My intro to traditional kimchi-making came in an unexpected way several years ago. (If you’re thinking this might get complicated, keep reading. The process is broken into several steps, and they’re seriously easy!)
So as I was collecting the ingredients to make pickled vegetables one morning at a small neighborhood market, I struck up a conversation with one of the owners. She mentioned that her method of pickling veggies included a spice typically used in kimchi, and it sounded quite good. Problem was, her small store didn’t carry said spice.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to make basic pickled vegetables anymore. I wanted to make kimchi. Problem number two–I had never made kimchi and hadn’t done my research. Undaunted, I drove straight to my favorite Asian market. The ingredients for kimchi are available at most large grocery stores these days, but I needed help. I needed Kha.
Kha and his family own the Asian market, and Kha graciously walked me through the steps used in his generations-old family recipe. For those who aren’t wholly familiar, kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made of fermented vegetables, the most common of which are napa cabbage and daikon radish. If you’ve ever dined in a Korean restaurant, you’ve likely eaten kimchi as a part of banchan–this is the name for the grouping of small dishes served alongside or in advance of the main meal.
With kimchi’s rising popularity, however, it is now enjoyed in a variety of nontraditional ways, from tacos to omelets, turkey sandwiches to cheese steaks. But your imagination can really be your guide. Try kimchi in place of pickles on a burger or stir some into fried rice. Add a spoonful to a baked potato with sour cream and fresh chives, or combine a hearty portion with almost any leftover grain for a quick and healthy lunch. When thought of as a tangy, sometimes spicy condiment, its versatility in everyday cooking becomes apparent–use it just like salsa or relish. When my jar of kimchi starts get low, I like to add some cooked rice and let it sit overnight or up to several days. The remaining brine is absorbed by the rice, giving it great flavor…and nothing goes to waste. And as with anything fermented, you get all those gut-healthy probiotics!
Korean red pepper powder, or gochugaru, is the spice that gives kimchi its characteristic color and flavor. It’s spicy, but not overly so, and the overall amount of heat can most definitely be adjusted to taste. Kha told me that he occasionally uses chili garlic sauce (pictured below) as an option to the traditional spice powder. I’ve stuck with the gochugaru since it’s easy to find and I love the flavor.
Keep in mind that kimchi needs time to ferment, so plan to start a batch at least a week before you plan to use it. Though it may take time, the process is quite easy.
- South Koreans consume 40 pounds of kimchi per person annually.
- Traditionally, kimchi was stored underground in jars to keep cool during the summer months and unfrozen during the winter months.
- In Korea, kimchi varies by season, region, and family based on the vegetables and spiced mixture that are used. Kha said that there are as many variations as there are Korean families!
On the nutritional side of things…
- The first step–soaking the cabbage in a salty brine–kills the harmful bacteria. In the second stage, the remaining Lactobacillus bacteria (the good-for-your-gut guys!) convert sugars into lactic acid, which preserves the vegetables and gives them kimchi’s characteristic tangy flavor.
- Predominantly made of cruciferous vegetables, kimchi is a good source of dietary fiber and is low in calories.
- One serving of kimchi provides over 50% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C and carotene. It is also rich in vitamin A, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), calcium, and iron.
Sources: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and Wikipedia
Yield: 7 packed cups (3 1/2 packed pint-size jars)
- 1 (2-pound) head napa cabbage
- 1/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt* (see notes)
- 1 tablespoon grated or minced garlic (about 3-4 cloves)
- 1 teaspoon grated or minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce***
- 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder (also called gochugaru****)
- 8 ounces (1 medium) daikon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 to 4 large carrots, peeled and sliced (I like thicker slices in the 1/2-inch range; may slice thinner)
- 4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- Cutting board and knife
- Large, non-metallic bowl
- Gloves (optional but recommended)
- Plate and something to weigh the kimchi down, like a jar or can of beans
- Small bowl
- Clean 2-quart jar with canning lid or plastic lid*****
Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters. (I leave the core in–it has crunchy appeal once fermented.) Cut each quarter crosswise into 1 to 2-inch-wide strips. Place the cabbage in a large bowl, and sprinkle it with the salt. Wearing gloves, if desired, massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit (1 to 2 minutes) and then add water (about 2 quarts, depending on dimensions of the bowl) to cover the cabbage. Put a plate over top, and use a jar or can to weigh the plate down. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
Once the cabbage has soaked, rinse it briefly under cold water and let drain in a colander for about 10 minutes. Rinse and dry the bowl that you used for soaking, and set it aside.
For the spice mixture: Using the back of a fork in a small, wide bowl, mash the garlic, ginger, and sugar together until a fairly smooth paste forms. Mix in the fish sauce and the Korean red pepper powder (gochugaru). For a spice level similar to a medium salsa, I recommend 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of the powder; adjust up or down according to taste, staying within the 1 to 5 tablespoon range.
Next, gently squeeze or shake any excess water from the cabbage, and return it to the bowl along with the radish, carrots, scallions, and seasoning paste. Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. (Gloves are optional but recommended to protect your hands from stains–and the spice sometimes irritates my skin.)
Pack the kimchi into a large jar or a crock. Press down on the kimchi until any liquid rises to cover the vegetables. More liquid (brine) will develop as the kimchi ripens. When using a container with a wider opening, I use a plate with a jar or can on top to weight down the kimchi. Cover with a lid.
Now you just have to wait. Allow the kimchi to stand at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. Bubbles may form and brine may seep out of the lid if using a jar that’s close to full. To catch any overflow, place a bowl or plate under the jar.
Check the kimchi once each day, pressing down on the vegetables with the back of a spoon to allow the brine to rise up and cover them. After a few days, taste some of the kimchi and when it tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer to the refrigerator. At this point, I usually transfer to several pint-size jars for convenient storage. (Just make sure to use a canning or plastic lid, which are non-reactive.) You may eat the kimchi right away, but the flavor will continue to develop. It’s best to be patient and wait another week–or two if you can. The refrigerator life of kimchi is at least month, but likely much longer.
- *Use salt that is free of iodine and/or anti-caking agents, which can inhibit fermentation. I like to use sea salt, but kosher salt is a fine option.
- **Chlorinated water has the potential to inhibit fermentation, so use spring or filtered water if possible. That said, I have rinsed the cabbage with tap water with no adverse effects.
- ***The flavor of seafood gives kimchi an umami flavor. In Korea, different regions and families may use fish sauce, salted shrimp paste, oysters, and/or other seafood. For ease and flavor, I like fish sauce. For vegetarian kimchi and an easy-to-find option, Kha suggests soy sauce.
- ****Korean red pepper powder can be found in Asian markets as well as in many larger grocery stores. It is typically sold in a bag and is not highly spicy. (I recently noticed that McCormick’s sell its own blend.) For more heat, you may use up to 1/3 cup of the chili powder. Kha sometimes uses about one cup of Asian garlic chili sauce in place of the red pepper powder and the garlic, and this is a great option if you cannot find the Korean chili powder..
- *****A great option to a large canning jar is the ceramic insert and lid of a crock pot. You could also use an actual crock or even a large casserole dish–narrow and deep is better than flat and wide–just make sure it is not metal (which may be reactive) and that it has a lid.
Kimchi is made by lacto-fermentation, the same process that creates sauerkraut and traditional dill pickles. The process begins by salting the chopped cabbage and letting it soak at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
Kha told me that he occasionally uses about a cup of chili garlic sauce (red jar, pictured above) as an option to the traditional spice powder. I’ve stuck with the gochugaru (red powdered spice, shown below) since it’s easy to find and I love the flavor.
Napa cabbage, daikon radish (the big white veggie, below left), and scallions are typical ingredients in kimchi. Cucumbers are sometimes used, and I love the addition of carrots.
The veggies can be chopped while the cabbage is soaking. Once the cabbage has been drained, rinsed, and drained well again, it can be mixed with the remaining ingredients.
The predominant flavor comes from the garnet red spice paste, which requires just five ingredients.
The kimchi can be packed into a large jar or a crock. (A bowl will work, too. Just make sure it’s non-reactive. I use a ceramic slow cooker insert.) Press down on the kimchi until any liquid rises to cover the vegetables. More liquid (brine) will develop as the kimchi ripens. When using a container with a wider opening, I use a plate with a jar or can on top to weight down the kimchi. Cover with a lid.
Now you just have to wait. Allow the kimchi to stand at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. You can start tasting in a few days and transfer to jars and refrigerate when the kimchi is ripe enough for your liking. Keep in mind that the flavor will continue to develop for weeks.