all the dairy I have is fermented.

How do you feel, health-wise?

My digestion runs like a clock. My skin is pretty good. I think I don’t look my age. I just don’t have a lot of health problems.

You know, these are very complicated topics, and it’s hard to have direct cause and effect. It’s hard to say I do this, then this happens. There’s so many factors, but yet, I eat a lot of fermented foods, and I’m pretty healthy, and there may be a connection. I’ve talked to people who’ve started drinking kombucha, and it’s cleared up things like acid reflux.

What are your favorite restaurants?

I do love Woods Hill. There’s a ramen place in Central Square in Cambridge called Muku Ramen. There’s a Thai place called the Mad Monkfish. But I prefer to eat at home when I can, because then I know where my food is coming from. I’m very picky about where my meat comes from. I like to cook things, because then I have control over what’s in them. … The cleaner you can eat, the better.

Where do you buy your food?

My first choice is a farmers’ market if I can. Realistically, I live a block from a Whole Foods. I get my meat from a service called ButcherBox that has sustainable, humanely raised local meat. And I will ferment my food. So, when I need a jalapeno, I go to my jar of fermented jalapenos and pull it out, rather than having to go to the store and buy one. The same with herbs and spices; you can preserve herbs and spices and use them. Again, in the old days, people didn’t have refrigerators and they didn’t have supermarkets.

I try to buy organic when I can. When you’re buying organic food, you’re not only getting better food for your health, you’re also supporting producers who might have better practices. They might treat their workers better. There’s the whole social justice angle. You’re investing money in food producers. You buy organic not only because you don’t want the pesticides in your body, but because you don’t want the pesticides on the planet. If you frame it that way, then maybe you won’t complain about the extra 50 cents for the organic strawberries or something like that.

What’s your guilty pleasure food?

I’m a sucker for chocolate. I find myself eating Tony’s Chocolonely.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.





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