Over the last couple of years I have really worked up an appetite for kimchi. Not only as a side dish, but also fried together with chicken and rice or crispy pork. Surprisingly enough, I am finally with the cool kids here. Going gaga over fermented foods and making them is all the rage, and here I am, joining the crowd (cartoon via Bon Appetit magazine). Even though making kimchi feels pretty intimidating and laborous, I decided to try my hand at making it at home. Having said that, you will have to invest some time before you reach your final destination kimchi. But my conclusion is that it is worth it. Espeically because considering the rate at which I would wish to eat kimchi and the price for which is being sold. 🙂
As with all fermented foods (think yoghurt, soy sauce, kombucha, sourdough and sauerkraut), making kimchi is all about accommodating good bacteria to convert your initial produce, in this case cabbage with chili paste and salt, into deliciously soft and awesome kimchi.
Depending on where you live, whether that is an airy city apartment or a French cheese cave, you might have to put more or less effort into achieving this. The main rules of fermenting are relatively simple, you make sure that everything you work with is clean (your hands, bowls, knives, chopping board) and that you use enough salt. The salt is important for two reasons, namely to start the fermenting process by weakening the structure of the product (in this case cabbage) and to protect the finished product from ‘bad’ bacteria.
I found making kimchi a tad scary, and am still relieved to see that a batch worked out properly. I have tried different methods as it seems like there are so many (sometimes wildly varying) recipes online. To make all steps a little better to understand, I’ve included rather elaborate notes in the recipe to explain why I think this is the easiest way to do it.
And just to be clear, sure, chances exist that I am selling you a recipe that could be viewed as the sort of mush-cooked macaroni we enjoyed in the 90s, but I am happy to risk any non-authenticity, as this tastes brilliant. Happy kimchi!
- 2 large heads of napa cabbage, washed, quartered, core removed and sliced into strips of approximately 2-3 centimeters wide (2 heads of cabbage might seem much, but I was happy to have a little more as the end product really is a fraction of what you start with)
- 2 handfuls of rocky sea salt (non-iodized)
- 100 grams of Gochujang (Korean Chili Paste, see note below*)
- Optionally: 2 bunches of spring onions, washed, trimmed and cut halfways and into 3 centimeter strips, 2 tablespoons of grated fresh ginger, 1 tablespoon of freshly minced garlic, extra chili pepper flakes.
- What you need: a colander, 1 huge (or two big) bowls, a large sealable container.
- As a short summary of the process that is set out more detailed below, you will find that the process of making kimchi holds four steps: (i) salting the cabbage with salt to start the fermenting process and to remove water from it, taking 24 hours, (ii) draining the salted cabbage and adding your preferred flavorings to it (chili paste, more chili flakes, ginger or garlic), (iii) covering the mixture and place it in a dark place at room temperature to ferment for three to five days (depending on how strong you like your kimchi), (iv) after which you place the kimchi in the fridge (the fermenting process now comes to a halt) and the kimchi is fresh, young and ready to eat.
- (i) For the first step found that using a method of dry salting the cabbage worked best, especially when I applied the salt to the cabbage when it was still wet from washing it. Alternative methods are to 'brine' the cabbage in salty water, but I found that it left the end-product with less crunch and it took more work (and careful maneuvering) to carry the bowls with water around.
- During this first step I have used a big bowl in which I have alternated layers of washed and cut cabbage with sprinkled layers of salt. This way I didn't have to toss all of the ingredients around (and spill them all over the kitchen).
- On top of the bowl you place a plate to cover the surface, topped with something heavy (such as a pestle and mortar or a bag of dried beans). After 24 hours you pour the cabbage into a colander to get rid of the water that has been released by the cabbage (which is surprisingly much).
- The cabbage has become a lot softer and has shrunk. You could squeeze it further, but I have found that you do need the moisture that is still in it to make sure that all of your kimchi stays covered (and therewith protected from oxygen) in the next fermenting steps.
- Now mix the the Gochujang and other optional ingredients (such as spring onions, ginger, garlic or extra chili flakes) into your cabbage and mix it thoroughly. Be careful when adding extras, as recipes warn that too much garlic can cause the kimchi to taste bitter, and that an excess of ginger might cause stickiness. I have made kimchi both with the addition of extra flavoringsand without and didn't taste a huge difference, which is the reason for me to opt for the simpler recipe. Having said that, it is completely up to your likings.
- Now place the kimchi mixture into a large resealable container. I have used a large tupperware bowl that can fit 5 (!) liters. You want to be able to close the container, as it will have a strong smell and because you want to control the environment of the kimchi. Make sure that the cabbage leaves are covered in their own liquid, push them under if needed. If pieces of cabbage stick out above the surface, they will start to form white mold and smell bad. You can remove these pieces and still have a succesful batch of kimchi, but yes, this does make one nervous.
- You can leave the kimchi at room temperature to ferment. The longer the kimchi spends outside of the fridge, the stronger it will taste. You might want to stick your nose into the tub and check whether it is ready from your point of view. I've found that I really like the bite that the kimchi has after three days of fermenting at room temperature.
- After this fermenting stage at room temperature, you place the kimchi in the sealed container in the fridge, where the fermenting process comes to a halt. In the fridge, the kimchi will further mature and become even tastier. From this point onwards, your kimchi is ready to eat.
- *Note on using Gochujang: I have chosen to use this Korean chilipaste as it is containing garlic, chili peppers, as well as fermented soy beans and rice. Some traditional recipes (such as Maangchi) call for your own ricepudding to cook and to mix that into your kimchi. I have decided to skip this step and opt for this paste (that is delicious btw, also on your next roast chicked or pork). This doesn't mean it's authentic, but I do feel like the end result very much resembles the kimchi I have previously bought in Asian stores.
- Some traditional Korean recipes call for the addition of raw squid or oysters to the kimchi mixture, something I am shying away from as I am not comfortable (yet) to ferment such perishable ingredients. Nevertheless, I highly recommend you have a look at the tips and tricks Maangchi is displaying (as well as the humongous bowls she has in her kitchen).
- Further, very helpful sources are http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/03/kimchi-revisite/ and http://www.vpro.nl/koken-met-van-boven/kijk/afleveringen/seizoen-2/3.html (for the Dutchies among us:)).