If you are like me and love a deep umami punch to the palate, then kimchi is the ferment for you. It showcases the spicy slow burn of Korean chilli and the fermented funkiness of fish sauce. Let’s learn all about kimchi, then I will step you through making your first batch.
Kimchi, a Korean obsession
Kimchi is a ferment embedded in the Korean national identity. Served with almost every meal, Koreans will tell you passionately why their family recipe is far superior to all the rest! It is a food that also crosses borders to other countries, such as Japan and China, who give it their regional twist.
Asian cabbage (wombok) and radish are the most common vegetable ingredients typical of kimchi eaten in the West. However, travelling to East Asia you will find an almost infinite array of local variations that reflect seasonal ingredients and local taste.
Kimchi’s deep umami taste is addictive. It is also nutritious. Scientific studies are helping us to understand the potential health benefits of kimchi. Researchers have found that it is antibacterial, boosts immunity, has antioxidant properties, and potentially lowers cholesterol.
Korean chilli (gochugaru) – the esssential ingredient
Sun-dried Korean chilli (gochugaru) is a wonderful beast. It has a distinctive flavour. The heat is a slow burn that creeps up on you, but not before you taste its smoky-fruity-sweet notes.
Koreans have been planting and harvesting this particular type of chilli for at least 1,500 years. The colour is super-intense red and adds drama to everything it touches.
Gochugaru is related to the milder yet also intensely coloured Hungarian paprika. However, it is biologically different from Thai and Mexican chillies.
The Scoville scale is a scale that measures the strength of heat of peppers and chillies. Gochugaru comes in at under 1000, at the lower end of the scale – spicier than paprika, but not as potent as a Mexican poblano.
Take heed, the fermentation process intensifies the heat of the chilli. If you substitute spicier chilli, not only will you miss out on that wonderful sweet, smoky flavour and slow burn – you will also have kimchi that is too hot to eat.
Your local Asian grocer should stock gochugaru powder, also called Korean pepper powder.
This not a traditional recipe
Before we get to the kimchi recipe I want to tell you this is not a traditional method. I cut a few corners in my time-poor world, which means I am likely to make it more often.
When making the real deal, you can ferment the paste for days before you add it to the rest of the ferment. I have omitted this stage.
Kimchi has a relatively short fermentation time – usually between 3 – 5 days. You also soak the cabbage for up to 24 hours on top of this. So if you have a craving now – you will have to wait!
Let’s make kimchi.
What You Will Need
Vegetable Phase 1
(2 – 24 hours before phase 2)
1 large head of wombok/Napa/Chinese cabbage (mine weighed 2.2kg)
1/2 cup sea/river salt
Vegetable Phase 2
1 bunch of spring onions
2 large carrots, chopped into matchsticks or coarsely grated
1 medium daikon radish, chopped into matchsticks or coarsely grated
10 medium cloves of garlic, peeled
60g peeled ginger, roughly chopped
1 small apple or pear, cored and roughly chopped
1/4 cup Korean chilli powder (gochugaru) – you can increase this to up to 1/3 or even 1/2 a cup if you love super spicy.
3 tablespoons fish sauce (vegans can use 1 tablespoon of fermented, salted black beans or dark miso).
1 tablespoon of raw sugar
Clean lidded jars to accommodate up to 4L of kimchi.
How To Make It
Vegetable Phase 1
Cut cabbage in quarters lengthwise. Cut out the fibrous core section ( I pop it in the fridge and chop it up into sticks for stir-fries or keep it for soup/bone broth).
Cut the cabbage spears on the cross into approximately 5cm sections – this will make bite-size pieces!
Place the chopped cabbage in a large bowl. Toss through the salt until the cabbage is evenly coated.
Fill the bowl with water until the cabbage is just submerged.
Cover the bowl and let it sit out of direct sunlight for between 2 to 24 hours. The longer you soak the cabbage, the silkier it becomes. If you like crunchier kimchi, you just keep the soaking hours at the lesser end of the timescale.
Vegetable Phase 2
When you have come to the end of the soaking time, drain the cabbage lightly rinse and let drain in a colander, occasionally tossing while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Prepare the carrot and radish. For more glamourous kimchi you can julienne (cut into matchstick shape) the carrots and radish. I never have time for this, so I just coarsely grate them.
Chop the roots off the spring onions and reserve for making stocks and bone broth. Chop the spring onions, the white part and the green tops.
Whizz all the paste ingredients in a food processor or with a stick blender until it forms a paste. You can add a little water to achieve this.
Jar it up
Now that you have all the paste and the phase 1 and 2 veggies prepped, you can put them all together in a big bowl.
Toss the veggies and paste (I use my freshly washed and dried hands) until all the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Now take handfuls and fill your jars one at a time. Keep mixing the ingredients in the bowl to make make sure the liquid is evenly distributed as you go.
When the jar starts to become full you can then cram the kimchi in pushing it down; the liquid should then start to form a layer above the veggies.
With a clean, wet cloth, wipe down excess kimchi from the outside and rim of the jar.
Secure the lids not too tightly.
Place the jars on a waterproof tray or baking dish and leave to ferment at room temperature, out of direct sunlight.
2 – 3 times a day you are going to have to “burp” your kimchi to let out any excess gasses, so the jars do not explode. If you have a fermentation lock for the top of your jars, apply them!
When you burp, your jars use a clean stainless steel spoon to push the veggies down under the liquid as much as you can.
On day 2 or 3 you will notice that the ferment starts to become fizzy. This is when you really need to start taking notice and take at a taste at the end of burping the jars. When ferment has lost its sweet taste (the bacteria eat up the sugars) and has hit a tangy level you like. That’s it – you can stop fermenting.
Place your jars in the fridge, this will dramatically slow down the fermentation. You will also have the added benefit of no longer needing to burp the bottles.
You can keep kimchi in the fridge for 4 – 6 weeks.
You might wonder why I use jars and not my fermentation crock. As I have said before, this is one funky ferment, and the smell can permeate your crock and weights. So until I have a dedicated kimchi crock, I am just going to put it in jars.
Kimchi – so versatile
Now you are ready to get stuck into eating and enjoying your kimchi. It will pair well with Korean foods such as bim bap, Bulgogi, lettuce wraps and spring onion pancakes. You can also use it to jazz up lots of other foods – eggs (any which way), nourish bowls and fried rice, to name a few. No doubt you will find your winning combinations too.
Tell me about how you like your kimchi in the comments below. I am always up for new ideas!