You shouldn’t just be eating kimchi, you should be making it

Kimchi, or kimchee, is a special kind of food. If you’re like me, the first time you took a bite of kimchi, you scrunched up your face like a little kid eating an olive for the first time—before raising an eyebrow and popping another one in your mouth to postpone forming an opinion. Do I like this?

For me, my answer to that question is a resounding yes. Kimchi is spicy, sour, sweet, and tangy, even if the first bite is sometimes a little funky, owing to the fermented nature of the dish. All that funk comes with considerable probiotic benefits. Your kimchi is alive and teaming with bacteria like Lactobacillus, which have a demonstrated therapeutic effect that is anti-inflammatory and supportive of good digestive health. There may be a lot more to these good bugs, if you listen closely to people like neurologist David Perlmutter, who is investigating the links between the microbiomes in your gut and the goings-on of your brain, from mental health to afflictions like Alzheimer’s.

Wikipedia tells me that kimchi varieties and styles are many, diverse, and even seasonal. The kind that I’ve been buying at the local market and health food store are mostly napa cabbage with daikon radish, apple, ginger and pear. While kimchi isn’t usually eaten alone, I’ve developed a serious kimchi snacking habit. I casually nip pieces from the jar. I add it to re-fried leftovers, I pour it over rice, I sneak it into soups, I dress eggs. And at $10 a jar, I decided it was high-time to give it a shot at home.

You can make kimchi, and it isn’t hard.

Napa Cabbage

I’ll be upfront, here: I once tried to make sauerkraut, and the result was such that I may as well have just shredded some old dirty socks and let them stew in a brine for a week. I mismeasured salt, fought mold, and let my little failure hang around the kitchen for far too long. It did not repair itself and I haven’t tried to ferment anything since, until now.

And? Roaring success. Some of the key differences this time around include my set of large 2L glass jars and more paying attention at the beginning of the process.

My first batch of kimchi

Here’s what I included:

  • one large head of napa cabbage
  • gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) – 1/3 cup (adjust for spiciness)
  • daikon radish
    • I used nearly a full large daikon radish, but you may choose to keep it down to 8oz or so.
  • (coarse) sea salt – 4 tablespoons
    • Pick a salt like sea salt that is free of additives such as iodine or anti-lumping fillers often found in regular table salt.
  • fish sauce
    • I have an anchovy-based fish sauce on hand that I use for Thai recipes, which is what I used here.
    • You may choose to leave this out, swap in a different source of seafood flavour, or substitute water.
  • grated ginger – 1 tablespoon or so
  • garlic – 1 tablespoon or so
  • green onion – 4 large stalks

In true form, I added a couple other ingredients simply because they were on hand (waste not!):

  • kale
  • Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia)
    • Leave this out, and the only source of non-vegetable sugar and carbs in this recipe is the fish sauce.

Other thing you’ll need include a large bowl or two, jar(s), and a pair of gloves comes in handy in addition to your usual kitchen tools.

Let’s shred it

1. Prepare the cabbage. Cut the napa cabbage into quarters and remove the hard core from the bottom of the cabbage, discarding. From here I cut the quarters into strips of roughly 2 inches. Add the pieces of cabbage to a large bowl, layering and sprinkling coarse seal salt between layers. Leave the cabbage sit for a few hours, during which a brine solution will accumulate at the bottom (essentially, this is moisture being drawn out from the cabbage). We will use the brine later! I used a large plate and second bowl filled of water to compress the cabbage and help the process along.

Pressing cabbage and salt together for kimchi

Note the bowl of water and plate placed above the cabbage in the red bowl, which helps keep the salt and cabbage closer together.

Brining Cabbage for Kimchi

Brining Cabbage for Kimchi

2. Make a paste out of the seasoning. Mix together the fish sauce, red pepper flakes, garlic and ginger. Protip: keep a bit of ginger frozen to make it easy to grate.

Prepared spice for kimchi

Prepared spice for kimchi

3. Drain and set aside the brine from the cabbage. Rinse the cabbage with some cold water.

4. Prepare the remaining vegetables and mix together with the spice paste. Cut daikon and pear into matchsticks and cut the green onion into short one inch bits. Mix in the paste. It’s best to use a pair of gloves if you have them, as it’ll keep your hands unstained. At this point, you can add the cabbage as well, and mix it all together.

5. Jar it! Add the brine and vegetables to the jar, packing it down as you go. You want to make sure that the brine is completely covering the vegetables, and that there is enough headroom—more than an inch—so that there is somewhere for the gas generated by the fermentation process to accumulate. For the same reason, add the lid to your jar, but do not tighten it completely. This will allow some pressure to escape. From here, allow the kimchi to sit on a counter or similar place for 1 to 5 days while it ferments. Taste it after a day, check for bubbling, and pop it in the fridge once you’re content with the level of sourness. In my case, I found that a day and a half was more than plenty enough.

Kimchi in jars

All finished and ready to ferment. Remember what I said about keeping the jar lids a little loose! After one day of fermenting, I came home to insane amounts of pressure, also likely caused by not leaving enough room in the top.

Kimchi will keep for months in the fridge. I pack it down whenever I sample from the jar, keeping things under the brine. The fermentation will still continue, but at a much slower rate.

Your gut will thank you!