How To Make Kimchi (It's Probably Not As Hard As You Think)

Printable Version (Recipe Only)

So you think you wanna try your hand at making kimchi...

Well let me start by saying that, as with so many popular ethnic foods, there are A LOT of recipes out there. And let me further say that a lot of them are not to be trusted.

Not because they're not mine. Because there are lots of great kimchi recipes out there that are not only not mine, but are more typical and authentic, if that's your concern.

But because they attempt to recreate the flavor of kimchi while sidestepping a crucial and necessary element of kimchi making: FERMENTATION.

And so they kind of piece together what the writer understandably thinks are the requisite elements of cabbage kimchi: cabbage, salt, some kind of chili element, and some kind of souring agent (kimchi is not supposed to get its sour from vinegar or other acids added in at the beginning of the process), without the understanding that your kimchi is not kimchi if it isn't designed to ferment.

It's some kind of pickle, but it's not kimchi.

Before I start sounding too terribly pedantic, let me assure you that I am not the Authenticity Police. As a cook who pulls from all kinds of food cultures to produce what I think are tasty results that still fall reasonably within the parameters of the dish in question, and as you will see from my kimchi recipe, I am not about demanding authenticity simply for the sake of it.

But you simply can't produce that je ne sais quois that distinguishes kimchi from any ol' hot and spicy cabbage pickle without fermentation.

And you also can't encourage fermentation if you use too much salt, which is another common issue I've seen in many kimchi recipes. Too little is a problem because it allows growth of the kinds of bacteria you don't want, but that's not nearly as common an error as too much, which inhibits the growth of the kind of bacteria you DO want: Lactobacillus kimchiiamong others. (No joke. It's a thing.)

So if you're not going to make this recipe, I would encourage you to find a recipe that has, among other things:

- a reasonable amount of salt

- the use of chili flakes and not some other kind of chili based condiment for the heat element

- some sugar, to round out the flavor

- some rice product like rice flour, rice powder, or in the case of my recipe, plain ol' steamed rice, which boosts the level of fermentable sugars and also helps the seasoning paste adhere to the cabbage.

The selling points of my recipe as opposed to the more authentic Korean ones? Well, not because I'm trying to sell you anything but because I understand that people are just generally intimidated by the thought of making their own kimchi and would probably like some extraordinary assurance that their trouble will be well rewarded...

My recipe is exact, reliable, small enough, and probably tasty enough that you won't regret making it, even if you decide you want to go more hard core the next time.

AND it uses what are likely more accessible ingredients 

- fish sauce, 

- crushed chili flakes (like the kind you put on your pizza or pasta), and 
- steamed white rice 

in lieu of the more traditional/typical

- brined microshrimp (saewoo juht),

- gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes), and
- sweet rice flour (chapssal garu)

that might be harder for you to get your hands on if you don't live a reasonable distance from a Korean market or don't feel like ordering those ingredients online, entire packages of which would probably take a long time for you to use up otherwise.

Easy, Accessible Kimchi
Makes roughly 2 quarts (a half gallon). 

Time: About 30 minutes active time. 90 minutes inactive time dry brining the cabbage with salt.
Printable Version

- 4 to 5 pounds Napa cabbage, cut into roughly 1"x 2" pieces (should be about 30 cups of chopped raw cabbage)

*Choose heads that are dense and heavy for their size, which means the leaves are fresher. The best way to know if a head is heavy for its size is to pick up a few that are about the same size and feel their weight in your hands. If you, like my kids, hate the leafy green parts, look for the heads that have more stem than leaf, and a lighter yellowish green color to the leafy part rather than a darker green color.

- 1 bunch green onions, washed, roots trimmed, and cut into 2 inch segments (it's not pictured here because I forgot them when I took these pics, but you can just add them with the cabbage at the beginning)

- 5 Tablespoons kosher salt (about 10% less if you're using regular table salt)

Paste Ingredients

- 1/4 cup minced garlic (about 5 or 6 large cloves)

- 1/4 cup minced fresh ginger root (about a 2" segment)

- 1/3 cup crushed red chili flakes (like the kind you get with your pizza - you can find 13 to 16 oz. pouches of this in the Mexican spice section at most any grocery store) 1/4 cup for mild, 1/2 cup for extra spicy - I used 1/2 cup.

If you have gochugaru and would like to use it, I'd start with about 1/3 cup, give it a taste and add more before packing if you'd like. The kimchi pictured up top is using a blend of crushed red chili flakes and gochugaru - about 1/4 cup of each.

- 1/4 cup steamed white rice, lightly packed. Short or long grain is fine - I used jasmine because it was handy. If your rice is stale at all, microwave it in a bowl with 2 Tablespoons of water for 60 seconds first)

- 1/4 cup fish sauce (like Tiparos or Three Crabs)

- 1/4 cup sugar

- 1/4 cup water for blending

- 1/3 cup of water for getting the remaining seasoning off the bowl and making additional brine

1) In a large stainless steel or mixing bowl, toss the raw cabbage and the salt together to pre-brine the cabbage. Make sure to thoroughly incorporate the salt throughout the cabbage. In 10 to 15 minutes, you should start to see the cabbage leach liquid and wilt.

Let the cabbage sit for about 1.5 hours, tossing and redistributing every 30 minutes to ensure even brining. 

2) After at least 90 minutes of pre-brining, rinse the cabbage with enough water to cover the cabbage by 4 or 5 inches by swishing the cabbage in the water 7 or 8 times. Remove the cabbage into a strainer and let the excess water drain while you prepare the paste.

just tossed in salt
2 hours later
after rinse and drain

3) Make the paste by putting all the paste ingredients into a blender and blend until you can't see the individual grains of rice. Pour the paste over the cabbage.

4) Get into the bowl with your hands and mix that paste into the cabbage until all the pieces are evenly and thoroughly coated. Here's MY KIMCHI COOKALONG VIDEO if you'd like to see how it's made. Disregard the squeezing part of the process - I have since discovered it's totally unnecessary if you drain the cabbage into a colander and let most of the excess water drip out.)

This one is with crushed red chili flakes only.

5) Pack your kimchi into a bottle or other tight-lidded container (This time I repurposed a half gallon kimchi jar) and use the last 1/3 cup of water to swish around the mixing bowl, pick up all the remaining paste, and pour that liquid on top of your kimchi. Remember to leave 2 inches of headspace at the top to allow for expansion as fermentation takes place.

Your batch of kimchi is now ready for fermentation in a dark but not cold place like the inside of your cupboard. Or, if you can find a warmish spot in your garage, you can put it there. (I know that's not always possible for cold climate people in the middle of winter.)

As it ripens, it's a good idea keep the lid unscrewed to relieve the pressurization caused by fermentation. (Your jar can literally explode from the pressure on a specially active fermentation day.)

A common question: 


You can eat the kimchi whenever you want. Fresh, just after it's been made, all the way up to when it's so incredibly old, ripe and stinky you could choke out a subway system by placing an open jar in one of the vents. It remains safe for human consumption for A VERY LONG TIME.

But as to when to refrigerate, just go out once a day every day to taste a piece, and when it gets to the ripeness you like, stick it in the fridge. It'll continue to ripen, but slowly.

When it gets really, REALLY ripe, we typically make things like kimchi jjigae (stew) or kimchi bokkeum bap (fried rice) with it.

And there you have it.

How to make your first batch of kimchi.

Not as hard as you might think, and, IMO, totally worth the not as much effort as you thought it was going to take. ^^




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