Vibrant with green onions, sweet and spicy Korean chili powder, garlic and ginger, this easy kimchi recipe is a great choice for newcomers to fermentation. All you need is a little patience, time and plenty of cabbage.
What is kimchi?
Kimchi is an iconic traditionally fermented Korean food of which there are hundreds of varieties. The most common variety and the one with which most people are familiar is made with Napa cabbage, salt and gochugaru (Korean chili powder). Cooks often flavor the basic recipe with garlic, ginger, and green onions.
Other kimchi recipes may use radish, cucumbers, zucchini or even fruit as the base instead of cabbage. While spicy, hot gochugaru makes an appearance in most varieties, you can exclude it to make a non-spicy white kimchi.
What are the benefits of kimchi?
Like all fermented foods and drinks, kimchi is a functional food that is vibrantly rich in beneficial bacteria. These bacteria help to support the immune system and digestive health.
Not only is kimchi rich in beneficial bacteria, it's also a source of key antioxidants since it is made from cruciferous vegetables, ginger, garlic and chilies all of which help support systemic health. As such, its rich nutritional profile likely contributes to the ways in which it supports cardiovascular, brain and metabolic health (1).
And while it's a functional food with myriad benefits, it's also incredibly easy to make at home.
Tips for Making Kimchi
Like sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, kimchi is fairly easy to make at home. But, before you dive in, it's wise to keep a few things in mind.
- Use glass weights. Glass fermentation weights help to keep the cabbage submerged in brine as it ferments. And that means there's a lower chance that your kimchi will mold or go bad. You can also tuck a cabbage leaf in the jar over the cabbage, to keep it safely beneath its brine.
- Use an airlock or fermentation seal. Part of the charm of kimchi is its fizziness, but if you prefer your kimchi without the bubbles, use an airlock or fermentation seal.
- Reserve the brine. Kimchi starts by soaking cabbage in salt water. Save the brine to make the seasoning paste, and just in case you need a little liquid to cover your vegetables while they ferment.
- Watch for signs of fermentation. Foaming and bubble formation are signs that healthy bacteria are at work on your kimchi, and a good indicator it's time to transfer it to the fridge to age.
Optimal Fermentation Conditions
Kimchi is one of many fermented cabbage dishes you'll find throughout the world. Other common cabbage ferments include sauerkraut and curtido. Unlike sauerkraut, where acidity is prized, the best kimchi is often much less acidic (2) - but still packed with flavor.
Traditionally, Korean home cooks prepared kimchi by first soaking cabbage in salt, then combining it with seasonings like garlic, ginger and chili. After letting it ferment a few days at room temperature (about 70 F), they'd bury the crock in the earth which kept it fermenting at about 50 F. That's about 10 degrees warmer than your fridge.
Now, special fermentation refrigerators are available to maintain those optimal conditions. That said, they tend to be difficult to find outside of Korea.
You can achieve that light acidity and optimally rich flavor by fermenting whipping up your kimchi recipe, and fermenting it for a few days at room temperature and then transferring it to the fridge to age for 3 weeks.
While researchers have found a that just a few days at room temperature followed by a few weeks in the fridge at roughly 39F produced optimal flavor (3), the test kitchen team at America's Test Kitchen disagreed. They found that fermenting kimchi at about 65 F - or the temperature of a cold room - produced the best flavor (4), likely demonstrating the difference between traditional Korean kimchi making and its Americanized counterpart.
Accordingly, it might be worth making a few batches to experiment so that you find the right flavor for you.
Another notable difference between most cabbage ferments and kimchi, is that kimchi is fizzy. Carbon dioxide builds up during fermentation as bacteria break down complex sugars and starches. An airlock, used with many fermented foods, allows that carbonation to escape.
With a traditional kimchi, you'll want to keep the carbon dioxide inside your jar so it becomes effervescent and bubbly. It's a similar practice that home brewers use to make fermented drinks like water kefir or kombucha fizzy. So seal your jar tightly with a plain lid.
How to make it
To make kimchi, begin first by soaking chopped cabbage in salt water. A few hours is sufficient, but if you have enough time to let it soak overnight, that's best. Soaking the cabbage in salt water allows helps to breakdown the cell walls, and gives it just the right amount of salinity for fermentation.
Blend up a spice paste of ginger, green onions, garlic and Korean chili powder, and toss the soaked cabbage in the paste until it's well-coated and pack it into jars.
Traditionally, most kimchi recipes call for fermenting at room temperature and then transferring it to cold storage - such as a root cellar - to complete fermentation. This temperature is typically higher than your fridge, but lower than room temperature. You can simply ferment the kimchi for a few days until signs of fermentation appear, and then tuck it in the fridge for a few weeks to age.
- 2 pounds Napa cabbage chopped into 1-inch pieces
- ¼ cup finely ground real salt
Finishing the Kimchi
- ½ lb Daikon radish julienned
- 6 green onions sliced thin
- quart-sized mason jar
- glass fermentation weight
- Place the cabbage in a large bowl, sprinkle the salt over the cabbage and toss it well to coat. Pour in just enough water to cover the cabbage by about 1-inch. Place a plate over the cabbage to keep it submerged, and let it soak in brine at least 4 and up to 8 hours, or until the leaves are limp.
- Drain the cabbage in a colander, reserving ¼ cup brine.
- Place the reserved brine and all ingredients for the paste into a food processor or high-speed blender, and blend until smooth and uniform.
- Toss the cabbage, radish and green onions together in a bowl and then spoon the chili paste over them. Toss the vegetables together with the seasoning until well coated.
- Transfer the cabbage to a quart-sized mason jar and press it firmly down to remove all air bubbles. Place a glass weight inside the jar, and then seal tightly.
- Allow the kimchi to ferment at room temperature for 3 days. Then transfer it to the fridge and allow it to age for 3 weeks before tasting. Consume within 6 months.
Like kimchi? Try these other ferments, too.
Citations and Resources
1) Park, K.Y., et al. (2014) Health benefits of kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables) as a probiotic food. Journal of Medicinal Food.
2) Steinkraus, K.H. (1992) Applications of Biotechnology to Fermented Foods: Report of an Ad Hoc Panel of the Board on Science and Technology for International Development. National Academies Press.
3) Patra, J. K., Das, G., Paramithiotis, S., & Shin, H. S. (2016). Kimchi and Other Widely Consumed Traditional Fermented Foods of Korea: A Review. Frontiers in microbiology, 7, 1493.
4) Cardiff, E., Davison, J.C., (eds) et al. (2016) Foolproof Preserving: A Guide to Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Condiments & More. America's Test Kitchen.