We’re kimchi fiends around here. Well, I’m more of a kimchi friend, topping my rice and noodle dishes (bibimbap, anyone?) and eating leaves to alleviate indigestion. (More on that in a minute.) But husband? He’s the true fiend, plowing through jars of the stuff in a matter of weeks, sometimes days, especially when we have a good supply of it. He tops his eggs, soups, noodles, whatever he has with it, and eats the stuff on the side by itself regularly. It’s pungent, flavorful, and just the right amount of spicy for us.
But let’s start with the basics here: what the devil is kimchi, anyway? You’ve probably seen or heard about it somewhere by now, and perhaps seen it in jars or in restaurant vats. Maybe you’ve even smelled its unique aroma, and were either delighted or put off by it.
Kimchi is a Korean condiment/topping/pickle (it’s hard to pinpoint a word for it!): a mixture of salted, fermented vegetables (usually cabbage) and other seasonings, such as Korean chili powder (gochugaru), garlic, ginger, and salted shrimp.
Skeptical? Scared? Don’t be. That is, don’t be skeptical until you’ve tried it, and tried a few different versions. The best kimchi is deliciously pungent, and can be mild or spicy (so no worries if you’re a self-proclaimed spice “wimp”). You can even find vegetarian versions of the stuff if you’re not into the salted shrimp or fish sauce.
Now, some people might call kimchi’s aroma “stinky”; ignore those people, because they are hypocrites. They probably eat foods, like cheeses, yogurt, or eggs, that others would consider to be “stinky,” too. Heck, bread can have strong odors (rye toast, anyone?). Yes, kimchi has a strong smell, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not something that can smell delicious once you get used to it. Eat it. Try it. Form your own opinions. *mic drop*
Ahem. I used to buy kimchi from our closest Asian market, but that quickly got too expensive for our
kimchi obsession needs, and racked up waste. A good, small jar of kimchi cost anywhere between $6-$10, and often came in a plastic jar that was pretty useless after the kimchi was gone. Long story short, the Internet informed me that I could make my own kimchi at home, for cheap, and a large amount of it at a time, at that. I’ve made several batches in the years since then, and haven’t gone back to store-bought.
Now, I actually do recommend trying a good kimchi made by someone else at first, be that from a store or other trusted source (ideally, a Korean source). This way, you a) find out if you like it, b) know what it’s supposed to taste like, and c) find out what flavors and textures you would like in your own, should you go the homemade route.
What’s pretty fabulous about homemade kimchi is that you can use what grows near you (heck, even in your own backyard!) to make it. So, if you can’t find napa cabbage, or a particular radish or root vegetables, no worries: it works with what you’ve got. Our current kimchi is made with a mixture of kale, collard greens, and parsnips from our winter garden, and it’s excellent.
So, let’s talk a few things first before we dive into making the stuff.
First, fermentation. Our best foods, in my opinion, are fermented and aged: cheese, fermented pickles, wine, sourdough, you name it. Fermentation builds flavor, and kimchi has some serious flavor. Eating fermented foods also helps keep your gut bacteria in check. I swear by eating a bite or two of kimchi when my stomach is upset: the discomfort is gone within hours, sometimes less. Try it next time you travel, instead of shelling out a bunch of money on probiotic pills.
Secondly, safety. So you’ve decided to try making your own kimchi – great! You’ll be using clean, lidded glass jars to do so (plastic jars will forever take on the smell and taste of kimchi, and vice-versa). Fermentation builds up gases, which can, if not checked, burst open jars. Yes, that means flying shards of glass. I put it in the directions, but I’ll emphasize it again here: be sure to vent gases every day you’re fermenting the kimchi. This just means opening the lid at least once a day.
Thirdly, there are a few specialty ingredients you probably don’t have on hand: salted shrimp or salted shrimp paste, and Korean chili powder, or gochugaru. Both can be found at most Asian grocery stores, or ordered online. I haven’t experimented with local chili powders or other sources of umami besides the shrimp paste, but when I do, I’ll be sure to let you know!
Oh, and don’t do what I did and buy the first chili powder packet you see at the Asian grocery store. It was legit spicy Korean chili powder, and my mouth is still burning with the memory of that first batch of kimchi. Get gochugaru. Ask for help if you need it. Don’t be dumb like past me.
Lastly, use gloves throughout this process, both to protect your hands from scratching from the salt rub and the chili powder. You’ll thank me later.
I think that’s about it. Ready to dive in? Let’s kimchi!
Appalachian Garden Kimchi
Be sure to use kosher or pickling salt here: iodized or anti-caking salt will not allow for proper fermentation. You can, apparently, eat kimchi within a day or so of making it, but I’ve never let it ferment for less than two weeks. You do you.
you will need:
- 3-4 pounds cabbage, kale, collard greens, or a combination of greens, chopped into 2-inch pieces (you can include small stems here)
- 1-2 large daikon radishes, other radishes, carrots, or parsnips, or a combination, cut into thin matchsticks (about 1-2 cups)
- ¼-½ c chopped wild onion or green onion
- ¼ c kosher or pickling salt
- 2 tbsp salted shrimp (minced), salted shrimp paste, or fish sauce
- gochugaru (Korean chili powder) to taste (1-2 tbsp for mild, up to ½ c for a bit spicier)
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 tsp demerara sugar
- equipment: clean glass jars with sealing lids, gloves
- Prepping the cabbage: Wash the cabbage thoroughly with cool water and drain. In a large bowl, sprinkle the salt over the cabbage, and thoroughly combine the two ingredients by massaging and turning the cabbage with your hands until the salt is evenly distributed. Pour enough water into the bowl to cover the cabbage, top with a plate or pan to keep the cabbage submerged, and allow to sit for 1-2 hours. (Do not go longer than 2 hours, lest ye end up with soggy, mushy kimchi.) Rinse the cabbage thoroughly in a colander with cool water, and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes. Squeeze out excess water before mixing with the spice paste.
- Preparing the spice paste: In a small bowl, combine the shrimp paste, chili powder, garlic, ginger, and sugar until a smooth paste forms.
- Making the kimchi: In a large bowl, combine the prepared cabbage with the spice paste, being sure to thoroughly coat the cabbage with your gloved hands. (This usually takes me a good 5 minutes of turning and rubbing.) Mix in the wild onion and radishes.
- Fermentation: Pack the kimchi into clean pint or quart jars, pressing down to pack the vegetables under any brine that might have formed in the mixing process. (Green or napa cabbage, I’ve found, produces more brine than kale or collards.) Leave at least 1 inch between the kimchi and the top of the jar to allow for gas release and pressure. Seal jar with lid.
- Store the jars in a cool (not cold) area away from heat and direct sunlight. I’ve used my pantry, as well as a box behind my counter in the kitchen. This is where the magic of fermentation occurs: you can allow the cabbage to ferment anywhere between a day and a couple of weeks, being sure to vent the jars at least once a day to release gas buildup. Taste a bit of the kimchi every few days, and refrigerate once it’s to your liking.
I thought for a good lactic fermentation you need a salty, anaerobic environment… do the leaves no need stay submerged in the brine? Or is it not needed throughout the jar, so long as the leaves are covered in salt? Also, if you have liquid whey, you can add it to the mix… it also strongly encourages preferential proliferation of the lactobaccili (even oftentimes is already innoculated with them).
Finally, can I substitute an umami-ful bean paste, for the shrimp paste you put on the bill here?
Thanks for sharing, and here’s to both of us getting entry of firm-leaved crops in (and canned) this year!
They do not need to stay submerged throughout the whole process. I think of it like pasta – even if you rinse pasta cooked in salted water, the salt in the pasta doesn’t go away, so enough salt is likely left after brining and rinsing for fermentation. (This is my conjecture here, BTW.) I’ve read that leaving the leaves in salt too long can cause soggy, mushy kimchi, which is not something I want to risk. Plus, this method has been successful for my last two plus years of making kimchi, and I’m stickin’ to it!
I’ve heard about using whey, too! I haven’t tried it, but I might next time I make a batch of cheese 🙂
And as for vegetarian options, I think any salty, umami-rich paste or substitute (like kelp powder, or maybe even miso paste) would likely work. I haven’t tried any of these, mostly because we have a giant jar of salted shrimp in the fridge that needs using, but may also do so in the future when the shrimp runs out.
As always, thanks for reading and commenting! It’s always good to know the word is getting out. Go, fermentation!