Kimchi Primer

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If you were hanging around here last weekend, then you may know that I harvested a lot of Napa cabbage, for what has become my yearly kimchi making session.

As excited as I was about making my season 2011 kimchi, I must tell you that I debated on writing this post. This, because it’s not like we haven’t talked about it beforemade it with of-the-moment ingredients, or put it in steamed buns even.

And yes this year I’ve added a few new ingredients (we’ll get to that) but then I thought, why not discuss the basic elements of kimchi-making so you can feel confident to experiment on your own?

Sound good?

The basic ingredients for a vegetarian cabbage based kimchi are:

  • curly cabbage – two of the most common varieties are Napa and savoy.
  • root vegetable – daikan is the most traditional, but other types of radish, carrots, turnips, jicama, or the honorary root, kohlrabi, are great variations that afford the same crunch and additional flavor.
  • aromatics – garlic, ginger, scallion, and a semi-hot dried chili pepper. Korean pepper is the most common of course, but I have found aleppo pepper to be a perfect substitute and since it’s ubiquitous in my kitchen that is what I use. If either are hard to find for you, mix Hungarian (sweet) paprika equally with cayenne and you’ll approximate the level of heat. Sugar is also added along with the aromatics.
  • brine – water and sea salt.

Kimchi-making does not have to be exact. It’s best to taste as you go. Here are the approximate ratios that I have found work best for me.

  • 1 part root vegetable(s) for every 5 parts cabbage.
  • for every 5 pounds of cabbage & roots I add the following:

1 bunch scallions – white and green parts
2 tablespoons dried chile pepper
2 large cloves garlic
1 & 1/2 tablespoons grated ginger
1 & 1/2 teaspoons sugar

  • 1/4 cup sea salt per quart of water for brine. (I use course sea salt, if yours is fine, it should be a scant 1/4 cup). Note on water: chlorinated water can inhibit fermentation. It’s best to use spring or distilled water. Approximately 3 quarts of brine are needed for every 5 pounds of cabbage & roots.

Your special equipment doesn’t really need to be that special:

  • For every 5 pounds of cabbage & roots you will need a 1 gallon vessel (or 2 half gallons/4 quarts) for the fermentation process. I mostly use these 5 or 10 liter fermentation pots. Also convenient to use and priced right are gallon or 1/2 gallon jars.
  • You’ll also need a few large bowls or containers to soak the vegetables overnight.

Sometimes there’s a lot of hoopla around kimchi-making and fermentation in general. I don’t think it’s at all hard or mysterious. This is the basic technique:

  • Clean and core cabbage, chop into approximately 1 to 1 & 1/2 inch pieces. Clean roots and slice very thin. I like to use a mandoline for this.
  • Make brine by combining salt and water. I make it in 1/2 gallon jars, shaking the jar until the salt dissolves.
  • Soak the cabbage & roots overnight in brine (I usually need to use every big bowl in the house for this). fill the containers with cabbage & roots and press down. Add some brine, cover with a plate and press down some more. Add more brine as needed to submerge completely. Keep plate on top overnight and let the whole lot sit out at room temperature. After 8-12 hours drain the cabbage & roots, reserving most of the brine.
  • Chop up all of the aromatics and add sugar, mix together. combine this mixture with the drained cabbage and roots. If you are doing a large batch it is better to break it up into a few bowls to evenly combine.
  • Fill your fermentation vessel/s with the mixture. Do not pack it too high or too tight. 3/4 full is perfect. Add some of the leftover brine to cover completely. You will not need all of the brine.
  • If you are using a crock with weights, place the weights on top of the mixture to submerge. If you are using glass jars, you could use the plastic bag method as I did here, but I have found that it really isn’t necessary, just cap the lid. Here’s the caveat with that tho: as long as you check the kimchi once a day and push the vegetables back in the brine, or better yet give it a little stir, it will be good. If you cannot remember to do this daily then you better weight it down to keep everything submerged. I use the crocks now, with the weights, but pieces of cabbage always float to the top, so when making kimchi I give it a stir once a day and push the floaters back in. Whenever small batching in a jar, I use a wooden spoon to stir once daily and forgo the plastic bag.
  • Ideally the fermentation vessel will be in a moderately warm environment, low 70’s are perfect. at that temperature it will take approximately 3-6 days to complete fermentation. I just made my 2011 batch in this 90+ heatwave we are having here in the northeast. All was fine, and to my surprise it took a full 6 days to reach full fermentation – normally the hotter the temp, the faster the ferment.
  • taste! don’t be afraid to taste everyday! 2 or 3 days into it you will notice the bite of raw vegetable has dissipated. A day or two after, when you open the lid, you’ll smell the sweetest, most delicious smell. Then you’ll know your nearing the end of the fermentation process. It’s really up to you and your taste buds to decide on when it is ‘done’. note: if something has gone wrong there is usually no question, your nose will know. It will smell bad. But this has never happened to me, and if you make sure your utensils, vessels and hands are clean it shouldn’t happen to you either.
  • transfer to storage jars and store in the fridge for up to a year or even more. Technically speaking the fermentation process is still happening only at a much slower rate due to the lower temperature in your refrigerator. I keep my fridge at 38 degrees and I do not notice a change in my kimchi even after many months of storage.

Water bath canning kimchi? I would never do it because those healthy little probiotic beasties inside a jar of kimchi are much better for us when they are alive. Plus, the acidity is not high enough to safely hot water bath can, as in the case of sauerkraut which is fermented for a longer period.

Every time I make kimchi it varies a bit. I use what I grow or what my neighboring farmers grow, that’s the fun of it! a little something different every time, but always delicious. Here’s the ingredient list for my 2011 batch:

kimchi with kohlrabi and garlic scapes

13 pounds napa cabbage
5 kohlrabi – about 2 & 1/2 pounds (if you are following along, make sure you peel them)
3 bunches scallions – about 20
10 very large garlic scapes (heads only)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons aleppo pepper
1/2 cup minced ginger
2 & 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 gallons of brine

…see, BIG, bursting at the seams, garlic scape heads!
If I haven’t told you all you ever wanted to know about kimchi, here are a few more great sources: sander katz’ wild fermentation – The bible on fermenting anything including kimchi. Linda Ziedrich – some great info and recipes in her joy of pickling. Kimchi lore and recipes at saveur.

Now go forth and kimchi. You can do it!

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