Seasonal Flavors: Simple Kimchi

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Kimchi photo by Denise Zito

Cheese. Beer. Yogurt. Bread. Wine. Sour cream. Sauerkraut. Mushrooms. Buttermilk.  Kombucha. And kimchi.

These delicious parts of our diet all use microbes, either bacteria or yeasts or fungi, to change the mundane into the sublime. Imagine how boring life would be without these foods. And especially the myriad cheeses available. Just vary the organism and the conditions and you get a different kind of cheese. God is good.

A variant of sauerkraut that is all the rage these days is the Korean version: kimchi. And friends, I’m here to tell you that you can make it at home. The same family of bacteria that makes milk into yogurt (lactobacillus), will transform your cabbage, carrots and other vegetables into a lovely, tangy condiment for rice.  

The bacteria and yeast used for some foods like particular cheeses, yogurt, bread, and wine have been cultivated and are available for purchase.

However, what you need to start sourdough, or to make kimchi and other sauerkrauts, are available in your kitchen—they are in the air and on the vegetables. Amazing.

There are many recipes for kimchi and below I give a generic version. Use napa cabbage, or whatever you’ve grown in your garden. I add vegetables that I have on hand and purchase the Korean red pepper flakes.  

The salt eliminates all but the lactobacilli, which then convert the vegetable sugars into tangy lactic acid, which also serves to preserve the food. After the fermentation (breaking down the sugars in the vegetables), refrigerate and enjoy on rice, or as a spicy side dish.

Simple Kimchi

  • 1 head napa or other cabbage, sliced into 2-inch wide pieces.
  • ¼ cup kosher salt (non-iodized salt)
  • 1 carrot, cut into matchstick pieces
  • 5 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 5 radishes, sliced thin
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 to 5 T Korean red pepper flakes (available online)
  • 2 T fish sauce or water

In a large bowl, use your hands to mix the cabbage with the salt. Keep massaging until the cabbage starts to soften. Add enough water to cover the cabbage, then cover with a plate, weighed down with a can, or something heavy. Leave at room temperature for 2-3 hours.

Drain the cabbage, saving some of the brine, then rinse the cabbage to remove much of the salt, then allow cabbage to drain.

Mix the garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and pepper flakes to make a paste. Add to the drained cabbage. Add the carrots, scallions, and radishes. Use your hands to mix all ingredients (clean gloves recommended).

Pack into sterilized, wide-mouth quart or pint canning jars. Fill a half-pint jar with water and insert into the wide-mouth jars to compress the vegetables.  Leave about an inch of head space. You will see liquid accumulate in the jar as the remaining salt draws the water from the vegetables. If after two hours, the vegetables are not submerged in liquid, add some of the reserved brine, to cover the mixture.

And now your fermentation begins! Put the jars on a tray and in a dark, cool place for the next few days. I cover mine with a tea towel.  It will bubble up and may even overflow (thus the head space). After two days, taste it. If it’s tangy enough for you, it’s ready. You can also keep the fermentation going for another three days, checking/tasting daily.

When you deem it “ready,” put a lid on it and refrigerate.

I call this microbiology at home. 

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