Every fall when the Asian greens reach their peak, I like to make a batch or two of homemade kimchi. Best described as a fermented salad, kimchi is delicious on its own, or served as a condiment with rice. Rich in vitamins and other nutrients, probiotic kimchi’s health benefits include anticancer, antiobesity and antioxidant properties, along with cholesterol reduction, digestive health promotion, and improved function of the brain, skin and immune systems.
The magic is not so much in precise ingredients as in the process. “Instant” kimchi flavor packets have no probiotic properties, but homemade kimchi that is allowed to ferment under cool conditions for several days is among the most powerful probiotic foods you can eat.
Vegetarian Kimchi Recipe
Authentic kimchi recipes include two animal-based ingredients – salty fish sauce and tiny dried shrimp. Both add flavor and punch, but you can let them go and still turn out a smashing kimchi. Should you follow the recipe below and find the results lacking in fishy umami, a dollop of miso paste mixed with water should set things right.
With all kimchi recipes, you have some leeway in ingredients. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is the most common base vegetable, but bok choy can give outstanding results. You can also play around with peppers, making your kimchi mild or spicy according to your tastes. There is even a kimchi recipe for white kimchi that contains no peppers at all.
- 2-3 heads Chinese cabbage, cut into 2-inch (5cm) pieces
- 3 tablespoons sea salt
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 slices fresh ginger
- 2-3 small ripe peppers, sweet or moderately hot
- 1 small apple or pear, peeled and pared
- 1 cup water
- 1 large daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchstick size pieces
- 6-8 green onions (scallions), sliced
- 2-3 tablespoons Korean pepper flakes (gochugaru), or a mixture of mild red pepper flakes, paprika, and a pinch of cayenne
1. Place the cabbage in a broad bowl and sprinkle with salt. Allow to sit at least 4 hours, or overnight. Rinse and drain. Taste to see if the leaves are pleasantly salty. Rinse again if they are too salty to eat.
2. Place the garlic, ginger, peppers, pear and water in a blender and chop until fine.
3. Mix all ingredients well, wearing gloves if you are using hot peppers. Place the kimchi in a large glass jar or fermentation vessel, and press to remove air pockets. Taste the liquid to judge its salt level, which should be similar to sea water. Place a plastic bag partially filled with water over the mixture to serve as a weight and airlock, so that the kimchi mixture is not exposed to air. Ferment at cool temperatures for up to five days, then pack into clean glass jars and store in the refrigerator.
Fermenting Homemade Kimchi
The microbes that cause homemade kimchi to ferment can work under a wide temperature range. Temperatures above 68°F (20°C) encourage the formation of sulfuric gases and can cause the vegetables to soften, while cool temperatures slow or stop fermentation altogether. After much experimentation, I stumbled upon using a small cooler as a fermentation chamber, with frozen water bottles used to keep the interior temperature in the 55-60°F (13-15°C) range. All the while, the closed cooler captures unwanted aromas, which can be quite heady on the second and third days of fermentation. The kimchi is ready to move to the refrigerator after four to five days.
In Korea, the historic method for fermenting kimchi was to bury the mixture in crocks in the fall for eating through the winter. But for the last 15 years, special kimchi refrigerators have become popular for making and storing kimchi at about 40°F (5°C). This is not a concern at my house, where a batch of homemade kimchi is lucky to last a week before it is gone.