I love kimchi, and I make kimchi at home a few times a year, usually in the autumn when Napa cabbage, hefty daikon radishes, carrots, garlic and chili peppers can all be found at the market in abundance.
I buy them by the case, taking advantage of discounted prices – cabbage for 75 cents a pound, carrots for a dollar. The farmers, who all practice organic methods and grow in mineral-rich soils, cut me a deal not only because I buy so much, but also because they know that when my pot of kimchi has fermented away, I’ll bring a quart to each of them. And my kimchi is good, really good.
A Good Kimchi Recipe
A good kimchi recipe balances texture, flavor and heat. Unlike homemade sauerkraut, where uniformity is the goal, a good kimchi is a dish of variety: chunks of radish and garlic, chili-flecked cabbage leaves and brilliant heat. Indeed, one of the first mistakes newcomers to kimchi make is to simply shred all the ingredients together and pound them away as they would any fermented vegetable dish, but the flavor and textural variety of kimchi rests on different cuts: chunks (not shreds) of cabbage, whole pickled strips of carrot and radish and hunks of good garlic. I typically serve kimchi in condiment-sized (1/4 cup) portions.
Benefits of Kimchi
Like all fermented foods, kimchi is extraordinarily rich in beneficial bacteria – those bacteria that line the gut and help to build our immune system, manufacture and assimilate vitamins. Kimchi is also a rich source of vitamin C and other antioxidants due not only to the ingredients in most kimchi recipes, but also due to the fermentation process itself which typically increases the antioxidants found in foods.
Kimchi, and other fermented foods, may also play a role in the mitigation of risks for metabolic syndrome. Several Korean studies found that those people who consumed the most kimchi (thereby adhering to their traditional diets) were the least likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome – a condition that is on the rise world-wide, but particularly in industrialized nations.
The Right Ingredients for Your Kimchi
I use Napa cabbage, Daikon radish, carrots and garlic in my kimchi recipe, and I season these vegetables with a paste made from fresh chili peppers (though you can use the leftover paste from homemade fermented chili sauce if you like), ginger root, fish sauce (which you can purchase at Asian grocers or online), unrefined sea salt and whole, unrefined cane sugar.
Unrefined cane sugar (which you can purchase at most health foods stores and online) helps to boost the microbial activity of the bacteria, providing them food as the kimchi ferments. It further enhances the flavor, softening the heat of the chilies without detracting from their taste. Don’t worry about residual sugar, as the beneficial bacteria will consume it; however, if it still concerns you, consider omitting the sugar and adding a shredded apple pear or green apple to the batch.
Unrefined sea salt, rich in minerals, helps to keep pathogenic and opportunistic microorganisms at bay while promoting an environment that keeps beneficial bacteria – those responsible for fermentation – happy and proliferating. You can find unrefined sea salt online (see sources).
The Right Equipment for Your Kimchi
When you begin fermenting foods, like kimchi, mason jars offer a good option; however, they are not ideal. Fermentation is an anaerobic process. That means the vegetables you ferment should not be exposed to air during fermentation as this can cause contamination by stray microbes and molds.
If you plan to ferment foods regularly, invest in a fermentation device equipped with a weight and an airlock (see sources) or a fermentation crock such as the Harsch, Polish or German sauerkraut crocks which you can purchase online (see sources).
These devices are intended for fermentation and their structure as well as the addition of weights (which keep vegetables submerged in the anaerobic environment of brine) and airlocks (which allow carbon dioxide to escape without allowing new air in) help to ensure that fermentation is more reliable in your kitchen and that your fermented foods are less likely to be contaminated by other microorganisms.
- ¼ lb ginger (peeled and cut into chunks)
- ¼ lb fresh chili peppers (trimmed of stems, seeded if desired)
- 2 tbsps whole, unrefined cane sugar (find it here)
- 2 tbsps fish sauce (find chemical-free fish sauce here)
- ¼ cup unrefined sea salt (divided)
- 2 large heads Napa cabbage (chopped into large chunks about 2 inches by 2 inches)
- 1½ lbs carrots (scraped and cut into finger-length sticks ¼-inch thick)
- 1½ lbs daikon radish (scraped and cut into finger-length strips ¼-inch thick)
- 8 heads garlic (peeled and chopped)
- Place ginger, chili peppers, sugar, fish sauce and 1 tbsp sea salt into a food processor. Process until you form a smooth paste.
- Place chopped cabbage into a large mixing bowl, sprinkle with remaining sea salt and cover with warm (not hot) water. Stir until sea salt dissolves and allow the cabbage to sit for twenty to thirty minutes. Drain the cabbage and pat it dry.
- Place the cabbage, carrots, radish and garlic in a large mixing bowl. Spoon in the chili and ginger paste you prepared in step #1 and toss to coat.
- Transfer the mixture, cup by cup, into a gallon-sized vegetable fermenter or fermentation crock (available here) and pound down with a wooden spoon until the vegetables release their juice. Continue layering and pounding until all the vegetables have been transferred to the crock. Pound again until the vegetables have released all their juice and the level of brine fully covers the vegetables and that the vegetables rest within one inch of the crock's lip.
- Weight the vegetables down with your crock's weight or a small sterilized stone, cover and ferment at room temperature for at least one week before trying the kimchi. If you prefer a sourer flavor, ferment longer. Transfer to the refrigerator when the kimchi has reached the desired level of sourness where it will keep for at least six months.