“What is that?!”
I answered the question no less than 15 times while I had my brightly colored jars of kimchi sitting on the counter fermenting.
My answer (“It’s spicy Korean sauerkraut…”) didn’t exactly erase the quizzical look from the faces of the question-askers, but considering most of them are well-acquainted with my weirdness, I doubt anyone lost sleep over it. 😉
I’m generally not willing to be very exotic when it comes to fermented foods. I do enjoy sauerkraut and a good old-fashioned brined pickle, but I have yet to develop a taste for some of the more adventurous ferments, like kvass or even fermented asparagus (I wanted to like it SO BAD, but just couldn’t do it…)
That’s why you haven’t seen kimchi here on the blog before now– not because I didn’t like it, but mostly because I was too afraid to try it. Sorry, just keepin’ in real…
Upon the gentle-prodding of my buddy Matt from Fermentools, I decided to give it a try. He said if we liked sauerkraut (which we do), we’d probably like kimchi. I figured I could handle that.
Wait… What is Kimchi Again?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made with lacto-fermented vegetables (namely cabbage). Lacto-fermentation is the same process we use to make sauerkraut or brined pickles, and is an old-fashioned way to preserve food that imparts probiotic benefits as well.
There are approximately 1.5 billion different ways to make kimchi, and I have no doubt my version would be deemed inappropriate by some… But it’s a good baby-step for us Prairie People who are still slowly expanding our palates, due to the lack of international cuisine options out here.
Some kimchi recipes call for fish sauce, kelp, Asian pears, carrots, radishes, or other veggies. I kept mine simple– partially because it’s hard to source certain ingredients here in Wyoming, and partially because I didn’t feel like being too adventurous… At least not yet.
Therefore, you’ll find pretty basic ingredients in my kimchi recipe: green onions, cabbage, ginger, garlic, and salt. The one “exotic” ingredients you simply MUST have is the Korean red chili powder (gochugaru). Because, nope, you can’t substitute regular red pepper flakes. Thankfully, it was easy to order the Korean chili powder on Amazon, and I’m guessing the bag will last me for the next 5 years worth of kimchi-making…
Do I Need Special Fermenting Equipment?
For my first few fermentation adventures, I simply used a regular mason jar and lid. However, I’ve been using air locks from Fermentools for the past few years and haven’t looked back. Are air locks an absolute requirement for making fermented foods at home? Nope. However, they *can* reduce the chance of mold occurring on a ferment, and allow they allow the gasses to escape without you having to “burp” the jar. Basically, if you’re new to fermenting, an airlock makes the whole process pretty much fool-proof. I’ve used my Fermentools non-stop ever since for all sorts of fermenting projects.
Bottom line– you don’t have to use a air lock, but they are pretty handy and often produce a higher quality product in the end. And if you’re making a big batch of anything, half-gallon mason jars are easier to handle (and less expensive) than one of those big ol’ fermenting crocks. (I have one of the 6-packs, which will handle around three gallons of kraut…)
How to Make Kimchi
Yield: Approximately One Quart
- 1 head (approximately 2 lbs) Napa cabbage
- 1/4 cup green onions, coarsley chopped
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chili powder)
- 1 tablespoon salt
(Feel free to double or triple this recipe– it’s just as easy to make a big batch as it is a little one.)
Coarsely chop the cabbage leaves into 1/2 inch (or so) pieces, and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage, mix in well, and allow to sit out at room temperature for 20-30 minutes while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
Once you’ve allowed the salted cabbage to sit, use your hands to mix and mash the cabbage until it starts to shrink and a brine begins to develop in the bottom of the bowl. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do this–the goal is to just start the juices flowing. You’ll want to taste the brine and add more salt, if necessary. The brine should taste quite salty, like sea water.
Mix in the onions, garlic, ginger, and chili powder thoroughly, then start packing the mixture into a clean mason jar. (**I highly recommend wearing kitchen gloves while mixing– as the chili powder has the potential to get under your fingernails, and it’ll hurt….)
I like to add a 1/2 cup of cabbage to the jar, pack down firmly with a wooden spoon, then repeat until I get to the top. Once you get to the top of the jar, the goal is for the cabbage mixture to be completely submerged, with the brine fully covering it by 1″. If you don’t have enough naturally-occuring brine after all your smashing, you can easily make your own 2% brine to top it off (instructions below). I use a glass weight (from my Fermentools kit) to hold down the cabbage, but you can also use a bit of the core. The goal is to not let the kimchi itself be exposed to air.
Affix a lid to the jar (fingertight only), and set aside in a room-temperature location, out of direct sunlight, for 5-7 days.
You’ll probably want to place a small dish or tray under the jar, just in case you overfill it a bit and the jars spill over a bit. Also, removing the lid after a day or so to “burp” the jar and release any pent-up gasses is also a smart idea (if you’re NOT using an airlock).
Taste and smell your kimchi after five days. If it’s tangy enough, move to the refrigerator for storage. If you like a bit more tang, simply allow to ferment for a bit longer.
Your kimchi will last a many, many months in the fridge, unless you eat it all before then– that’s one of the beautiful things about fermented foods.
- To Make a 2% Brine: Dissolve 1 tablespoon fine sea salt in 4 cups non-chlorinated water. If you don’t use all of the brine for this recipe, it will keep indefinitely in the fridge.
- Like I mentioned above, there are a million-and-one different ways to make kimchi, so feel free to experiment with the flavors. I’m going to be brave and add fish sauce next time.
- Every time I try a new fermented food, I have to give myself a bit of time to become accustomed to the new flavors. But then within several days, I always mysteriously find myself seeking it out and almost craving it. I suspect that’s my body trying to tell me something.
WHERE TO BUY FERMENTING STUFF?
I’ve been totally impressed with my Fermentools equipment. Here’s why:
- The airlocks work with the jars I already have, so I don’t have to buy special containers or crocks.
- You can easily make big batches of fermented foods with little hassle (no lugging around heavy crocks, either)
- Their glass weights are super nice to just pop into my mason jars so the food doesn’t float out of the brine and get gross.
- There’s a super-handy chart on the front of their ultra-fine powdered salt bags to help you figure out exactly how much you need for the perfect brine
This post is sponsored by Fermentools, which means they sent me one of their air lock systems so I could try it out. However, like everything I promote here on The Prairie Homestead, I don’t promote it unless I’m actually using it and loving it, which is absolutely the case here.