Alternative Fermentations: 김치 Kimchi or Bust
Everybody has heard of sauerkraut, and at least tried some on a hot dog at the ballpark once in their lives, but not everybody really understands what it is. Then, you throw in a word like Kimchi (pronounced Kim-Chee), and everyone who doesn’t have experience with it is totally confused! Don’t worry, this week we’re going to break down the science of fermenting kimchi, what exactly makes it delicious, and even break down our awesome Kimchi recipe for first time food fermentationists!
What Exactly Is Kimchi?
Maybe I was exaggerating, because I think kimchi may be just as popular, if not more so, than sauerkraut. Kimchi has been a Korean food staple for literally centuries, and recorded origins date back to 37 BC. Traditionally and simply, it was a brilliant way to preserve the harvest over the winter. The women would bury the vegetables over the winter in brown ceramic pots to ferment slowly, then bring them out in the spring as a delicious side dish. Since, hundreds of varieties and preparations of this delicious, fermented dish have spawned, but almost every iteration almost invariably contains: Napa Cabbage, Korean (Daikon) Radish, and Scallions. There are some traditional recipes that contain different proteins, like fish, pork and beef, but we’re going to stay away from those, at least at first!
The Kimchi that you see us making in our recent video (click here to watch) and that we’ll describe in this article is a more watery type with tons of broth, very close to Nabak-kimchi, although we like ours a bit spicier. It is super easy to make, even easier to eat, and full to the brim with gut health probiotics. It is endlessly customizable, a recipe you can add all of your favorite veggies to, and super fun to watch when fermentation occurs. Let’s get started!
Stacking That Cabbage
The most important part of this whole thing is the cabbage. You will need 3 - 4 pounds of fresh, clean Napa Cabbage, which is either 1 giant head or 2 small heads. This ingredient is what provides that base for the lactic acid fermentation and the vast majority of the surface area.
When you chop up your cabbage, there’s a few different ways to do it. The very first time we attempted this, it was all about the mandolin, a fun and dangerous kitchen tool that I shouldn’t be allowed around without supervision and lots of safety gear! It’s the easiest way to cut potatoes into fries and cabbage into perfect squares in absolutely no time. While this worked like a champ, and we enjoyed the product, we’ve since refined how we like to eat our kimchi, and have since opted for a bigger chopping scheme.
Now our standard scheme is to basically chop those giant cabbages into quarters, then cut the quarters evenly lengthwise. This makes for long, easy to eat pieces that mix well into the rest of the kimchi, and makes it even easier to maneuver into a sandwich!
Keep Adding Veggies
The beauty of kimchi is that it’s easy to make, and endlessly versatile. For our standard recipe (below) we use cabbage, daikon, scallions, garlic, and ginger as our veggies, but you can just as easily add in bell peppers, carrots, or just about anything else that you’d like to taste in there!
To cut all of these, we’ve found that creating spears and matchsticks out of the various veggies seems to be the best way. This is because as they begin to become less solid, they latch onto the longer pieces of cabbage and it seems to be way easier to get them into the bites, as well as making sure they have plenty of room to be accessed by all of the types of probiotics doing the fermenting in this process.
Another very important thing to remember when you are adding veggies is don’t be shy! Add WAY TOO MUCH! Over the course of fermentation, you lose a ton of mass (20% - 30%) on all of these different veggies and cabbage, so when you stuff them all into your Fermentation Vessel, make sure to make it a little ridiculous and stuff in as much as you can!
Other Key Ingredient Additions and Spices
There are 3 VERY important ingredients to making this kind of kimchi, and without them, while it’s still super delicious, it’s not quite the same.
First and foremost, we need that beautiful red color, and that comes from Korean Red Pepper Powder, known as Gochugaru. This gives us tons of flavor, and as much heat as we want. The peppers this comes from are commonly known simply as Korean Red Chili Peppers, which are pretty low on the heat scale. Luckily, we can reasonably add as much as we want to get a clean, spicy flavor that will fit any palette!
Second, and just as important, is Fish Sauce. While this stinky and seemingly disgusting fermented fish juice seems like it would taint anything, it actually makes all of the difference when it comes together with the rest of the concoction. Part of it is the salt content, and part the flavors it adds, but at only ¼ cup per gallon, you won’t have to worry about it taking over. Brave it, even though it smells horrid, because it can make all of the difference in your kimchi!
Third is the Saeujeot, also known as Salted Fermented Shrimp. Like the fish sauce, this is really an integral part of recipe, and you’ll notice if you don’t use it. For our first attempt at kimchi, we couldn’t find this on short notice, so we just substituted a little extra fish sauce. It was fine, even delicious, but next time we made it and added the saeujeot, the difference was distinct and noticeable! If you can get this, you won’t be sorry!
The Science of Kimchi
The science behind this is very similar to the science behind spontaneously fermenting a beer. You’re allowing the lactobacillus and all of it’s friends (these are commonly called LAB’s, or Lactic Acid Bacteria, because, well, they produce lactic acid!) that are present do the fermentation instead of pitching your own culture. The place where we veer way off course from a simple beer is the salt part.
Salt raises the pH of the mixture, making it harder for the microbes that you don’t want to take over to get a hold on the everything before the lacto and other beneficial bugs can get established and create their own little kingdom. Once they have, they’ll have created the perfect environment for all of the bugs that we want! Now the real question is should we use this as a starter for a Gose?! Maybe a Garlic Shrimp Gose?!
The rest of what’s going on in here is pretty much history. The lacto and other beneficial microbes eat what available sugar the vegetables give, and you end up with a lightly spicy, lightly tart side dish that’s good on anything savory, and that packs a probiotic punch like you’ve rarely experienced! If you eat this on the regular, you’ll be very pleased with the probiotic side of the results, and you can even tailor your kimchi making towards certain probiotic groups, if that’s what you need to do!
Kimchi is a pretty active fermentation for food, and if you don’t leave yourself a little bit of room, you’ll definitely have some wonderful smelling explosions on your counter that will get everywhere, but nothing that will make or break the overall fermentation. For us, the 7 day mark is pretty much the sweet spot, but we’ve tasted it after 3, when it’s super actively fermenting and still crisp and delicious, and also eaten it after 10 or 12 days. After 7, not much more seems to happen, and all of the bugs go dormant. At this point, we’ll generally pull the broth and use it for marinades and brines, and put the whole leaf stuff in mason jars or tupperwares and put it in the fridge. Here, by the book, it can last a month or so, but some of the more trusted Kimchi matrons claim that it can be kept for years, and only gets better.
Now that we have all of the components, let’s get this party started!
- 3-4 lbs Fresh Napa Cabbage
- 1 Medium Daikon Radish Root
- 2 Cups Scallions. We have used Green Onions, Giant Scallions and Shallots, all with great deliciousness
- ~15 Cloves Fresh Garlic
- 2 oz Fresh Peeled Ginger Root
- ⅔ - 1.5 cups Gochugaru, Korean Red Pepper Powder
- 2 Tbsp Brown Sugar (this is totally optional)
- ¼ C Fish Sauce
- 1.5 - 2 Tbsp Saeujeot
- ⅓ C Kosher Salt, Sea Salt, or fancy Pink Himalayan Salt (try to stay away from iodized)
- ½ Gallon Clean, Fresh Cold Water
- Chop up your cabbage however you want. We like 4 - 6 inch long x 1 - 2 inch wide pieces that make it easy to eat and spoon onto sandwiches, but that are still small enough to pack into the 1 Gallon Carboy.
- Chop all of your other veggies into convenient matchsticks or spears. I like to keep them as long and skinny as possible to make sure that I’m getting as much as possible in every bite!
- Now the fun part: Stack that cabbage! Stuff you carboy ridiculously full with this stuff! We’ve found that adding the dry season spices, like the salt and Korean Red Pepper Powder, at multiple intervals throughout this part, helps a lot down the road. So every couple of inches of cabbage, add in a few pinches of salt and some teaspoons of Gochugaru! Get as much as you can in there, and remember that you are going to lose 30 or so percent of all of that mass, so try not to worry if it looks a bit ridiculous!
- Mix in the rest of your veggies as best as possible. Stuff, compact and threaten them all into that carboy as necessary.
- Add your Fish Sauce
- Add in your Salted Fermented Shrimp. You can squeeze the juice out of them into your fermentor, then chop them up even more if you want to, but we usually just pitch them in directly.
- Add your water. If you did it right, you shouldn’t need much more that ½ a gallon or so, but add it in slowly and mix everything together with your tongs or spatula.
- Leave an inch or two at the top of dead space, and try to make sure all of your veggies are under water.
- Put your lid with your airlock on, and let it sit at room temperature for about 7 days. Make something delicious on day 7 so you can eat your Kimchi immediately!!
- From here, you can leave your Kimchi in fermentation, or remove it and separate it into a few masons or tupperware, as you want. The juice can be saved as a brine, marinade, or even as a primer for your next batch!
Thank you all for reading! Make your own kimchi and have some fun! Check out our video on BrewChatter TV: How to make Kimchi at Home for an in depth look at all of the ingredients and to see how we do it! Like and subscribe to stay informed of all of our new videos and projects! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well! Brew On!