On the Making of Kimchi

February 15, 2011

in Food

kim chi

For a number of years now I’ve been making big batches of kimchi in the wintertime. I make it when the big heads of chinese cabbage start to show up in the farmer’s markets, sometime just before Christmas, and it lasts me in jars through to the spring. Like jam and pickles and applesauce, kimchi is one of the seasonal foods I look forward to making and putting away every year, and one that I give away to friends.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle. Although you can make kimchi from a variety of vegetables, kimchi is most commonly associated with cabbage.

Stories abound of how the Koreans bury their kimchi pots in the ground in the fall and dig them up again in the spring, when the kimchi has well and truly rotted. I think westerners tell these stories because kimchi can have a very strong taste and smell, and that can be scary to a western palate used to blander food. Describing kimchi as a sort of zombie food that must be disinterred to be eaten seems to explain its more exotic and terrifying qualities.

Kimchi is not rotten. Like saukraut, kosher half-sour dill pickles, kefir, and sourdough starter, true kimchi is a fermented food. Although kimchi has a lot of chile pepper in it, its strong taste and smell comes mostly from natural yeasts and bacterias that develop over time in the mixture of vegetables in the pot. The kimchi pot does not need to be buried. Koreans traditionally buried the pot for the same reason root cellars exist; its easier to moderate the temperature of food underground if you don’t have artificial heating and cooling.  No one does that any more.

This is how I make kimchi, based on a bunch of recipes I found on the internet years ago and adaptations I have made over the years. It requires about 45 minutes of actual work and 5-10 days of very casual tending. This isn’t an exact recipe, because I don’t precisely measure anything. My kimchi is different every year because of the amounts of things I have on hand and also because fermentation is not an exact science. There’s no way to duplicate it every time, to make it perfectly safe and uniform. That’s why it’s so special.

You Will Need

To make kimchi you will need:

1 3-4 lb head of chinese (napa) cabbage, chopped into 1-inch pieces
Salt
Water
1 small bunch of mustard greens, chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped into 1-2 inch lengths
1 Daikon radish, grated, about a cup
1 carrot, grated, about a cup
1 1-inch section of ginger, grated
1 head of garlic (yes, I said a head. 4-5 big cloves, 7-8 small cloves), peeled and sliced thin
A little sugar
A little salt
1/3 cup of Korean powdered chile pepper
Some kimchi from a previous batch
A little water

The first time I tried to make kimchi I used plain western cabbage and cayenne pepper. Both of these were bad ideas. Western cabbage has entirely the wrong texture. Kimchi is not korean spicy coleslaw. Seek out real chinese cabbage, otherwise known as napa cabbage.

Make sure you also get actual korean powdered chile pepper. I tried using cayenne pepper and was surprised that my kimchi was too hot to eat. Kimchi is mildly spicy-hot, but most of the strength and the depth of the flavor comes from the fermentation, not from the peppers. I also tried other chiles and found that nothing tasted right until I actually went to a Korean market and got Korean chile powder. There’s something about the terroir. Fortunately, a huge jar of Korean chile pepper only costs a couple bucks.

You can get mustard greens from large fancy grocery stores these days, or from any Asian grocery. Don’t use the stems. You can leave these out if you can’t find them, but I find they really add an interesting taste.

Step 1. Salt

This step is optional. Salting the cabbage helps it release some moisture. You’ll end up with a limper less crunchy kimchi. I think it helps the kimchi ferment faster. If you’d prefer a more vegetable-tasting, crunchier kimchi, omit this step.

Layer the cabbage with salt in a big bowl or a plastic tub and cover with water. The water should taste slightly salty, like seawater. Add more salt if necessary Let sit for 4-5 hours, or overnight. Drain and rinse.

Step 2. Mix

kimchi step 1

Add the cabbage and all the remaining ingredients to the largest bowl you own and mix them all together. I like to mix the vegetables first with my hands, and then add the chile powder and a little water with a big spoon.

kimchi step 2

If you don’t have kimchi left over from a previous batch, that’s OK. You add a few spoonfuls to this batch as a “starter” to get this batch going faster with the right bacteria for the fermentation.

Step 3. Ferment

kimchi step 3

After mixing everything together, I put the kimchi into a tub and leave it out on the back porch to ferment. I used to use a stoneware pickle crock or glass half-gallon mason jars for this, but recently I discovered these food-safe plastic restaurant tubs and they’re a lot easier to keep clean and haul around. Don’t seal the top; you need it open a crack to let the good critters in there to do their work. Open in and stir it once a day or so.

How long you leave the kimchi out to ferment depends on how strong a taste you like and how nervous you are about letting food sit around unrefrigerated. A day or two in cool weather and you’ll get a very mild flavor, a crunchier kimchi, and you’ll still be able to taste the vegetables. A week in the sun and the kimchi will develop a spicy, sour, intense flavor, and look more pickled.

Why out on the porch? As the kimchi develops the smell will get stronger and more powerful, and an open jar of it can spread all over your kitchen like chemical warfare. I happen to like the smell, but others in your household may not agree.

Needless to say that if your kimchi turns a funny color or grows mold then your fermentation has failed and you should throw it out. I have never lost a batch but I can see it happening.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Most of the years I made kimchi I only left it out for a few days. This last year I forgot about it entirely and rediscovered it out on the porch after ten days. I opened the jar and leaned over for a look and all the skin on my skull melted right off, like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That was some really great stuff.

{ 5 comments }

1 Fawn February 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm

It was awe-inspiring kimchee.

2 Mary February 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I have to tell you, I love your presentation.
I have only recently discovered Kimchi. I bought a jar at a Whole Foods store and fell in love after only a couple of bites. I did, However, learn the hard way, to start out eating only a tablespoon or two, at the most, per meal at first, for you colon’s sake. I ate about 1/2 cup and could have gone the next day for a colonoscopy. (*-*)
I looked up ‘Making Homemade Kimchi’ on the internet and read a lot of recipe’s and comments. I decided I wanted to make my own, and just see how it would turn out. Wow, am I glad I did.
Some things I want to share is; I do use just plain cabbage, because where we shop they haven’t had Napa; and I also use cayenne pepper. I have learned to use less, but I have enjoyed my Kimchi a lot. I use 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons, and I put it in about a quarter cup of water and make a paste. I coat the cabbage with this paste before I add the other vegetables.
ALSO, I use just plain ole radishes, and I peel them. Last, but not least, I don’t use sugar. I use a peeled firm apple or pear and a whole sweet onion, pureed together with a cup of water. It looks like applesauce.
I would not soak the green cabbage more than 5 – 6 hours. It becomes too limpy/mushy.
Since I read that you prefer not soaking your cabbage at all, I may try that next time.
I like the Kimchi to be crunchy.
Thank you for sharing your recipe and comments with the rest of us ‘do it yourself’ seekers.

3 Mary May 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

I just made my first batch of Kimchi last weekend. I had been wanting to include cultured veggies in my diet after reading about the probiotics, etc. I did use Napa cabbage from the Farmer’s Market, but used a few pinches of cayenne since that’s what I had instead of the “red pepper flakes” you’re supposed to use. I tried a bowl fresh after making it and it was really good. I am letting it sit now; it’s been about 3 days.

Do you have to seal it while it ferments? I put mine in a glass jar, but didn’t tighten the lid much for fear of it exploding. Does it need to “breathe” or not? Will it go bad if I don’t seal the jar tight?

4 Anne January 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm

I am excited to try your kimchi recipe. In fact, I am going to include veggies in my garden this year that will make good kimchi though I will forgo radishes and ginger as I can get them at the market and rarely eat them ouside of kimchi. If I make a big batch and put it in jars, can I store them in my garage fridge for say, 6 months?

5 laura January 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm

The batch of kimchi I made in this post? I’m still eating it. Almost done with the jar, and time to make more. Yes! It lasts a long time, although it gets mushier over time.

It’s not necessary to either seal or not seal the jar. I leave the top open while the kimchi is fermenting so that it is open to air, but I put it in plain mason jars after its done, and those have screw lids. It’s all good.

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