You can make Kimchi - Really.
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Kimchi is the best-known Korean staple that I grew up with. It is a spicy fermented cabbage dish packed with vitamin C and probiotics. It used to be an important fall ritual to prepare for Kimchi that would sustain Koreans throughout winter when fresh vegetables were rare. It is Popeye's spinach for Koreans. If I have a bowl of rice, roasted seaweed, and Kimchi, I'm happy as a clam. Kimchi is more than a side dish and the most versatile dish I can think of. It provides a savory sour flavor to a refreshing noodle salad, stir-fried rice, pancakes, and soup.
Whenever I tell my non-Korean friends that I make Kimchi, they always ask me the same question: "Can you really make Kimchi at home?" As if it is an insurmountable challenge.
Kimchi has grown quite popular in the US. I can easily spot small jars of well-fermented Kimchi in supermarkets. But if you don't finish a store-bought jar of Kimchi in a couple of days, its flavor will pass its prime and become overwhelmingly sour.
I like my Kimchi to taste fresh like a spicy salad. So I always make a small batch at home. By trial and error, I came up with quite a simple recipe that any beginner can master. If you have access to Napa cabbages, try this recipe with kids who would love to lend their hands in mixing a pot-full of Kimchi ingredients. Don't forget to give them aprons before their clothes become marked with red pepper specks!
One small Napa (Chinese) cabbage
Coarse sea salt (6 tsp)
Unbleached wheat flour or sweet rice flour (1.5 tsp)
Water to make a flour porridge (1 cup)
A sweet (Vidalia) onion (finely chopped)
A clove of garlic (finely chopped)
Ginger powder (1 tsp)
A bunch of scallions (sliced)
Salt (6 tsp)
Coarse red pepper powder (10 - 15 tsp): It is important to use coarsely ground red pepper for Kimchi. Please see the picture below for an example. You can keep it in the refrigerator for a long time.
Paprika powder to enhance the bright red color of Kimchi without making Kimchi too hot.
Fresh red pepper (finely chopped)
Fish sauce (1 tsp)
First, you need to wilt the cabbage just a little by soaking it in brine water made with coarse sea salt for 3 hours. This step prepares the cabbage for the subsequent seasoning step.
The brine water will kill the harmful bacteria that are susceptible to a salty environment. Those bacteria are not equipped to deal with high osmotic pressure and burst by the incoming water. On the other hand, lactic acid bacteria that generate the Kimchi flavor have a survival advantage over others in brine water and will eventually thrive in Kimchi broth. If you can picture this battle playing out in your head, it is a fun story to tell your kids (and a great subject for their science projects).
This step is also necessary to pull some water out of the cabbage ahead of the seasoning step. When we add more salt and other seasonings later, they will penetrate into the cabbage more effectively because the cabbage won't lose too much water to dilute the seasoning.
To make the brine water, dissolve 6 teaspoons of coarse sea salt in a cup of hot water. Coarse sea salt contains more minerals than salt, which provides additional flavors to Kimchi. But it is more difficult to dissolve coarse sea salt in water than pure salt. I would make this brine water in a big pot where the cabbage will be brined. If you use more than one cabbage, you may consider using a clean sink to brine the cabbages.
Once you don't see any remaining coarse sea salt in brine water, add 2 quarters of cold water to the pot to bring down the temperature of the brine water.
Now you can rinse the cabbage and quarter it. If the cabbage is fresh and ripe well, it will be split easily by the touch of a knife and its inside will look yellow, as shown in the picture above. Place the quartered cabbages in brine water. Cover the cabbages with a flat plate and put a heavy object on top of the plate so that cabbages will be pushed down during the brining process (see a picture below). Add more cold water until the cabbages will be completely covered in brine water. When you taste the brine water, it should taste just a little salty. You don't want to withdraw too much water (and flavors) from the cabbage at this stage. So the brine water should not be too salty and this brining step should be limited to 3 hours.
While waiting for the cabbages to get wilted, you can prepare for a flour porridge that you will use to make a seasoning paste. This porridge will serve as food for the lactic acid bacteria and help the seasoning spices adhere to the cabbages to expedite their penetration into the cabbages.
To make the flour porridge, add 1.5 teaspoons of wheat or sweet rice flour to a saucepan. Dissolve it in a cup of cold water completely and bring the flour water to boil while stirring it occasionally. Once it starts to boil, you can cover the pot and turn off the heat. The flour-water needs to be boiled to obtain its porridge consistency. Now you can let the flour porridge cool down.
Once your timer rings at the end of the 3-hour brining, take the cabbages out of the brine water, rinse them in water, and drain them in a colander. You can discard or use the brine water as a soup base.
While waiting for the cabbages to get drained, you can prepare for the seasoning. In the same empty pot that you used for brining the cabbages, mix all the seasoning (salt, red pepper/paprika powder, fresh red pepper, onions, garlic, ginger, fish sauce) with the flour porridge. Then add chopped scallions to the seasoning paste. Now you are ready to season the brined cabbages.
Take each quartered cabbage, cut them into bite-sized pieces, and mix them with the seasoning paste in the pot. Let your kids have fun with it :)
Once all ingredients are mixed well, season Kimchi to your taste with more salt and/or red pepper powder if necessary. If you want your Kimchi to be mildly spicy, you can reduce the amount of red pepper powder and add more paprika instead to keep the vibrant red color of Kimchi.
If you are happy with the final taste, pack your Kimchi in a glass container. Because lactic acid bacteria don't like oxygen and grow well at low temperatures, push Kimchi down into the container well to reduce air pockets in Kimchi and keep it in the refrigerator. As lactic acid bacteria grow in Kimchi broth, the flavor of Kimchi will slowly evolve to its signature flavor (spicy, sweet, savory, and sour) over the course of three weeks. You will learn how much fermentation is right for your Kimchi.
It takes some time to make Kimchi. But it is not a difficult dish once you understand the science behind it. A batch of Kimchi will make your family happy at a dinner table for a couple of weeks, which I think is totally worth the effort.
I would love to hear your success stories or challenges you may have run into while making Kimchi. You can share them in the comments below.