Welcome to the wonderful world of fermentation. Below you will find step by step instructions on how to make kimchi. Before we get there, however, please read the general safety recommendations below. Fermentation is part science, part biology, part art, and part magic. It involves a transformation of elements that releases the nutrient potential of many foods, increases shelf life, and imparts an incredible array of flavours and textures. For many who grew up with the bland, soft flavours typical of a North American pallet trained by fast food, the pungent, earthy flavours of fermented foods can be off-putting or scary. The process, which at times involves skimming mould blooms, has an ick factor that is undeniable. You are nurturing a living creature, and in the case of ferments like sourdough, the starter culture can be quite old. I started my sourdough culture in 2004 and think of it like a pet. Feed it, give it a good home, and it will provide you with plenty in return. The more you understand about the process, the better care you can take of your new friend.
The following are influenced by Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation. This is an incredible book with so much information for the home fermenter and I highly recommend it if you end up catching the fermentation bug.
Cleanliness and safety. When you work with any food, you want to make sure that you follow common sense hygiene rules. Unlike traditional canning, sterilization is not required, but make sure everything is cleaned with hot soap and water. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization promotes traditional, non industrialized forms of fermentation as a way of increasing nutrition, reducing food waste, increasing food security, and decreasing harmful or anti-nutritional components in food. This is an ancient practice that, although not without risks, is generally considered very safe. Fermented foods may go “past their prime” and not taste good, but the acidic and alcoholic environments you have created is generally quite noxious to pathogenic bacteria. That said, be wise and use your nose and trust your gut. If it smells noxious, skim the top layer, sniff again, and if in doubt, throw it out.
Using the right equipment: Make sure you use the right equipment. Ceramic, glass, stainless steel or food-grade plastic. Do not use aluminium containers as they can leach metals when in contact with acid. Wide-mouth mason jars make for excellent vessels and allow you to keep your ferments going in stages. You can use a smaller jar to press the ferment below the surface of the brine.
Frequent tastings: there is no correct stage of ripeness. You need to be flexible and attentive. This is the beauty of fermentation—it tunes your body to a different world, to the microscopic exhalations and symbiosis of bacteria, fungus, and humans.
Salt: most fermentation uses salt to preserve food. This can be in the form of a brine, where salt is mixed with water, herbs, spices, and then vegetables are submerged and pressed down with a lid, or, as in the case with sauerkraut, the salt is used to draw out moisture. The more salt you add, the slower the ferment and the more sour the final product.
Lactobacilli: salt is used to inhibit the growth of noxious and pathogenic bacteria and favours the growth of lactobacilli. This is what preserves the food and gives it the wonderful, sour flavour.
Temperature: the ambient temperature of the room and fermentation vessel has a great effect on the speed of fermentation and so you must use your nose and tastebuds to judge the product. The warmer the room, the quicker the ferment. Sometimes you want this, other times you don’t.
Overall, you need to pay attention. Any recipe or technique is but a template. Follow the proportions, but keep in mind that the timeline will depend on many factors. The reason home ferments taste so much better than factory-created ones is because they take a skilled hand to make. Be patient and open to the living creature you are nurturing. Remember, it is alive and has a personality you must get to know. All the factors I mentioned above may change the timeline significantly, so your senses are your best friend. Taste frequently and take care of your friend.
To say that Kimchi is the national dish of Korea is an understatement. The average Korean eats 40 lbs of this pungent and incredibly nutritious dish every year. This dish perhaps the poster child of the benefits of fermentation. The combination of cabbage, radish, garlic, ginger and peppers is eaten with every meal in Korea, and research is showing it to have major effects including: “anticancer, antiobesity, anticonstipation, colorectal health promotion, probiotic properties, cholesterol reduction, fibrolytic effect, antioxidative and antiaging properties, brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion.” Many point towards Kimchi as a superfood and below you will learn how to make your own. The beauty of making it at home is that you can control the level of spiciness.
Timeframe: 1-3 weeks or longer
Equipment: 1 litre wide mouth mason jar, bowls, grater, knife, ziplock bag.
4 tablespoons sea salt
1 lbs/500 grams Chinese cabbage (napa or bok choi)
1 daikon radish or a few red radishes
1-2 onions or leeks or scallions
3-4 cloves of garlic
3-4 hot red chillies
3 tablespoons grated ginger
All of the spices can be adjusted to taste. Feel free to add more or less. Kimchi can absorb a lot of spice.
Mix brine by adding 4 tablespoons of salt to 1 litre of water. Stir well.
Coarsely chop cabbage, slice radish and carrots, and soak everything in the brine with a plate or Ziploc bag so that everything is submerged for at least a few hours and up to a day.
Once all of it is chopped put it into your container and soak in the brine for 12-24 hours.
Drain brine and reserve liquid. Taste the vegetables and make sure they are salty but not unpleasant. If too salty, rinse them. If not salty enough, add a couple of teaspoons of salt.
The next step is to prepare the pungent spice mixture. The amount you use here is up to you, and feel free to exclude the fish sauce if you are vegetarian or vegan. It does add some umami flavour, but I have made it plenty of times without.
Prepare spices: grate ginger, chop garlic and peppers.
Finely chop garlic or use a press to pulverize it. You want a paste.
Don't be afraid to use a lot if you can handle it. Kimchi can absorb a lot of garlic and ginger and it will mellow a bit with aging.
I like a lot of ginger. Tip, use a spoon to scrape off the skin.
Chop the green onions or scallions on an angle. Slightly bigger pieces will hold up better as they ferment.
Add red pepper flakes (to taste) and mix everything in a bowl, add fish sauce and make a paste. Add this to the cabbage and radish mixture and work it in.
Use gloves or tongs. This is a very spicy mixture and accidentally touching your eyes or visiting the bathroom could be a decision you regret. Press tightly into a clean jar or fermentation crock and if necessary, add brine to bring the water level up to the top. Weigh it down with another jar or Ziploc bag filled with brine.
This is my favourite method. Just use the salt portions in the recipe above and fill a ziplock bag with the brine and place it into the container.. You must keep the veggies under the level of the brine for proper fermentation.
Check the Kimchi every few days and skim the scum on the top. Don’t worry if you cannot get it all. Rinse off the plate, and cover.
After about a three weeks you can start to scoop out the kimchi and place in the fridge or eat as you want. It will change from day to day, eventually getting soft and mushy. Keep skimming and eating, but you want to inhibit the process before it gets too soft, the easiest way is to put it in the fridge. This allows you to have the benefits of the live culture, which will die if you try to heat process and can the product. You can put it in Ziploc bags and freeze as well if you simply have too much to consume. Enjoy the different flavours as it evolves.
Check out the following recipes for ways to use the dish.