Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made of vegetables and seasonings. Most often, kimchi is made with napa cabbage and seasoned with spicy pepper, garlic, and ginger. But there are a million ways to make kimchi. It can be very salty or not, very spicy or mild, gingery, garlicky, or fishy. It doesn’t need to include cabbage at all, and can instead include cubed radish, cucumber, or even fruit.
We still make kimchi the way Charles taught us; the only changes are that we use a bit less salt and make a whole lot more kimchi. Our first two batches were about a liter each. Now we make kimchi every couple of months and ferment it in large, 5-gallon buckets. Each batch is on average about 2 gallons (7.5 liters).
We never measure ingredients with the exception of making the saltwater brine. Each batch comes out a bit differently. When I really like a particular batch of kimchi, I save some of it to inoculate the next batch.
You’ll need two sets of ingredients: vegetables and spices. For this batch, I used four heads of cabbage, a bunch of chard, and five large carrots as my vegetables. For spice: a head of garlic, a good chunk of ginger, two medium onions, a pear, 200 mL soy sauce, and a big handful (or two) of red pepper flakes.
For equipment: a non-reactive large bowl for mixing the ingredients and a food-grade bucket (or non-metal crock of some kind). If using a food-grade plastic bucket, avoid one with lots of scratches on the interior.
My first step is making about 3-4 gallons of brine. Yes, this is a lot of water. But I like this method, and we make big batches to last a few months. For every gallon of water, I add 150 grams of sea salt. It is very important to use non-iodized salt. The water and salt mixture is combined and stirred until the salt dissolves.
The veggies are chopped into large pieces. I diagonally slice the carrots into 1/8 inch thick rounds.
All veggies go into the brine. I use my clean hands to break up the cabbage layers that stick together. The vegetables will stay in the brine for 4-20 hours, depending on my schedule. This time, it was 20 hours. While the vegetables are soaking in the brine, I prepare the spices. This part is easy. I add all the spices, skins removed, to the food processor, except the chili flakes and soy sauce, and process until smooth. Alternatively, you can finely chop the spices.
Removing the vegetables from the brine, I give them a good rinse to get rid of a lot of the salt (though some salt will certainly remain). I discard most of the brine, reserving a bit just in case it is needed later, and combine the veggies and ingredients back into the large bowl.
This is the fun part. Wearing gloves, so I don’t get smelly spices and hot pepper all over my hands, I really work the spices into the vegetables. I have many memories of doing this to the chattering of people eating dinner outside, finishing up the kimchi batch of the day before I would join them for the meal. I’d often bring out a sample of unfermented and fermented kimchi to show the difference.
The process of working the spices into the vegetables will make sure that all of the veggies are coated with the spice mixture. After I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten most of the veggies covered, I try a bit of the kimchi and add more soy sauce or chili if desired. I also add a bit of older batches of kimchi, which already have the great bacteria going and will kick-start the lacto-acid fermentation process. The older kimchi is not a necessary component, so if you don’t have it don’t worry. When I’ve got it all set, I put the entire mixture into my bucket.
My second favorite part of the process is smashing the kimchi down into the bucket. The goal is to really squash it until leftover brine and rinsing water seeps up and covers the kimchi. I usually set the bucket on the floor and place a plate on top of the kimchi that is just smaller than the size of the bucket. With all the force I can muster I press that plate down until I get a thin layer of brine to cover the plate. Then, a clean weight is placed on top of the plate to keep it in place.
If for some reason I can’t get enough water up to the top to completely cover the mixture, I add a bit of the leftover brine. It is important that none of the veggies have access to air.
I put a cloth over the bucket to protect it from bugs and leave it to ferment for a few weeks. Depending on what you’re using to make your kimchi, you’ll want to check on it occasionally to be sure the brine hasn’t evaporated, which could cause the top of the kimchi to spoil (and stink). Don’t be deterred by the white film that may form; if you like, just skim it off occasionally.
It is fun to taste the kimchi occasionally to see how the fermentation is going. Some people prefer it less sour than others, so you may enjoy it after just one week of fermenting. When you’re satisfied with your kimchi, you can store it in your refrigerator to slow (but not stop) the fermentation. We just let it keep going as we do not have a refrigerator.
Depending on seasons, climates, and whether or not you use different kimchi to inoculate your vegetables, the speed of fermentation will vary. Trying your kimchi periodically will teach you what you’re working with and help you in the following batches. The kimchi I made recently has been happily fermenting for 2 weeks. It is sour, but not too sour, and has been a nice side dish for stir fry and Korean pancakes this week.
For people with a garden surplus but not a lot of room in the fridge, kimchi is a great way to preserve your produce. Cabbages and hearty greens like chard make wonderful bases for kimchi. My favorite batch was actually made from cauliflower leaves – we ordered 5 cauliflowers from our local produce vendor and ended up with teeny tiny cauliflowers and a TON of leaves. I combined them with a bit of chard for a really amazing flavored kimchi.
Another batch of kimchi was made after the great radish harvest. The greens produced gundru and the radishes, combined with carrots, made nice kimchi. Fermentation will let you extend the life of your produce anywhere from 2 weeks – 6 months, depending on your methods.