Make Your Own Kimchi
I‘ve resisted making my own fermented foods for, well, decades at this point. I’m not sure exactly why – maybe a little fear that they might not be safe, or that the smell would be overpowering, or just a lack of patience to wait for them to mature. But lately I’ve fallen more and more in love with fermented vegetables in particular, and I finally took the plunge with this kimchi. One of my coworkers at ChefSteps, development chef Nick Gavin, was psyched to work on it too, so we made a rather enormous 10-liter batch last week and it is happily fermenting away in the back of our office space. Yes, I’m tasting it every day.
Let me just say this: making kimchi really is very easy, not at all scary, and the results are quite delicious so far. Although I started with a rather traditional Napa cabbage kimchi (won bok kimchi), I’ve got a long list of experiments in mind. Preserved lemon / kimchi hybrid. Smoked kimchi. Red radish kimchi. Fermented harissa. Fermented ketchup. Etc, etc.
Nick and I came up with our recipe for this first batch by watching a bunch of videos and reading recipes all over the web, and then combining what seemed to us like the best ideas, ratios, and methods. Obviously one batch doesn’t make me an expert, so you’ll definitely want to experiment and adjust as well, and the book that has become more or less the bible on the subject is The Art of Fermentation. Sandor Katz’s book is full of useful information about safety, equipment and styles of fermentation (but a little light on actionable recipes).
Most (but not all) kimchi that you find at a store will have some kind of seafood product in it – anchovy sauce, fish sauce, dried shrimp and so forth. The purpose of these ingredients is to add umami (savoriness) to complement the lactic fermented tang, salt, and spicy heat. In the recipe below, we’ve just omitted them. The only source of umami is a small amount of soy sauce. I’ve done a few tests mixing either MSG or yeast extracts into some of the already partially fermented kimchi and they tasted quite good. I’ll probably put them right in the spice mixture next time – if you want to experiment, try them at about 0.5% of the total weight. (If the mention of MSG has sent you into a tizzy, you should go read the Wikipedia article for references on its safety.) Kombu and dried shiitake mushrooms also have lots of free glutamates, so I want to try them in the future as well.
Once you’ve got some kimchi (homemade or bought), here are some of my favorite dishes to serve it in or with: Kimchi fried rice, Tofu and Kimchi Dinner for One, Bibim Naengmyeon, and the kimchi jigae (kimchi stew) in my book.
- 700 grams (1 medium head) napa cabbage
- 1000 grams (1 liter, 4 1/4 cups) water
- 150 grams (1 cup Diamond Crystal, 1/2 cup or so of Morton’s) kosher salt
- 28 grams (6 cloves) fresh garlic
- 15 grams (1″ piece) fresh ginger, peeled
- 15 grams (1 tablespoon) sugar
- 15 grams (1 tablespoon) soy sauce (gluten-free if you want the kimchi to be gluten-free)
- 100 grams onion (1/3 of an onion), roughly chopped
- 40 grams (6 tablespoons) coarse Korean chili powder (gochugaru)
- 15 grams (2 tablespoon) rice flour
- 130 grams (1/2 cup) water
- 40 grams green onion (2 green onions), cut into 3″ lengths
- 110 grams (1 medium carrot) julienned carrots
- Remove any discolored leaves from the cabbage and cut into 4 lengthwise sections. Remove the tough core at the bottom. Cut leaves into about 3″ sections. Whisk together the 1 liter of water and 150 grams of salt in a large, very clean container. Add the cabbage, which should be fully covered by the brine. (You might not need all of the brine). Cover with plastic wrap and find a way to apply some weight to press on the cabbage. Leave for about 1 hour until the cabbage is tender and well-seasoned.
- Meanwhile, combine the garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce and onion and puree in a mini-food processor or with an immersion blender. (If you are doing a larger batch, you can use a blender.) Transfer to a bowl and stir in the gochugaru.
- Whisk together the rice flour and 130 grams of water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. As soon as it thickens, remove from heat, cool, then stir into the spice mixture. Add the green onion and carrots and toss to coat. I find this easiest to do wearing rubber gloves.
- Thoroughly drain the cabbage, removing as much excess brine as possible. Again using rubber gloves, toss the cabbage with the spice mixture, thoroughly coating it.
- Place the cabbage in a very clean container, packing it down tightly. Cover, but allow a little airflow. (Nick rigged up an airlock on a cambro, pretty fancy!). Don’t put on a tight lid or it will get blown off by CO2. Store in a cool, dark place. Taste and toss daily. Depending on temperature, it will start to develop a pleasing acidity. When it is ripe to your taste (which could be anywhere from 3 days up to a couple of weeks), transfer to clean jars and refrigerate to maximize its life.