How to make kimchi

A couple of years back, we all got really into probiotics. In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and/or yeasts – in our surrounding environment and within our bodies that help keep us healthy. Since so many of us are regularly on antibiotics, which kill off both good and bad organisms indiscriminately, it makes sense that our bodies would be deficient in helpful bacteria. The rise of serious digestive-related disorders, too, indicated that our microbiome was in serious trouble.

Many of these health issues can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of food we eat is completely, totally dead. I don’t mean dead in the literal sense, like how we turn a sad CAFO pig into even sadder pork chops, but dead in the sense that all life has been processed out of it. Instead of eating slightly muddy carrots, freshly dug, we eat “carrot chips” and drink “carrot juice,” which have been subjected to high-heat processing and irradiation and a million other complicated techniques, rendering that carrot into what Michael Pollan would call “an edible food-like substance.” It’s no longer actual, nutritious food; we’ve just been told it is.

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Favorite fermentation books from the Quiet Farm library.

There’s no question, then, that we’re deficient in probiotics, and are suffering as a result. Obviously, we’re inherently very lazy and find eating healthy too difficult and time-consuming, so some enterprising people decided to shove some “probiotics” into a capsule, price the bottle at $29.99 and call it a day. Supplements aren’t regulated, however, so a consumer has absolutely no idea what they’re buying; at best it’s harmless and inert, at worse it’s actual poison. Since probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods, the simplest workaround here is to introduce more fermented foods into your diet. The best (and least expensive!) way to do that is to ferment food yourself.

The world’s most amazing foods, including cheese, wine, salumi, coffee, sourdough, beer, pickles, chocolate and more, originate through fermentation. Fermentation is the oldest of the world’s food preservation methods, and one that’s practiced in every culture. Although it originated as a way to store food during non-growing seasons, now it’s evolved into a way to introduce both incredible flavors and health benefits into foods. And it’s easy to do at home.

Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, is a terrific starting point for at-home fermentation. At its heart, kimchi is simply fermented vegetables, usually Napa cabbage and daikon radish, blended with a seasoning paste. There are dozens of varieties of kimchi, made according to regional and family tradition, and once you get the hang of this technique you can customize it to suit your own tastes. Although many kimchis are spicy, not all are, and you can always add more or less gochugaru (red pepper powder) to suit your tastes. Here, I’ll show you how we make kimchi at Quiet Farm; this recipe is loosely adapted from Alex Lewin’s easy-to-follow book Real Food Fermentation.

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Gather your ingredients!

Ingredients for simple, basic kimchi: 2 lbs. vegetables (Napa cabbage, daikon radish, mustard greens, carrots, bok choy); 1/3 cup coarse salt; 2 cups cool water; 4 large garlic cloves; 1 bunch scallions; 2 medium onions; 1 generous piece gingerroot; up to 1/2 cup gochugaru, chopped spicy red peppers and/or red pepper flakes; 1 tbsp. sugar; 1 tsp. fish sauce. Omit the fish sauce if you want to keep this vegan.

(Remember: this recipe is merely a starting point and is by no means definitive. There are a million recipes out there on the Interwebs, should you choose to venture into the kimchi rabbit hole. If you live near a well-stocked Asian market, like Pacific Ocean Marketplace or H-Mart, you should have no trouble finding gochugaru. The vegetables are usually cheaper there too, although they’re often annoyingly sold in plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays. Who still uses Styrofoam, seriously?)

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You can shred or chop your vegetables as you like.

Chop the cabbage, daikon, carrots and greens into bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl. I obviously didn’t use carrots or greens in this batch because there was a pandemic and it was early spring and I didn’t have any back then. Now I have a lot! But your kimchi will be delicious no matter what you use. Be free. Be flexible.

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The volume of vegetables will reduce considerably once they’re brined.

Make a brine with the salt and water and mix thoroughly to dissolve the salt. Pour the brine over the chopped vegetables and mix well, ensuring all the vegetables are covered. Let this bowl sit, uncovered, at room temperature, for at least six hours or overnight. This brining process serves two purposes: it flavors and tenderizes the vegetables, and it helps remove any bad bacteria while allowing beneficial lactic acid bacteria to flourish. Cabbage is often used in vegetable ferments (think sauerkraut) because its surface is coated with naturally-occurring bacteria and yeasts that are just waiting for the perfect fermentation environment.

After the vegetables are thoroughly brined, drain well and taste. They should taste nicely salty, but not aggressively so. If the vegetables are too salty, rinse well and drain. You can also soak the vegetables in fresh water for about thirty minutes then drain again, if you find the saltiness overwhelming. Keep in mind, though, the salt acts as a preservative and kimchi is used in small amounts as a condiment, so it should definitely have some savory punch.

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The seasoning paste will coat all the vegetables.

Peel the garlic and onions. You can peel the ginger if you’d like, or not. In a food processor, combine the garlic, onions and ginger. Add just enough water to make a paste, then add the red pepper powder, sugar and fish sauce, if using. Again, add just enough water to keep the paste moving. Slice the scallions into one-inch pieces, and add to the vegetables in the bowl. Pour the paste over the whole mess, and blend well. Taste the fresh kimchi, and add more salt, sugar, fish sauce or spicy peppers to taste.

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Ready to ferment!

Pack the kimchi into sterilized Mason jars, and seal loosely. If you have plastic lids, this is the time to use them; the acidity of this mixture tends to rust the metal lids. Leave the kimchi in a cool, dark place at room temperature to ferment for at least three days. As with all fermentation, activity will be greater in warmer temperatures and much reduced in cooler temperatures; adjust your timing accordingly. The kimchi is done when you say it’s done: taste frequently (with a clean spoon, never your fingers!) and eat it when it’s to your liking. Kimchi lasts indefinitely at cool room temperature if well-fermented and covered in brine, but the mixture will get funkier and eventually the vegetables will lose some crunch. I make mine in small batches so that I can always start fresh kimchi with any excess of garden vegetables I might have. If you want to stall the fermentation process, store the kimchi in the refrigerator.

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Fresh, raw, cool, crispy, spicy, warm, crunchy: my idea of a perfect meal.

Like other naturally-fermented foods (yogurt! pickles! sourdough! kombucha!), your kimchi will be rich in probiotics, which is more than you can say for those fancy overpriced supplement tablets. Enjoy your kimchi with fried rice or scrambled eggs, in noodles, stir-fries, or sandwiches, or with rice and beans in a tortilla for a cultural fusion mash-up burrito. I puree kimchi to make a smooth, fermented hot sauce; when the weather cools it makes a spicy, restorative soup base. Once you start making your own fermented foods, you’ll find plenty of ways to incorporate them into your diet regularly – and you’ll be all the healthier for it.

Do you make kimchi or other fermented foods at home? How do you like to eat them? Please share in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “How to make kimchi

  1. Hey! Good to check in and see what’s happening over on your side of the mountain. I need to make some kimchi (I say this every year). Have you made it with regular cabbage? I have little napa left but LOTS of regular heads. Hope you are well – miss you both!

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    • Hi Lara! Great to hear from you. I think you could definitely use regular cabbage – I’d probably shred it a little thinner, since it tends to be a bit tougher than Napa. Please let me know if you try it! Hope you’re having a bountiful season and that you and yours are safe, healthy and well.

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